Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward is coming to Boston in a couple of days to do several speaking engagements, and I'll have a chance to meet him. You may remember his name-- he and his then-colleague Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, back in 1972; and their investigative reporting eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon.
I can't predict what he'll talk about, but I'm sure the current state of journalism will be one of the topics. Things are certainly different from when he was reporting about politics in the early 1970s. It was the era before the internet; there wasn't even any cable news yet. Most of us got our information from newspapers and magazines, and by watching the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC, or CBS.
Like today, Americans were very polarized. But the Fairness Doctrine was still around, and commentary was not usually a part of any newscasts; nor were one-sided attacks allowed. There were some radio talk shows that expressed views from one side or the other, but both sides had to be given a chance to be heard. And on TV, popular programs like the Tonight Show tried to avoid partisanship entirely, and focus on making the audience laugh-- whatever their political views.
President Nixon distrusted and disliked the press, and so did Vice President Spiro Agnew. Both were harsh critics of the media of their day, and both accused reporters of bias (like many presidents, before and since, Mr. Nixon believed the press was against him; and Mr. Agnew claimed the press was out of step with the views of most Americans, a claim other politicians have also made).
Meanwhile, hardworking investigative journalists kept trying to do their jobs, in print or on radio or on TV. And Bob Woodward was part of that group of reporters whose goal was to find the truth and let the public know. I doubt he imagined back in 1972 that one day, the Fairness Doctrine would be gone, leading to many Republicans watching (and trusting) only one channel, and reading only publications that reinforced their views; and the same would be true for many Democrats, such that both groups were living in entirely different realities when it came to politics.
These days, it seems many people prefer commentary to news; they say they want "unbiased news," but surveys show many of them really want reporting that favors their particular candidate or supports their particular side. In fact, the highest-rated folks on cable news are the commentators, many of whom distort or exaggerate the facts to serve a partisan goal.
I wonder if Woodward and Bernstein (or someone like them) could bring down a corrupt president today. I fear that large numbers of people would simply ignore their reporting, tune out their stories, and seek out media outlets that said their work was "fake news." I believe we need good reporting now more than ever. Yet it really seems that many people don't care about facts; they'd much rather have partisan opinions. I'll be interested in how Mr. Woodward sees it. I'll let you know what he says.