Thoughts on Media and Celebrity, Provoked By the “Guidelines” for Covering the Washington Post's Watergate Anniversary

How Washington journalism has changed since the “Washington Post” broke the Watergate story.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Believe it or not, once upon a time the media were called “the press” (only the Nixon White House called them “the media”), journalists weren’t celebrities, and public relations managers didn’t dare try to tell them when, where, and how they could do their jobs. This was in the time before Watergate. Taking nothing away from the historic and expert journalism performed by Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and the Washington Post, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Watergate totally changed the game, with a big assist from the always-hungry great white shark that is cable TV. Members of the press recognized they could become famous and make money in the process. To emulate Woodstein became a career goal. And it worked.

Today, members of the Washington corps of journalists are an elite set. Many have agents to handle their television, book, and movie deals; they are the featured attractions at gala affairs, often serving as master of ceremonies; their names land on lists of the city’s most powerful and most social, and on guest lists among the “VIPs”; they get asked for their autographs; and they earn thousands of dollars for speeches in which they opine on the mysteries of the nation’s capital. Some, under certain circumstances, even refuse to speak to the media. In a word, many—not all, but many—are authentic celebrities.

At the same time, public relations managers have blossomed into a comparatively powerful force of their own (secret: many are former members of the media), and they have become more successful at trying to control what gets reported, and by whom, and when and how. Some journalists resist being controlled, but fewer and fewer all the time.

That said, we didn’t think we’d ever see the day when the Washington Post itself would cross over and, in announcing one of its own events, also try to control media coverage with fairly rigid “guidelines.”

Wednesday night we received an e-mail from the Post announcing its own June 11 “special event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Watergate.” The announcement has a star-studded headline: “The Washington Post commemorates the 40th anniversary of Watergate with event featuring Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ben Bradlee, Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer, John Dean and others.” We’re not sure why Rose and Lehrer are featured, apart from their celebrity, but the “others” are actual Watergate players: former White House counsel John Dean, former House impeachment committee member William S. Cohen, former White House “plumber” Egil “Bud” Krogh, and Fred Thompson, who was legal counsel to the Senate Watergate committee.

In a clever piece of location booking, the event will be at the Watergate Office Building, where the break-in occurred at Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972.

Fair enough. We agree with the Post’s claim that “this will be a rare opportunity to hear first-person narratives” from those who were there. The part of the announcement that rubbed was when the Post started to dictate the terms of coverage for its sisters and brothers in other news organizations. This kind of media management is familiar to anyone who tries to cover news in this era, and maybe it’s inevitable that even the media will try to manage the media. Some highlights:

The release includes a quote from Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli: “The Washington Post has a unique place in history because of its role in Watergate.” Yes, we agree—and look what it’s come to.