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Author examines investigative journalism 40 years after Watergate scandal.

"Watergate's Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse"

Author: Jon Marshall

Publisher: Northwestern University Press

Paperback: $24.95,336 pages


This book by a former Tampa Tribune and Chicago Daily Herald reporter turned university lecturer represents a significant addition to the literature on investigative reporting and its biggest political story.

On the 40th anniversary of Watergate, it arrives at a propitious time, fitting with other recent works, such as Mark Feldstein's "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture." Part of the "Visions of the American Press" series, edited by David Abrahamson, it begins with a forward by Watergate's Bob Woodward and provides an overview of many historic investigative stories. The book provides a tremendous service by offering insights into investigations by Elizabeth Cochrane, aka Nellie Bly, Winifred Black, aka Annie Laurie, as well as Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, all of which demonstrates to the reader that the prelude to Watergate will be well documented and very carefully presented. It is well researched and well written.

The battles of Pulitzer and Hearst are here. Another asset is the review of regional work contributing to national stories: Edwin Markham's "The Hoe Man in the Making" and "Following the Color Line," by Ray Stannard Baker, preludes to coverage of child abuse and callous treatment of African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan is investigated. Mining disasters produce investigations. Walter Lippmann provided thoughtful consideration on the influence of such aggressive journalism. All in all, Marshall articulates how this period was not totally devoid of digging in critical areas: criminal activity, corporate corruption, exposes of crooked politicians and mob activity. These set the stage for investigations of bribery as in the Teapot Dome scandal, and exposure of the extensive illicit "investment pyramids," aka Ponzi schemes.

The cumulative effect of digging created phenomena such as the Washington Merry-Go-Round. Drew Pearson's column in more than 600 papers, broadcast over ABC radio, set a standard for aggressiveness on government abuses, stoking the fire if going to extremes and raising expectations. While his work was often regarded as nasty and salacious, all the relentless digging and bragging caught the attention of the public. While labeled "teller of monstrous and diabolical falsehoods" by one politico, Pearson used manure in comparison to those who objected to him: "All Cow, No Bull--better Than the Column." The author points out that while opportunities were there, some important stories: the stock market crash, The Holocaust and the rise of McCarthyism were not properly investigated, especially given their impact.

Respected writer Anthony Lewis, while considering a journalism career, said reporting on government more likely resembled stenography, as opposed to challenging the government "line" on any subject. With issues of secrecy emerging from World War II, the reporter's role conveying sensitive information forms the rest of this section. Oversights and challenges of the period included failure to hire African-Americans at mainstream outlets, explaining why crime stories: juvenile justice and mistreatment of black women were under-reported by the "establishment" press, left to African-American newspapers.

Emerging voices were helpful in creating a culture: A.J. Liebling, George Seldes, and I. F. Stone--even appearing outside mainstream journalism. Edward R. Murrow is credited for standing-up to abuses by Senator McCarthy. Civil Rights and consumer culture reference Ralph Nader's Unsafe at any Speed, at the same time as the Freedom of Information Act. The author weaves stories into a developmental framework about whether investigative reporting "went underground" during the era between World War I and Vietnam. Reporters: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Peter Arnett questioned policies during the LBJ years, and CBS News' sticking-up for "The Selling of the Pentagon" is also duly noted.

Coverage of Watergate begins in chapter four, titled "Calling the Plumbers," and enumerating Nixon's nutty White House; a summary of what took place before assuming office. For those of us who lived it, reading the atrocities in tandem: the war, political assassination, and protest may seem easy. Beyond "All The President's Men," a reader will gain even better understanding of the "why"--about someone who regarded the press as natural enemy, while thinking he could break the law and get away with it.

While Watergate is well-documented, this perspective on elements at play includes anti-press performance by Spiro Agnew, and each press person is examined, beyond Woodward and Bernstein: Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee, Walter Cronkite and Seymour Hersh. Very interesting are accounts by Phil Meyer, Washington correspondent for the Knight news chain, admitting he did not know where to find the stories Woodward and Bernstein were uncovering, or CBS' Bob Schieffer saying: "l can remember reading about it and thinking, 'What could this be about?' Why would anybody break into a campaign headquarters?' This is where they keep the yard signs and things like that."

The last section reminds us there are efforts to retain independent, investigative reporting. The author provides current examples, including use of blogs, moving toward community-based, online, Web-only publications, such as the St. Louis Beacon. Marshall takes time to discuss how such efforts are funded, and what kinds of strategic models are emerging. He describes the work of many organizations, including the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. He goes back in time to describe historic collaboration such as the Better Government Association working with the press to fight Chicago gangster Al Capone.

This is a valuable book. For those who argue for a passage of time before judgments are rendered, there is convincing evidence here. The Notes and bibliography sections extend almost a hundred pages. Coverage of Watergate, how it unfolded, provides an excellent review and interesting reporting primer. Some people maintain that independent, investigative reporting is part and parcel of what is best described as a defiant "spirit of America." Nothing in this book indicates otherwise. It reinforces the notion that the kind of iconic "disturbers of the peace" we often most enjoy, almost always find a way.

Michael D. Murray is distinguished professor of Broadcast Journalism Mass Communication at University of Missouri St. Louis.
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Title Annotation:Watergate's Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse
Author:Murray, Michael D.
Publication:Gateway Journalism Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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