Mark Felt was the topic du jour in an honors philosophy class at Catonsville High School last week, reported the Baltimore Sun, which noted that “most of the 12 juniors in the class said it was unethical for Felt to talk to Woodward.” Felt’s job, said one student, was “to go to his superiors.” Another student said, “if it was truly to benefit society, he wouldn’t have kept his name secret.” A student named YinYin Yu, 16, opined daringly that Felt’s info was beside the point since all politicians behave badly at some point: “They don’t have ethics. They have politics….No one acts ethically all the time, and in politics it’s more effective to act unethically than ethically.”
Only three students defended Felt, and apparently some of the students didn’t care either way. The teacher, not the students, ginned up the subject, seeing it as a “teachable moment,” according to the story. Junior Sierra Harris, who is set to assume editorial responsibilities at the Catonsville High “Comet” next year, said with mature resignation to the Sun, “It’s something more people my age should care about, but you can’t force people.”
This reaction at a Maryland high school to Felt’s revelation is just a sliver but a telling one: the generations for whom Watergate isn’t even a memory don’t appear very impressed by the old media’s nostalgia over nailing Nixon and if roused to an interest in the subject regard it as a moral wash.
To correct this insufficient interest in their Watergate heroics and desperate for a shot in the arm after repeated blows to their credibility, the Dan Rathers and Ben Bradlees are frantically trying to recapitulate the romantic story line in which they alone wore the white hats during the Watergate period. Even Tom Brokaw interrupted his quasi-retirement to regale Chris Matthews last week with a boring, I-was-on-the-right-side-of-history-too anecdote about a question he crafted to trip Nixon up at a press conference but that never got any attention because Dan Rather had famously sparred with Nixon at it. Brokaw still sounded disappointed that his cleverness that day wasn’t duly recorded.
The old media seem almost ready to launch a Watergate channel to compete with the History-Hitler channel. It grates on these journalists that few Americans are aware of their self-described heroics. And these journalists are capable of sputtering rage when they discover that those who bother to examine the details of their fabled anti-Nixon reporting think that it looks more and more like the journalistic quiltwork of a Jayson Blair. By the standards of today — where reporters are getting sacked for fiddling around with datelines and lifting quotes from other papers — the Watergate reporting looks quite outre. It was cobbled together pretty dishonestly, involving corner-cutting and lying that had moral stakes far higher than an indolent reporter filing a story from his apartment.
Yet the Columbia Journalism School-style minders, who pride themselves on being primly hostile to journalistic corner-cutting, seemed to have gone on summer break last week. Where were the Bernard Kalbs knitting their brows over the dubious methods and devices Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used to advance their story? The mainstream media that spent the 1990s lecturing conservatives on the dangers of willy-nilly means, even against obviously craven and corrupt subjects, all of a sudden accepted that the noble end of nailing a president did justify low means.
The media was back to Dan Rather’s “core truth” rationale for using a forgery against George Bush. Come on, Nixon was an evil guy, the fashionable attitude went last week. So what if to get at that core truth required lying and lawbreaking? Carl Bernstein, who had ludicrously tried to set himself up in the 1990s as a media ethicist of sorts, allowed himself defenses he never granted Clinton’s critics. Don’t shoot the messenger just because you don’t like the means by which the message is delivered, he instructed Americans last week.
It is no wonder that students studying ethics at Catonsville High School find all of this to be empty noise or tedious posturing. Ironically, what the Watergate nostalgia is teaching them, to the extent they are paying attention, is not so much that Nixon was a criminal but that crimes were committed in the drive to prove it. Now when they hear of the “cancer” of Watergate, they ask which side had it.