London, Asharq Al Awsat – Many who went to see Frost/Nixon, the Hollywood interpretation of the infamous Frost-Nixon interviews, which was released recently, came out wondering what has happened to journalism today.
The film tells the story of how late US President Richard Nixon was pressed to apologize for his handling of the Watergate Scandal, how the interview was prepared and what went on behind the scenes with the now-prestigious television interviewer Sir David Frost and his research team.
Watergate, which led to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, was of course in itself a result of another journalistic achievement accomplished by The Washington Post – a story which was to become the main case-study in journalism textbooks around the world.
However, while the achievements of The Washington Post were portrayed in the 1976 film ‘All the President’s Men’, which unraveled the story of this great example of investigative journalism; Frost/Nixon is evidence that more can be squeezed out of a story even if it is no longer considered ‘newsworthy’.
This is particularly important today, as television interviews with important decision-makers are conducted on a daily basis, and 24-hour news channels seem to have a numbing effect, rather than a significant impact, on people’s lives.
So what are we missing today?
For his part, Boston University Professor of Journalism, Robert (Bob) Zelnick, recalls the extensive preparation that took place before Frost interviewed Nixon, in which he played a major role.
“I headed a team of three journalists that worked for David Frost from June to December, 1976. We investigated the massive cover up and other alleged abuses of power such as illegal wiretapping and burglaries, as well as Nixon’s foreign and domestic policies, including detente with the Russians, the beginning of normalization with the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and the deal with Hanoi, which Nixon proclaimed ‘Peace with honor,’ but which was in fact a prelude to defeat,” Zelnick told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The veteran reporter elaborated: “We reassembled in Los Angeles and spent three intense months working with David on specific interview strategies, with myself playing the role of Nixon so David would have a real ‘opponent’ to confront. During this period, I also consulted with attorneys who had actually been involved in the Watergate prosecution.”
Zelnick explained that the actual interviews began in late March and continued until the end of April. There were eleven sessions that consisted of approximately 29 hours and a half [of interview running time]; they were then edited into a series of four episodes that experienced remarkable broadcast success when aired.
Zelnick also explained that getting Nixon to “confess” was the culmination of a successful strategy that established his complicity in the obstruction of justice, adding that “when he [Nixon] proclaimed, ‘Yes, I let the American people down and I’ll have to carry that burden the rest of my life,’ we knew that we had reached our goal of providing Nixon with the trial he never had due to the Ford presidential pardon.”
But why haven’t we seen another news media breakthrough like the Frost-Nixon interviews?
This question refers to the journalism that exists in democratic states, particularly in the West and not the Arab world whose media has only just begun to enjoy relative freedom from government control in recent years.
“Watergate was a once in a lifetime event. For a long time, The Washington Post would never refer to another scandal by adding the -gate suffix,” says the Post’s Jim Hoagland.
“Our reasoning was that we did not want to diminish the importance of what had been a presidential conspiracy…a unique event,” added Hoagland.
However, the renowned columnist did not agree with the notion that journalism has lost its ability to launch and publish details of major investigations. He illustrates by referring to the Post’s work on renditions and [American] secret prisons abroad and to the New York Times articles on warrantless surveillance despite the opposition of the White House.
Bob Zelnick, on the other hand, argued that investigative journalism has suffered in recent years from the “same problems that affect other parts of the newsroom: dwindling audiences or readership, lower revenues, tepid corporate ownership and management, competition from the Internet with its pitiful brand of rumor-mongering, and a sinking morale.”
“You can’t expect to unravel another Watergate without an investigative unit under corporate ownership that thinks of the newsroom only as profit-centered,” highlighted Zelnick.
In a previous interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, veteran American reporter Seymour Hersh also highlighted the economic challenges facing the industry as a major obstacle to investigative reporting. Hersh said that he would “get rid of 70 per cent of the editors,” as “it is always the more cautious people that get promoted and the more aggressive people who do not because they are harder to control.”
Other factors that may have led to the decreasing impact of journalism is what many academics often refer to as the 24-hour news effect, in addition to the rise of what have come to be known as “spin doctors”.
“Watergate has taught lessons to public relations officials, and so has every scandal since,” said Jim Hoagland who believes that PR officials these days “are much better at undercutting what we are trying to do.”
Yet, PR professionals may not agree with this idea, arguably because many of them believe that weakening the press does not serve their interests.
“Our role in the PR industry is to make sure that we work closely with the media and journalists that have an impact,” said Jim Donaldson, who is a Managing Director from Corporate Communications at the internationally acclaimed PR giant, Hill & Knowlton.
“It is not of any use for us to get our clients exposure in a large number of outlets that are neither taken seriously nor well read by the people we are trying to reach,” said Donaldson.
Donaldson offered the following explanation as to why journalism may seem to have lost its impact; although in reality he does not believe that this is the case.
“I think perhaps the confusion is in the massive growth of media over the last few years; the movement from a few television channels to several hundred in most countries, the massive impact of the internet, and the growth in many different interpretations of what constitutes a media outlet,” said Donaldson.
The PR expert explained that this theory ultimately resulted in two effects: the first is that it is virtually impossible to maintain a high level of quality across all those outlets and the second is that increased competition puts individual journalists under increasing pressure.
On his part, The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland said that the 24-hour news effect and the blogosphere have added to pressures of time and attention to urgent news and news that is most important.
“As journalists, we have to accommodate those pressures as a group, but as individuals we must still insist on the time and resources we need to dig deep into the kind of stories you describe,” said Hoagland.
It may come as no surprise that Frost/Nixon has been nominated for five Oscars. Sir David Frost went on to win several major television awards in the UK and the US throughout his career and the original Watergate coverage won The Washington Post its share of prizes, most prominently a Pulitzer Prize. It is a legacy that continues to inspire journalists even today.