I have often posed the following thought experiment to students and adult “civilians” to see not only the kind of answers it might elicit but whether there was any discernible generational difference. The thought experiment is this: how would the Watergate scandal have been affected if the Internet, social media, and the 24-hour cable news world existed in 1972-74? Would it have cycled faster? Or would the speed of Internet time perhaps have caused it to blow past, somewhat in the manner of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of 1998-99? Would the existence of ideologically-oriented news outlets (MSNBC, Fox) have affected the course of the scandal? (Fox, for example, would have rightly been all over the place pointing out how Johnson and Kennedy had bugged political opponents and abused power.)
The point of this exercise is to get people reflecting on the nature of political argument, public attention, and the changing media landscape today. During the crucial period of fall 1972 through spring 1973, we had to wait for the periodical installments of Woodward and Bernstein to advance the story. (An important subtext here is that it was two Metro reporters who drove this story; hardly any of the Watergate story was advanced by the puffed-up White House press corps.)
There is never any way to resolve these counterfactuals, but my hunch is that the Internet world would have sped up the Watergate timeline, and Nixon’s fall would have occurred quicker. (The Vietnam War protest movement might also have been considerably more combustible if we’d had social media back then.) But I could be mistaken about this. Gordon Crovitz has a chilling article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Before Watergate Could Be Googled,” about how college journalism students today, presented with a thought experiment similar to mine, think the Watergate story would have been broken with simple Google searches:
Mr. Woodward said he was shocked by how otherwise savvy students thought technology would have changed everything. “I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm,” he said, “because the students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet” and the details of the scandal would be there. The students imagined, as Mr. Woodward put it, “that somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events.”
. . . Another student wrote that “with the advancements in the technology of the Internet,” it “would be simple to track down the $50,000 that were withdrawn from the intelligence-gathering fund.” Another speculated that “the online community would have gone into a tweeting frenzy.”
This tracks with what a magazine editor told me recently about the answer an increasing number of young prospective journalists give in job interviews when asked how they’d begin checking out a story assignment:
“I’d go see what’s up on it at the Drudge Report.”
Meanwhile, as for the first half of this morning’s headline, “Beer Goggles,” I actually don’t have anything new about that beyond my Saturday post that mentioned the latest research. I just liked the cadence of the headline. So I went with it. Which seems to be about the standard for contemporary journalism. Plus it will probably generate a few hits when some lazy reporter Googles “beer goggles.” I know I’m going to start drinking more beer earlier than usual today, because if what Crovitz reports is indicative of the next generation of journalists is going to be like, then the media is going to get even worse than it already is.