2005-05-31 - 9:40 p.m.
Watergate's a good story and a few years ago I got obsessed with it. I was just out of college, and after working for six months at an office job that paid the bills but left me longing for just about everything else, I turned some freelancing into a job as a reporter at a little paper outside Baltimore. For a while, I really liked that job.
Just after I started, I bought a copy of "All the President's Men." The story pulled me in right away, and though it wasn't the best-written thing in the world, it was fast and loaded with power and I suppose I liked it for the same reason I used to read Ken Follett growing up: intrigue and back-alley deals and the threat of violence or at least unmaskings. I read it very fast and even kept a cheat-sheet of the dozens of names. Several flow charts: the White House, the FBI, the Washington Post. Yeah, I got really into it. A few months after I finished the book, having bored everyone around me (I suppose Sarah Vowell must tell this story a lot) with details of the giant machinations of the investigation and the breaking of the story, I watched the movie while lying on the floor of the townhouse, my girlfriend at the time bored a half-hour in and asleep beside me, her head on my arm.
But what I really used the Watergate story for was as a kind of Hollywooded cheat-sheet on how to be a good reporter. I was looking at the notes I made in the margins today, when I got home, after hearing the newspaper had confirmed the identity of Deep Throat. I was twenty-two and didn't have any idea how to go about the reporting of facts, the compiling of story ideas and then quotes and narratives. All I knew how to do was write a grammatically correct sentence, but that's not why they pay you (very little, as I'd learn). They pay you to break stories, in the newsroom, that's why everyone's there. And part of that mentality, that way of thinking that values scoops above nearly all else, came from Watergate.
So I worked from nine to five, doing my best, and for the week or ten days it took me to read "All the President's Men," I came home and made notes. Early in the book, Woodward and Bernstein come in to the office on a Saturday to make calls to people at home, to brush up on feature stories and to generally show everyone they're working hard. So I started to do that, and even though no one else came in on Saturdays (our newsroom was about ten, including editors and photographers) I made the twenty-five-minute drive for a month of Saturdays and organized the tiniest of story leads, trying to get ahead. And I badgered people. If you're a reporter reading "All the President's Men," that's one of the first things you notice, how these guys were assholes to sources, how they badgered these guys, calling and calling and calling until they got something, a nod of a confirmation, a name, a phone number. And I tried that, but with much less success. I learned that you need to grow thick skin to do the job of breaking news correctly. And I never liked being an asshole and so I, in the end, wrote features about nice old strawberry farmers and mom-and-pop sandwich shops whenever I could because they were always happy to see you. I guess I suffered for lack of ego, too much to ever be the kind of news reporter I was reading about on my couch every evening.
And (this is very funny to me now), I tried to cultivate blind sources. The book is mostly about how Deep Throat fed the reporters information, confirming and denying, nudging, and in one scene, totally fucking them up. I thought about my sources (I had to force myself to think of them as "sources") and wondered if one of them would be willing to go on deep background, anonymous, to tip me off to some big story I had no idea about. But that was the problem, I didn't know where the big stories were, or who had done wrong, or where to begin in any way. When I thought of my sources, I had the president of the chamber of commerce, that sort of thing. He ran a concrete-mixing business.
I guess they were my first professional heroes, Woodward and Bernstein and Bradlee and Deep Throat. And I like knowing, I think, that Deep Throat is an actual person. The others are too, of course, brash and embarrassing sometimes and power-hungry. And now the mystery's over, the mask has been removed and the story's over. The epilogue, I guess. And that's a little sad because who, really, ever wants to see a story end they've fallen in love with?0 comments so far