The crumbling cornerstone of democracy 

The moment was certainly amusing, and telling.

Every year a group of scribes, known as the Society of Professional Journalists, gathers in some convention city somewhere in America. They hash about the important issues of the Fourth Estate and remind us all that there is nothing quite so dorky as being in a room full of newspaper journalists.

This year's convention took place last week in Washington, D.C., "the cradle of democracy," as it was heralded. To honor the moment, organizers brought in the dinosaurs of the craft Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who, 35 years ago, brought down a president. The ballroom was packed with the young and idealistic, and the old and cranky, who came to listen and appreciate the stories of Watergate, a war that is now in the distant past.

The event was nearing the end, and your columnist stepped outside the ballroom for a break only to see a short, gnome-like creature striding down the hall. He approached someone who appeared to be in charge: Where, the man asked, was the Ticonderoga Ballroom? "Oh, you mean where the Woodward and Bernstein event is being held? That's right around the corner."

The man notably bristled, until someone across the room recognized him and quickly jumped in. "No, that's where the Robert Novak event is happening."

So it was that the famous syndicated conservative columnist straightened up and got his game face back on. Novak was slated to follow the Woodward and Bernstein love-in, to talk about his own recent involvement outing CIA operative Valerie Plame and the subsequent trial of Scooter Libby on charges of obstruction of justice.

And guess what? Suffice it to say, Novak was no Bernstein. He was no Woodward, either. With a visible chip on his shoulder, Novak bitterly complained to the noticeably thinned-out crowd how he has been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists since 1950 and it wasn't until 57 57! years later that the organization bothered to ask him to talk to the group.

And the topic? Novak insisted that his participation in the Plame affair in which he outed her as a CIA agent after her husband wrote an op-ed piece that questioned the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was grossly distorted. Reading from a prepared statement, Novak claimed he had been unfairly attacked by other journalists who demanded he reveal his sources. He was stunned positively stunned at the lack of solidarity exhibited by other journalists. Oh, and you can read all about the injustices, Novak plugged, in his upcoming memoir, The Prince of Darkness.

There is a point to all this. Like Bernstein and Woodward, Novak is now more celebrity than journalist. But he certainly is not the only correspondent in the United States who is feeling under attack lately. Layoffs, buyouts and shrinking advertising revenues in the news biz are threatening what some of us affectionately call the cornerstone of democracy.

To cite one example in Colorado, daily newspapers along the Front Range this year have reduced their staffs, and substantially. Rather than replace its entire one-man operation in Colorado Springs when longtime Southern Bureau chief Dick Foster took a buyout, the Rocky Mountain News closed the office whacking decades of community and institutional knowledge.

In recent weeks, the Rocky and the Colorado Springs Gazette once loose competitors agreed to begin sharing news content. So instead of two stories in two newspapers about a topic with a kaleidoscope of potentially important angles, readers will see the same story, by the same reporter, in two papers.

As news junkies will soon realize, news does not just go away when reporters start to disappear. The information, about government corruption, scandal and graft, just doesn't get exposed as easily. That's not good for democracy.

There are certainly some bright spots like technology bringing us increasingly responsible online news organizations to help fill the void.

But after mingling with dinosaurs last weekend, I came home with a fresh realization that being "inside the Beltway" doesn't necessarily mean understanding the real world of today.



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