The new media age is another Watergate divide for reporters

The famed photo of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward after breaking 'Watergate.'

I am gaining a lot of perspective, I think, while serving a post-graduate internship with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association.

More than just the newspaper bubble, today’s industry fears are the result of another cultural divide, just like one journalism faced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, famed by the Watergate scandal.

We can see this in an old tradition that died here in the Capitol newsroom more than 20 years ago. This from a brief history on the PLCA, the oldest society of its kind:

…There was a prestige reason and a practical reason to be concerned with who had been in the newsroom the longest. The prestige reason was that the senior reporter was the one who terminated news conferences, not unlike the custom, still followed today, at [some] White House press conferences. When he judged that questions had been satisfactorily posed and answered, the senior reporter would say, “Thank you, governor,” and the news conference was over. That tradition later ended [in Harrisburg]. The practical reason was picking first in the “the divvy.”

The divvy was the ultimate divide between older and younger reporters.

The newsroom held a legendary Christmas party in the Capitol newsroom each year, during which lobbyists and legislators and reporters were drink and dance and mingle together. For the party, the Liquor Control Board would send cases of booze, brought over by lobbyists and state officials. The event would start at noon with a lunch for the governor and cabinet, run into afternoon and end with drinking into the next morning. There would be quite literally hundreds of bottles of high-end liquor, so never was all of it consumed at even the largest party.

So, sometime after Christmas, beginning with the most veteran reporter and moving to the youngest, each would select a leftover bottle to take home for his own. Members would usually take three or four bottles, several claimed to have taken six home one year. A few bottles were even left over in the newsroom, “for snakebite,” they would say.

That changed with the Watergate generation of reporters.

Admittedly, the split likely started more with the 1960s, as the entire nation’s identity with authority seemed to shift. So that divide was first beginning to split in 1965, when a younger reporters began to question the practice.

In December 1971, the PLCA decided, with the lobbying of its then president, a young Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter named Bill Deibler, who came to the office in 1969.

In January 1972 Bill Ecenbarger wrote a column for the Inquirer describing and criticizing the annual Christmas party and subsequent divvy, both of which he vowed to never take part in again. That year just 77 bottles were leftover, bottles that, Ecenbarger reported, were being charged to the public expense accounts of lawmakers. By November 1972, PLCA voted to never accept liquor in the group’s name again.

A great deal of animosity came from older reporters who worked through the decline of a once honored tradition.

A former AP reporter, Richard L. Graves, who had been retired for nearly a decade by the time the divvy was dismantled, was still distraught enough to write the PLCA a letter on the issue.

A few years after I left, a new generation of fundamentalists took control of the newsroom and changed the rules, ambiance and perspective. The late Jack [Lynch, an AP reporter and later aide to future Governor Robert P. Casey] said they were a self-righteous lot who saw journalism as a cause, not a culture. The first reformist rape centered on the banning of liquor gifts. Free loads were shunned. More witch burning followed. [Older reporters] were out-voted and ultimately – in my view – literally bored to death.

The divvy would seem ridiculous, I think, to mostly any journalist today. To accept, of all things, alcohol from those whom we cover.

But talk to older journalists of today, and many think audio reporting, video editing, Twitter, blogging and the rest are all an attack on what it is they do.

That isn’t, Graves and many of today’s reporters might say, what print journalism is.

Photo courtesy of Tom’s Games.