Woodward and Bernstein in Syria

On Friday night, I held a screening of All the Presidents Men — the Watergate movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford — for a group of Syrian and Palestinian writers whom I’ve been training to be journalists here in Damascus. As expected, they all got a few giggles out of the impossibly ideal conditions under which the crusading reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked when they went up against Richard Nixon. The fact that there was a direct phone number to the White House switch board filled my students with awe. So did the fact that dialing 411 actually led to a directory inquiries operator who actually divulged a working phone number. And the whole idea that an investigative reporting team could topple the presidency seemed like a fairy tale. “If we tried that we would be in jail,” said one. Or worse.

I’m not so naive as to try and encourage them to follow the Woodward and Bernstein model of muckraking here in the Middle East. There’s no First Amendment and no Bill of Rights in Syria. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists rated Syria number nine on its top ten list of the most censored countries. And many in Lebanon (which was once occupied by Syria) blame Syria for the assassination of Lebanese journalists. Nevertheless, there is still a fledgling private press in Syria. And despite the fact that local journalists learn to steer clear of sensitive areas, there is still room to do a limited form of real journalism. Syria Today, the independent English-language magazine where I teach, has published articles calling for the reform of some of the basic parts of the Syrian government, including the court system. This isn’t North Korea. (Press Enemy No. 1 on CPJ’s list.)

So my reason for showing All The President’s Men was less ideological than tactical. I wanted my students to see what a working newsroom looked like — even one with 1970′s office furniture. And the movie offers plenty of little lessons for fledgling journalists. For example, how Woodstein made their reputation pursuing a story that no one else wanted. How necessary and how risky it is to use unnamed sources. And the many different ways of asking the same question.

Woodward: “When you handed out the money, how did that work exactly?”
Nixon Campaign Treasurer: “Badly.”
Bernstein: “I think what Bob means is that ordinarily, what was the proceedure?”

I’m not sure how much of this sunk in with my students. One of their main concerns was that Woodward and Bernstein rarely stopped to eat. (My guys couldn’t even sit through the whole film without a cigarette break.) But I was surprised by how they intuitively understood the political background behind the Watergate investigation. Not that they’d all heard of Watergate, or knew about the Nixon tapes, or what the Attorney General does. But they understood what was going on: the President of the United States used the FBI and the CIA — the secret police, if you will — to spy on the opposition and stay in power.

I was even more surprised by their response. “Excuse me, but this is normal,” said one student. All governments in the Middle East use state security against opposition groups, he said. What if the opposition is planning a coup? Or infiltrated with terrorists, or Israeli spies?

These aren’t abstract scenarios. The Assad regime came to power in Syria after the country had been paralyzed by years of coups and plots. An Islamic opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, launched a terrorist war against the Syrian state in the 1980′s. And Syria is still at war with Israel, which occupies Syrian land and almost certainly has spies operating here. As the saying goes, sometimes even the paranoid have enemies.

Now we could have discussed how the Syrian government helped create these conditions — by funding groups that wage a proxy terror war against Israel — and how closing legitimate forms of opposition may push opponents to extremes. (A lesson the Israel lobby in the US could learn too, by the way.) But another student left me struggling for words when she pressed the case: “Don’t tell us the United States doesn’t do the exact same thing.” After all the revelations about abuses of power that have occurred in the name of the War on Terror — kidnappings, torture and illegal wiretapping — it has become harder and harder to convince people in the Middle East otherwise. Even would-be Woodward and Bersteins don’t believe we live up to Woodward and Bernstein standards anymore.

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