Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Every real scandal needs a Sussman

That would be Barry Sussman a former editor at the Washington Post. He is one of Watergate’s forgotten men. But that makes him no less important.

Indeed, by ignoring Post editors Harry Rosenfeld and Barry Sussman, the oral history project doesn’t even fairly depict what truly went on inside the newspaper during those fateful months. This is particularly true in Sussman’s case. The author of a well-regarded history of Watergate, The Great Cover-up, Sussman provides a sorely needed corrective to the fabulistic account of the Post’s coverage that was presented in All the President’s Men (both the book and the film), and reprised in Robert Redford’s recent documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited.

Sussman was a city editor at the Post at the time of the break-in. He became the special Watergate editor in mid-July 1972, when managing editor Howard Simons decided to go after the story. Sussman put Bernstein and Woodward on the story full-time, and in reality, a troikanot a duowas responsible for the summer/fall 1972 coverage that won the newspaper (not Woodstein) a Pulitzer Prize. According to interview notes by Alan Pakula, taken as he was preparing to direct All the President’s Men, managing editor Simons and metro editor Rosenfeld thought if any single person at the Post was deserving of a Pulitzer it was Sussman.
From Washington Decoded

Sussman did not get his recognition. Woodward and Bernstein may not have gotten their Pulitzer, but they did get something better: a makeover by the mythmaking Hollywood dream machine. Sadly, the myths have clouded the public’s understanding of Watergate and investigative journalism ever since.

All the President’s Men has a nice description of the key role Sussman played in the Post’s coverage of Watergate:

Sussman was a walking compendium of Watergate knowledge, a reference source to be summoned when even the library failed. On deadline, he would pump these facts into a story in a constant infusion, working up a body of significant information to support what otherwise seemed like the weakest of revelations. In Sussman’s mind, everything fitted. Watergate was a puzzle and he was a collector of the pieces
Alan Pakula’s notes are also revealing:

“Barry made [editorially] acceptable the work of two junior reporters . . . They didn’t understand what they had often and couldn’t write it.” Sussman’s role was to “interpret the significance [of what the duo gathered] and to structure it in terms of news articles [which necessitated] quite a bit of rewriting.” Sussman also played a larger role in guiding the reporters during the critical first months than was commonly understood.
New media have many advantages, but this suggests that there are also weaknesses in their business models. Fox News, like their cable competitors, has aggressively eliminated the Sussman role. (See here.)

The Army of Davids and citizen journalism can do many things, but until now it has lagged in supplying context (that thing that turns data into information) and reasonable inference (which turns information into intelligence). All too often we count on the reader to supply them.

Which is a fine and democratic attitude. A fine attitude that ensures that the vast majority of potential readers will be left in the dark since they are not obsessive consumers of political news.

No wonder HRC and Biden are still politically viable. Almost by design the sharpest, best-informed criticism of them is destined for the memory hole even as it is published.

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