All the President's Men, the movie made from the book that inspired my career in journalism, was on (very) late night TV the other night. What's strikingly anachronistic about the film is not the sideburns and bug-eye glasses, but the rudimentary journalistic tactics of the reporters who broke the Watergate story.
They weren't on Google, searching for information that may or may not be accurate, and using a research technique that is so easily tracked that pop-up ads related to the search will begin appearing almost immediately. They didn't drive through toll booths with a convenient electronic device on the windshield that can (and do) track their movements and the specific time of the movements. They didn't do email interviews, cell phone interviews or even many hardline phone interviews that could leave an electronic trail.
The movie shows the real, unglamorous shoe-leather work of being a reporter. It's one scene after another of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein driving to a neighborhood, parking blocks away to avoid detection and then knocking on people's doors, sweet-talking their way into living rooms for interviews. It's Woodward finding ways to meet his source, "Deep Throat" – not by thumb-typing a text, but by signals that involved the moving of a plant on a balcony. This was how the duo managed to get people to talk to them – sometimes at great personal risk – and how Woodward managed to keep Mark Felt's identity a secret until Felt's family disclosed his role in 2005.
Journalists are concerned at the surveillance of their phone records. And many are also jarred by the disclosure that federal authorities have been monitoring certain activity on the web and collecting phone call data. But where would anyone get the idea that any communication attached to technology and electronic is really private?
We have a new Facebook generation which is remarkably willing to give up its collective privacy by posting their embarrassing photos and travel plans and insignificant "status" updates on what is the biggest billboard in the cyber-sky. And yet the same people live in the delusion that no one is monitoring it? That a potential burglar isn't tipped off by someone's Pinterest photos of the family currently on vacation, a sign that the house is unattended? That a potential employer might see a photo of an applicant with someone doing shots off his chest and think, "maybe this isn't someone we want working here?"
True, the idea government surveillance has a different quality to it, from both sides. We expect our government to respect our privacy. The government, meanwhile, knows it is also expected to track the bad guys. The balance of those two goals will surely be debated yet again after the recent disclosure of surveillance techniques. But in the meantime, Americans might want to rethink our relationship with technology and the privacy we lose by using it.
This applies exponentially to journalists, who might want to get back to basics – especially when reporting sensitive stories. When I was reporting in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, almost no one would be interviewed on the phone. They had just ousted a communist regime, and they were convinced, still, that their phones were being tapped. They didn't even talk openly on the subway, so well-trained they were to be discreet. It made it harder to report, but it also promoted some better work tactics. I had to actually go meet someone somewhere and do interviews in person. I was less likely to misinterpret, and came back with more information than I would have gotten in a quick phone conversation. Woodward and Bernstein did it. So should the rest of us.