Woodward and Bernstein in Syria

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Everett Collection

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President's Men, 1976.

Bringing down the Nixon White House couldn't have been easy. But that's the way it looked to a group of a group of Syrian and Palestinian writers whom I've been training to be journalists here in Damascus, when I recently held a screening of All the President's Men — the Watergate movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. By secretive Syrian standards, the conditions under which the crusading journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked seem impossibly ideal. The fact that there was a direct phone number to the White House switchboard 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 idea that an investigative reporting team could take on the world's most powerful head of state and live to tell the tale sounded like, well, a Hollywood movie. "If we tried that we would be in jail," said one.

Not that I was trying to encourage the Woodward and Bernstein model of muckraking in a land with no First Amendment and no Bill of Rights. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists rated Syria ninth on its list of the ten most censored countries. And many in Lebanon blame Syria for the assassination of Lebanese journalists. Nevertheless, there is a fledgling private press in Syria, and although local reporters learn to steer clear of sensitive subjects, there is still room for 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.

So my reason for showing All The President's Men was practical. I wanted my students to see the inside of a working newsroom, albeit one with 1970s office furniture. And the movie offers plenty of little lessons for journalists: how "Woodstein" made their reputation pursuing a story that no one else wanted; the necessity and risk of using 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 procedure?"

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 many had heard of Watergate or the Nixon tapes, or understood the job of the Attorney General. What they understood, very clearly, was that the President of the United States had used the FBI and the CIA to spy on the opposition and stay in power.

"Excuse me, but this is normal," said one student. All governments in the Middle East use state security organizations against opposition groups, he explained. What if the opposition is planning a coup, or is infiltrated with terrorists or Israeli spies?

These aren't hypothetical concerns for a Syrian. The country was paralyzed by years of coups and plots until the Assad regime came to power in 1970; the Muslim Brotherhood launched a terror war against the regime in the 1980s; and Syria is still formally 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 supporting and funding groups that wage a terror war against Israel, and how closing legitimate forms of opposition tends to push opponents to extremes. 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, illegal wiretapping, and invading a country to neutralize a non-existent WMD threat — even the would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins of the Arab world don't believe that we live up to our own Woodward and Bernstein standards anymore.