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Daily News and Prayer is inspired by The Christian Science Monitor, one of the most important (and most underappreciated) newspapers in the world. Posts are usually (but not always) responses to articles in the Monitor about events and trends that call for prayer.

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Looking back on the Watergate investigation

An occasional commentary based on Alain De Botton’s thought-provoking book, The News: A User’s Manual, about the role of news in modern society.

De Botton is a Swiss writer and philosopher – a philosopher of daily life, as some have called him. He is dedicated to taking a fresh look at things that we take for granted, and in 2014 he turned his eye on the news.

Many members of my generation have long held the Watergate investigation – the uncovering of the illegal actions of President Nixon and his aides in the 1970s by The Washington Post – as one of the best models for effective journalism. We assumed, especially after Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the Post’s heroic reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the movie “All the President’s Men,” that a career holding the feet of the powerful to the fire was a career well spent.

The Post’s work was certainly brave and useful. It was one reason I ended up going to journalism school. But exposing the misdeeds of powerful people is only one type of journalism, and it is arguably not the most important. Are corrupt or incompetent individuals and institutions really the cause of all our problems? If all the bad people in positions of authority were exposed, fired, arrested and prosecuted tomorrow, would it change the world all that much?

Human thought would remain more or less the same, I suspect. People would still try to cut corners and get what they don’t deserve.

Good journalism goes deeper than the latest scandal. As de Botton puts it, “Properly conceived, investigative journalism should start with an all-encompassing interest in the full range of factors that sabotage group and individual existence.”

The problem, of course, is not really people but the human mind – or, more accurately, the “carnal mind,” the term used in the Bible to denote that element of human consciousness that is materialistic through-and-through, drowning in matter, fearing it, wanting it, being willing even to kill for it. In seeking to lift the human mind to better things, Watergate-style journalism has a role, but really just a small one. “The only honest purpose of unearthing and publicizing error is to make it less prevalent,” de Botton says. “Faced with corruption, idiocy and mediocrity, rather than remaining stuck at the level of gleeful fault finding in the present, the news should seek instead always to nurture greater competence in the future.”

Good news organizations go beyond “holding power to account” as a journalistic motive. The one I’m most familiar with, The Christian Science Monitor, certainly does. I like its objective: “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” It’s a good protection against thinking that taking down bad people is the real and long-term solution to anything. It can be useful sometimes. But news organizations, and each of us individually, whether journalists or not, should also take on the much more difficult task of lifting humanity as a whole.

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    It can be helpful some of the time. Be that as it may, news associations, and each of us separately, whether writers or not, ought to additionally tackle the considerably more troublesome undertaking of lifting humankind all in all.

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