THE PRESS SINCE WATERGATE: GETTING BETTER AND WORSE AT THE SAME TIME
One long-lasting Watergate myth is that the coverage of the Watergate scandal was a great success for the news media in America, in that, as many have said facetiously, the press dethroned a president. There are three parts to this myth: first, that the press at large did a good job; second, that a few news organizations, led by the Washington Post, did deep, steady investigating, and third, mixed in with these, is the legend of Deep Throat, which is that a high-ranking FBI official gave Watergate reporters what they needed to bring Nixon down, all tidied up in a basket.
I go back and forth in my thinking about the press’s role. Mostly I feel that the press did poorly. As I spell out in my book, The Great Coverup, hardly any news organizations did original reporting to any extent. You can count them on one hand – the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine. Television reporting on Watergate was almost nonexistent until the first Watergate trial in January 1973. I remember a top ABC News executive saying at a National Press Club luncheon in December 1972, one at which the Post’s coverage was honored, that “Watergate isn’t a story for television.”
That line changed once the Senate Watergate hearings began in May 1973. Herd journalism set in, the scandal caught the people’s imagination, and Sam Ervin, John Dean, Lowell Weicker and a long list of characters made for one of the most popular and longest watched public-event TV series ever.
The original Watergate prosecutor, Earl Silbert, has said that the Washington Post never broke new ground in its reporting – that it contained no surprises – but that the newspaper’s constant coverage put pressure on the investigators to do their job. That was no small accomplishment, what with so much pressure in the opposite direction coming from the White House and the Justice Department leadership. For that reason alone, I feel, the Post and the press deserve credit. That plus another item: a single story in the summer of 1972 was so striking that it brought about three government investigations, eventually resulting in Nixon’s downfall.
I am referring to the Dahlberg check story of August 1st that year, reporting that campaign contributions to Nixon ended up in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars. So my feelings about the press’s performance during Watergate are mixed: favorable and disappointed at the same time. A few reporters, editors and news organizations tried hard and dug consistently. But that’s about it.
Deep Throat was said by Bob Woodward in 2005 to have been Mark Felt, the number two person at the FBI. His role as a source in Watergate has been, might I say, a bit exaggerated. My views about this are stronger than they were in the early Seventies, one reason being that over the years Deep Throat, for many, became the main figure in the story except for Nixon. The person most responsible for dethroning the president, it was said frequently and widely believed, was this shadowy figure. That was a total myth, mostly a creation of the Woodward-Bernstein Robert Redford Watergate movie, and it was encouraged by the two reporters ever after.
As an important source, Deep Throat failed every test. He contributed almost nothing to the Washington Post’s coverage. He didn’t suggest a lead to a single story, not even when the Post had a long, dry spell and really could have used some help. As noted in my book, he did provide some background as we prepared the Donald Segretti campaign trickster story in October 1972, but that’s it.
A state investigator in Miami, Martin Dardis, helped the Post on one story – the Dahlberg check story – and as a result was a far more important source than Deep Throat. Felt could have helped on that story and so many others if he wanted to; the FBI knew about the Dahlberg check at least three weeks before Dardis, doing his own investigation of Watergate in Miami, opened his files to let Carl Bernstein see it.
In the years since Watergate the news media have changed a great deal. In part the story is one of the decline of print and the advance of technology. In 1970 there were about seventeen hundred eighty daily newspapers in America, in 2020 there were about twelve hundred sixty. Most that still exist have a smaller news hole than they used to, and far fewer reporters and editors. Typically, local and state coverage is skimpy; some important stories are not even covered.
As a counterweight, a good number of online news organizations have started up and are contributing important work. Two magazines, the New Yorker and the Atlantic, venerable institutions with brilliant reporters and editors these days, made outstanding contributions to 2020 election coverage. For example, months before the election, presciently and at great length, Barton Gellman of the Atlantic spelled out the details of what to expect from Trump if he lost. In the September issue that year he wrote:
The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.
The situation didn’t quite get to Gellman’s worst-case scenario, but not for Trump’s lack of trying. Other journalists at the Atlantic, a bevy of them at the New Yorker, and several elsewhere in print publications also did sharp reporting and strong political commentary. Cable TV, especially CNN and MSNBC, frequently had incisive commentary, much more than in previous elections. So unlike the Watergate era, some very strong coverage was coming from more than a handful of elite organizations.
Also, and long overdue, reporters and editors now have far more diverse backgrounds. When I started at the Post in 1965 there were only a few women reporters and editors except in the (long defunct) For and About Women section, and, by my memory, only two Blacks in the newsroom. Those days are gone, at the Post and all other large news organizations. These have been changes at the heart of the media, they are continuing, and looking back one can only wonder, why did it take so long?
There has been an extremely unfortunate development as well, one that has helped push Americans into warring camps. I am talking about the appearance and settling-in of Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News. Things haven’t been the same since 1996 when the Fox News Channel came into existence. It brought a mix of political ambition, raw power and cunning unlike anything until then. Before Murdoch there were three main TV networks in the U.S., and the news departments of each pretty much tried to keep up with the others or get a little ahead. CBS appealed slightly more to urban viewers, NBC slightly more to most others, and ABC looked to take viewers from both. Essentially there was little difference in outlook.
The situation was by no means ideal; difficult important issues in life, such as poverty and racism, went uncovered or hardly covered. Leaders of the two political parties strove for a subdued, uninformed electorate, and news organizations, even the best of them, were satisfied with the status quo. “Keep things the way they are” could have been the motto.
Murdoch threw a bomb into that constantly clawing at people’s cruder instincts, resentments and fears. He and Fox immediately became political king makers. Fox became so entwined with the Republican Party that it was hard, sometimes impossible to see any difference between the two. Murdoch kept a stable of capable news reporters who could cover a story as impartially as those at the other networks – but that’s not what Fox was known for, or what Murdoch mostly cared about. Instead he filled prime time with opinionated anchors who cared not a whit about facts or news and lived to advance themselves and rightwing causes and people and advance any news or rumors that might bring down Democrats.
When Donald Trump was president it looked at times as though Trump owned Fox and at other times as though Fox owned him. At one point in the 2020 re-election campaign (September tenth) Trump said he watched six Fox news or business news shows the previous evening, then woke up and watched Fox and Friends. Fox promoted Trump on all its prime time shows. Imitators of Fox arose, copying the biases and right-wing promoting but with zero news coverage capability or concern. The result was the creation of a news media that today looks nothing like the press of the Watergate era. It enabled Trump to survive long after his misdeeds should have brought him down.
There are many earnest, gifted reporters in America today and often brilliant journalism. Still, the ups and downs are frustrating; the press is getting better and worse at the same time. During Watergate, attorney general Richard Kleindienst told Woodward and Bernstein that the media sometimes do good work but then back away from it. It was true then and it’s still true. Overall, there is so much wrong with the press that people could criticize it endlessly. At the same time, I don’t remember it ever being that great back in the day. And with all its shortcomings, almost every day a story shows up in one place or another that rewards readers or viewers with a better understanding of how and why things happen.
Next: Liar, liar pants on fire. Donald Trump in the White House.