The Watergate Scandal Is 40 Years Old, But The Lessons From ’72 Are Ever Timely

by | Jun 8, 2012

It’s been 40 years since Nixon’s second successful bid for The White House.

It’s also been 40 years since the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP) sent a group of rubber-gloved thugs to break in to Democratic National Committee headquarters at The Watergate.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, who won The Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for their coverage of the break-in and political conspiracy, have a new piece in the Post that paints Nixon in severely dark tones.

In a tape from the Oval Office on Feb. 22, 1971, Nixon said, “In the short run, it would be so much easier, wouldn’t it, to run this war in a dictatorial way, kill all the reporters and carry on the war.”

“The press is your enemy,” Nixon explained five days later in a meeting with Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to another tape. “Enemies. Understand that? . . . Now, never act that way . . . give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”

This reflective piece from Woodward and Bernstein comes, for me, on the heels of my first reading of The Boys On The Bus by Rolling Stone reporter Timothy Crouse. His behind-the-scenes look at the media and the coverage provided during the 1972 Presidential campaign is a critical read. While it too is 40 years old, the narrative is far from dated.

Crouse argues that Nixon and his team played the press like a violin during the campaign, feeding them an official story of the day and running them here and there, all the while keeping Nixon almost totally out of sight. The team included H.R. Halderman, Nixon’s White House Cheif of Staff, who worked at J. Walter Thompson in NYC and LA for 20 years before joining the White House team. Halderman also brought Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s White House Press Secretary, with him from JWT.

Not surprisingly, Halderman and Ziegler had a well defined media and brand strategy, and they executed it perfectly. Consider that The Watergate break-in happened on June 17, nearly five months ahead of the election, and it had no impact whatsoever on the election. In fact, Nixon won a majority vote in 49 states, including McGovern’s home state of South Dakota.

Crouse notes in his book that Woodward and Bernstein were young, ambitious reporters on the Post’s city desk. Crouse contends that had The Watergate story gone to the national affairs desk or to The White House reporters, it would have had no future. White House reporters didn’t ask a lot of questions, and when they did ask hard questions they quickly lost favor, were ignored or otherwise made to feel defensive and insecure. Crouse also lays plenty of blame on the editors and publishers of the nation’s best newspapers, who didn’t seek analysis of events from their reporters. Instead, guided by their belief in and adherence to journalistic objectivity and fairness, they simply replayed the day’s events, keeping anything that might be construed as the reporter’s opinion out of their pages.

In a passage from the book, Brit Hume speaks about the problem of so-called objectivity in journalism:

Those guys on the plane claim that they’re trying to be objective. They shouldn’t try to be objective, they should try to be honest. And they’re not being honest. Their so-called objectivity is just a guise for superficiality. They report what one candidate said, then they go report what the other candidate said with equal credibility. They never get around to find out if they guy is telling the truth. They just pass the speeches along without trying to confirm the substance of what the candidates are saying. What they pass off as objectivity is just a mindless kind of neutrality.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today we have opinions aplenty, but not much news. The Romney and Obama campaigns busily feed the press a story, just like Nixon’s team did, and instead of working hard to unearth what’s right or wrong in the story, the cable news outfits, in particular, put an endless stream of talking heads in front of us, many of whom work for one of the two parties in an appalling all-opinion-all-the-time stream of pointlessness. So, both objective and advocacy journalism are highly flawed. What we need is more facts, then an honest analysis of said facts. Instead of a round table discussion of what’s wrong with education, health care, the nation’s infrastructure and so on, how about frontline reporting on the issues? It’s the Information Age, and still we are hungry for good information.

It’s quite possible the next Woodward and Bernstein will not be on staff at a paper of record. The newspaper business is in an unforgiving tailspin, having lost half its former revenue in less than a decade. And according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, PR professionals outnumber journalists by 3 to 1 today. The next Woodward and Bernstein might well be indie bloggers, videographers or podcasters. As such, they will be denied access, but the lesson here is access does not, by definition, improve the news.

Sadly, we’ve seen far worse behavior from both the Reagan and Bush administrations than we saw from Nixon. Iran-Contra was much worse than Watergate, but Ollie North and cronies got away with it. As for more recent criminal activity from the Executive Branch, the stealing of the election in 2000 and the totally trumped up reasons for going to war in Iraq in 2003 also outdo Watergate in both scale and cost to the nation. It’s important to see the continuity of events here. Where do you think Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and all the rest learned their moves? That’s right, from Tricky Dick.

In response to suspected leaks to the press about Vietnam, Kissinger had ordered FBI wiretaps in 1969 on the telephones of 17 journalists and White House aides, without court approval. By 2003, the White House had no reason to fret about rogue reporting from Iraq — the Pentagon’s embedded reporter strategy took care of that. The mainstream press was turned into a public relations machine by the Bush team. All the while, the right-wing manipulators continue to float the idea that the press is dangerously liberal. Their gripe is clearly not based in reality, but the deadly game of “Shaping And Telling The Official Story” is oh so real.