The Myth of the Media's Role in Watergate
Thirty years ago, on August 9, 1974, the Washington Post ran what was then the largest front-page headline in its history: "Nixon Resigns."
That date marked both the end of Richard Nixon's presidency and the beginning of three decades of debate about what role journalism played in uncovering the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon from office and how Watergate, in turn, influenced journalism itself. Did media muckraking actually bring down a president of the United States? How have politics and investigative reporting changed as a result?
Thirty years later, the answers to these basic questions remain nearly as polarized as they were in Nixon's day. While journalism schools continue to teach the lesson of Watergate as a heroic example of courageous press coverage under fire, some scholars have concluded that the media played at best a modest role in ousting Nixon from office. So what really happened? In the end, perhaps truth lies somewhere between the self-congratulatory boosterism of journalists and the kiss-off of the academics.
By now, of course, Watergate has become part of our folklore: Five men wearing business suits and surgical gloves arrested in the middle of the night with illegal bugging devices at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. The burglars turned out to be part of a wide-ranging political espionage and sabotage operation run by President Nixon's top aides, one that triggered a massive White House cover-up directed by the president himself. After that cover-up unraveled, more than 70 people, including cabinet members and White House assistants, were convicted of criminal abuses of power; only a pardon by his presidential successor spared Nixon himself from becoming the first chief executive in history to be indicted for felonies committed in the Oval Office. In the words of Stanley Kutler, the scandal's leading historian, Watergate "consumed and convulsed the nation and tested the constitutional and political system as it had not been tested since the Civil War."
As important as Watergate was in political history, it was perhaps equally so in journalism history. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein produced "the single most spectacular act of serious journalism [of the 20th] century," said media critic Ben Bagdikian. Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, believes that the Post's reporting was "absolutely critical" to "creating an atmosphere in Washington and within the government that Nixon was in serious trouble and that the White House was engaged in a cover-up. I believe that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein represents a milestone of American journalism."
Even conservative critics have accepted the notion that Woodward and Bernstein were instrumental in Nixon's downfall. "[T]he Washington Post.. decided to make the Watergate break-in a major moral issue, a lead followed by the rest of the East Coast media," Paul Johnson wrote in his book Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the Year 2000. This "Watergate witch-hunt," Johnson declared, was "run by liberals in the media..the first media Putsch in history."
Woodward dismisses both detractors and fans who contend that the media unseated a president. "To say that the press brought down Nixon, that's horseshit," he says. "The press always plays a role, whether by being passive or by being aggressive, but it's a mistake to overemphasize" the media's coverage.
But it was Woodward and Bernstein's best-selling book, All the President's Men, that focused public attention on the young reporters, especially after Hollywood turned it into a blockbuster movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The film immortalized the chain-smoking anonymous source called "Deep Throat," who met Woodward at night in deserted parking garages after first signaling for meetings with elaborate codes (see sidebar, "Who Is Deep Throat? Does It Matter?"). Warner Brothers promoted the movie as "the story of the two young reporters who cracked the Watergate conspiracy...[and] solved the greatest detective story in American history. At times, it looked as if it might cost them their jobs, their reputations, perhaps even their lives."
Despite the hype, Woodward and Bernstein did not write a comprehensive history of Watergate, just a memoir of their own experience covering it. "The fallacy in All the President's Men is that..the movie is all from our point of view, so that it seems to be a story about us," Woodward acknowledges. "But that's just one piece of what happened early in the process."
Still, as sociologist Michael Schudson wrote in his book Watergate in American Memory, that's not the way the public sees it: "A mythology of the press in Watergate developed into a significant national myth, a story that independently carries on a memory of Watergate even as details about what Nixon did or did not do fade away. At its broadest, the myth of journalism in Watergate asserts that two young Washington Post reporters brought down the president of the United States. This is a myth of David and Goliath, of powerless individuals overturning an institution of overwhelming might. It is high noon in Washington, with two white-hatted young reporters at one end of the street and the black-hatted president at the other, protected by his minions. And the good guys win. The press, truth its only weapon, saves the day."
How accurate is this scenario? Not very, according to Kutler, author of what is widely considered the most definitive history of the scandal, The Wars of Watergate. "As more documentary materials are released," Kutler wrote, "the media's role in uncovering Watergate diminishes in scope and importance. Television and newspapers publicized the story and, perhaps, even encouraged more diligent investigation. But it is clear that as Watergate unfolded from 1972 to 1974, media revelations of crimes and political misdeeds repeated what was already known to properly constituted investigative authorities. In short, carefully timed leaks, not media investigations, provided the first news of Watergate."
"At best," wrote author Edward Jay Epstein, "reporters, including Woodward and Bernstein, only leaked elements of the prosecutor's case to the public" a few days before it otherwise would have come out anyway. Without any help from the press, Epstein wrote, the FBI linked the burglars to the White House and traced their money to the Nixon campaign within a week of the break-in. Woodward and Bernstein "systematically ignored or minimized" the work of law enforcement officials to "focus on those parts" of the story "that were leaked to them," Epstein charged.
Kutler found that "local Washington reporting, especially in the Post, closely tracked the FBI's work, relying primarily on raw Bureau reports." Woodstein's account placing the pair at the center of the scandal, the historian wrote, was "self-serving" and "exaggerated," part of "the press' excessive claims for its role." Indeed, he says, even if media coverage during Watergate had been cautious and passive, Nixon would have been forced out of office because an independent court system combined with a Democratic Congress was intent on getting to the bottom of the scandal.
"That's 'if' history, and dubious 'if' history at that," Bernstein counters. "You can't write 'if' history; history is what happened. What happened is that the press coverage played a very big role in making information available that the Watergate break-in was part of something vast and criminal and directed from or near the Oval Office against President Nixon's opponents." Bernstein acknowledges that the "role of Bob [Woodward] and myself has been mythologized" because "in great events people look for villains and heroes" and oversimplify what happened. "At the same time, we were in the right place at the right time and did the right thing."
But other academic experts also minimize journalism's impact. In an analysis of polling data measuring so-called "media effects" on public opinion, communication scholars Gladys and Kurt Lang wrote that "the press was a prime mover in the controversy only in its early phase," when the Post linked the Watergate burglars to Nixon operatives. Journalism's main contributions to influencing public opinion, the husband-and-wife team found, were covering the unfolding events of the scandal and televising the Senate's Watergate hearings. "That so many of the struggles between Nixon and his opponents ... played out on television accounts for the impression that the news media and an aroused public opinion forced the downfall of Richard Nixon," the scholars wrote. Journalism may have helped prepare the public ahead of time for Nixon's removal, the authors argued, but it was Congress, not the media, that forced the president's resignation.
Such public opinion polling, however, can be a clumsy way of gauging journalism's impact. The effect of news coverage can be subtle and hard to measure, in part because government investigators may be reluctant to acknowledge that they were responding to publicity; to admit being influenced by journalism could suggest that they weren't properly doing their jobs beforehand. Nonetheless, publicity can push authorities to take action if only to avoid being embarrassed by media disclosures.
"In Watergate," writes historian David Greenberg, author of the new book Nixon's Shadow, "it was unclear at first whether the FBI would pursue crimes beyond the break-in itself. If the Post hadn't kept Watergate alive, it's not certain that the bureau, or the Senate, would have kept digging. Woodward and Bernstein's work shaped the way Watergate unfolded."
According to Woodward, the late Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, "called me and asked questions, and his work grew out of the stories that we did." Woodward also says that after Nixon's resignation, the presiding federal judge, the late John Sirica, told him "flat out" that the Post's stories influenced him to crack down on the Watergate conspirators. "Judges don't decide to get tough in a vacuum," Woodward says. "Senators don't decide to investigate in a vacuum." Both were influenced by the press, Woodward says, because "the process wasn't uncovering the abuses. It's that simple."
Other journalists who covered Watergate agree. "The record clearly shows that the cover-up would have worked if the press hadn't done its job," says CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, whose aggressive Watergate reporting led the Nixon White House to try to get him fired. Rather maintains that Congress and the courts "didn't have a clue, frankly" about Watergate crimes and that federal investigators wised up "only after repeated and constant coverage" by journalists.
Besides, the battle was political as well as legal, says Jack Nelson, who covered Watergate for the Los Angeles Times: "Nixon was fighting not just prosecutors and Congress but also in the court of public opinion. For all of their controlling Congress, the Democrats were not in any sense going to go after Nixon unless the public was behind it. And the public got behind it because of the press..holding Nixon's feet to the fire."
But Watergate prosecutor Seymour Glanzer says that what really mattered both legally and politically was Nixon's failure to destroy his incriminating tape recordings, not the media's coverage: "Woodward and Bernstein followed in our wake. The idea that they were this great investigative team was a bunch of baloney." Glanzer believes that an official in the FBI's Washington field office leaked details of the Watergate probe to other reporters besides Woodward and Bernstein but that only the Post published them early on because of its larger ongoing "struggle with the White House."
There is no dispute that the Post led other media in the early coverage of Watergate. According to a quantitative analysis by University of Illinois professor Louis W. Liebovich, in the critical first six months after the break-in, the Post published some 200 news articles about Watergate, more than double the number of its nearest competitor, the New York Times. "Many of the Washington Post stories were carried on page one," Liebovich found, play that occurred "only occasionally" in other newspapers after the initial publicity about the break-in died down. In addition, Post stories were more often investigative in nature and "revealed new details about covert activities directed by the White House," while other news organizations "rarely carried their own enterprise stories."
However, the Post's lead diminished later in the scandal as other journalists also uncovered wrongdoing by Nixon and his men. The late Clark Mollenhoff, an investigative reporter who not only covered Watergate for the Des Moines Register but also at one point worked for Nixon, compiled a list of more than three dozen journalists besides Woodward and Bernstein who, he said, "made equally great contributions to the success of the Watergate probe." That undoubtedly overstates the case. But, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, other reporters "got too little credit and the Washington Post got too much." According to Nixon White House counsel John W. Dean, as the scandal developed, the reporter "who does the most devastating pieces that strike awfully close to home was Sy Hersh," whom the New York Times assigned to the story.
The Los Angeles Times also dug up scoops "of the same caliber of Woodward and Bernstein," says investigative reporter James Polk, then with the Washington Star, "but the L.A. Times wasn't read in Washington" as widely as the Post and therefore didn't have the same degree of influence. Harvard's Kalb, who was then a correspondent in Washington for CBS News, credits Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee's "gutsy front-page placement" of Watergate stories as "crucial because there is no paper in Washington like the Post. It is the heart and soul of journalism here... 'Everyone would pick up the Post every morning and read the latest bombshell about Watergate."
The Post also faced down both public attacks and private intimidation from the Nixon administration. John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general, warned Bernstein that his boss, Publisher Katharine Graham, was "gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer" as a result of his Watergate reporting. And Nixon himself privately threatened "damnable, damnable problems" for the Post when it came to getting its television station licenses renewed.
But here, too, the Post was not alone. The Nixon administration variously investigated, wiretapped and audited the income tax returns of numerous reporters. In all, more than fifty journalists appeared on a special White House "enemies list." Nixon's otherwise pro-business Justice Department filed antitrust charges against all three broadcast networks. As Woodward reported a year after Nixon's resignation, Nixon himself allegedly ordered an aide to falsely smear syndicated columnist Jack Anderson as a homosexual, and two White House aides held a clandestine meeting to plot ways to poison the troublesome journalist. In many respects, reporters who investigated Nixon were less hunters than prey.
As a whole, most Washington journalists during Watergate were neither victims nor heroes; few challenged the Nixon White House's version of events during the pivotal first months of the scandal. "Too many people in the press bought into the assumption that there was a 'New Nixon,'" Bernstein remembers, and that Watergate "could not have involved the White House." Historian Kutler dissected the "almost nonexistent" media coverage that took place long after the break-in, when for months "fewer than 15 of the more than 430 reporters in Washington ... worked exclusively on Watergate."
Only after Congress and the courts started to expose evidence of White House criminality did the rest of the media finally jump on the story. But coverage then became a feeding frenzy of often inaccurate reporting. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite falsely implicated White House aide Patrick Buchanan in money-laundering. The New York Times's Jeff Gerth, then a freelance writer, claimed that Nixon's supposed financial ties to Mafia financier Meyer Lansky and Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa meant that "organized crime ... put its own man in the White House." "In learning from Watergate," wrote Rutgers University professor David Greenberg, reporters "too often emulated not the trailblazers whose skepticism had produced fruitful inquiries but the latecomers who jumped on Watergate only as it was becoming a media spectacle."
"Look," says historian Kutler, "everybody did Watergate and everybody wants credit for it. The fact is, an incredible array of powerful actors all converged on Nixon at once the FBI, prosecutors, congressional investigators, the judicial system. This included the media. It did not play the leading role, but it did play a role."
Ultimately, this role was more complex than many realize, says former Nixon aide Dean: "People think that the Post cracked the case and they really didn't. Not to take anything away from the Post; it was the only paper that really did any coverage of Watergate early on." But the newspaper's real value, Dean argues, was that it did "just enough to keep the story alive" by lending "legitimacy to those [in the government] who were investigating the scandal." Later in the saga, Dean says, "there is no question that the Senate Watergate hearings and prosecutors were feeding off the media attention they were getting" and "wouldn't have gone as long or as deep but for the frenzy" of press coverage.
In the end, the differing interpretations of Watergate may say as much about those who hold them as they do about what really happened thirty years ago. After all, reporters cover stories close up, focusing on details as events are still unfolding, when ultimate outcomes are unpredictable and unknowable. Historians and sociologists, on the other hand, view the news from afar, when events in retrospect can seem preordained and inevitable.
What effect has Watergate had on journalism since Nixon's resignation? Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says the scandal has led to more aggressive coverage of the White House, where reporters had embarrassed themselves by missing the story of Nixon's culpability. "White House briefings have been entirely different in the last thirty years than in the rest of history," Downie observes. "The relationship between the White House and the press was changed forever by Watergate."
Not everyone thinks this is an improvement. "Many journalists want the big pelt on the wall, and they still dream of Pulitzers and being portrayed by Robert Redford on the big screen," says the University of Virginia's Sabato. "Reporters do not just present information but also question it. Whenever journalists believe government is lying, they now flex their muscles to set policy and even change personnel."
James Rosen, White House correspondent for Fox News Channel who is writing a biography of John Mitchell, describes a "post-Watergate joke" among the modern presidential press corps: "If you're ever stuck for a question to ask the president, you can always fall back on, 'But sir, what about the recent charges?'" even if you don't know what the allegations are. Rosen says that many White House correspondents "grew up watching Dan Rather challenge Richard Nixon" and have imitated this adversarial approach, even though such questioning may "not necessarily be the best way to elicit information."
But the media's "gotcha" questioning is also the product of White House evasion and duplicity, which has continued since Nixon's resignation. Indeed, just as journalism has grown more aggressive since Watergate, so, too, has political spin. Investigative reporter Polk, now a senior producer at CNN, believes that "politics has changed more as a result of Watergate than journalism has, to the benefit of politicians more than journalists. Even in the Nixon White House, there was at least a camaraderie of proximity among officials who worked near reporters. Now, not only are the doors closed, but administrations are much better at controlling leaks of sensitive information."
Bernstein laments that Watergate's impact on journalism wore off too quickly and that public-service investigative reporting was soon replaced by "a careerist impulse" that emphasized glamour over "doing required legwork and putting information in context." While "great journalism was always the exception not the rule," Bernstein says, "the economics of the business is now the bottom line instead of the best obtainable version of the truth."
Perhaps nothing underscores Watergate's media legacy more than the impeachment of President Clinton a generation later, when partisan attacks and White House posturing reached new lows in saturation coverage on cable TV and the Internet. "A lot of journalists who had been boosters for an aggressive press had trouble squaring that attitude with the coverage of the Lewinsky affair and other Clinton pseudo-scandals," historian Greenberg observes. "Both liberals and conservatives have been unfairly treated by the press. Perhaps it's easier to see when it happens to a president with whom you're sympathetic."
Still, Watergate's most significant impact on journalism has probably been less on the White House beat than on investigative reporting as a whole. The nonprofit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, founded the year after Nixon's resignation, has grown from a handful of journalists to 5,000 members who regularly receive training in investigative techniques, from filing Freedom of Information Act requests and using computer databases to working undercover and preventing libel suits. Magazines like Mother Jones and television programs like "60 Minutes" as well as other nonprofit groups and foundations that support investigative reporting have put down roots in the past thirty years.
Watergate "solidified the critical importance of investigative reporting," says IRE Executive Director Brant Houston. All the President's Men popularized and "humanized investigative reporting," Houston observes, and "provided the inspiration for thousands of young people to become investigative journalists who wanted to make a difference."
Perhaps this, more than anything, helps explain why Watergate's media mythology continues three decades later. As sociologist Schudson wrote: "Who cares if journalism in Watergate was generally lazy? Or if Judge Sirica or some FBI agents were as vital to Nixon's undoing as were Woodward and Bernstein? It does not matter, because the Watergate myth is sustaining. It survives to a large extent impervious to critique. It offers journalism a charter, an inspiration, a reason for being large enough to justify the constitutional protections that journalism enjoys ... not to tell us who we are but what we may have been once, what we might again become, what we would be like 'if.'"
Watergate's media mythology lingers, in other words, not because it is true, but because we want it to be true.
Reprinted by permission of American Journalism Review.
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Phillip Fletcher Stockwell - 12/11/2007
There's lots more myth to be debunked here. Watergate was much more than we were told.
Read 'Silent Coup' published by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in 1991.
How about Bob Woodward's very high-level Naval Intelligence career briefing the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Alexander Haig and working in the communications bunker under the White House and working on the USS Wright, a special ship rigged up to run a nuclear war in case DC was smoked?
How about the JCS and Admiral Moorer using Yeoman Chuck Radford to spy on the White House inner circle of Kissinger and Haig just before Officer Woodward went to the Washington Post as a 'cub reporter' to handle the neutralizing of Nixon who was alienating the JCS with the way he ran the Vietnam War and peace talks at the same time?
How about the CIA career of Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, itself a CIA venue as written up by Deborah Davis in her biographical, 'Katherine the Great: Katherine Graham and the Washington Post?'
How about the exposure of the CIA's use of mainstream media as a widespread psy-ops network revealed by CIA Director, William Colby, in the 'family jewels' dump given to the 1975 Church Senate Committee?
Carl Bernstein was leaked the suppressed committee report that new CIA Director, George HW Bush, had managed to have purged of the news that hundreds of journalists were CIA assets including at the highest levels.
Bernstein wrote this up in the 10/20/77 issue of Rolling Stone as 'The CIA and the Media: How America's Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove With the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up.'
Now there's a title. And one that debunks the myth of the 'liberal watchdog press,' although that makes a great cover for USG psy-ops, doesn't it?
How about the 'Watergate plane crash' of United Air flight 553 on December 8, 1972 which killed the CIA wife of CIA 'plumber' E. Howard Hunt and a CBS reporter travelling with her named Michelle Clark while Dorothy Hunt carried many thousands of dollars of hush money?
Interestingly, two White House aides, Egil Krogh and Alexander Butterfield were suddenly appointed Undersecretary of Transportation and head of the FAA to handle the aftermath of the crash.
There's much more but I think readers get the idea that Watergate was not what we were told it was, Bob Woodward is not who we are told he is and neither is the mainstream press.
wanjing tan - 6/17/2005
Incidentally, I've written an essay on the topic of media role as the "Fourth Estate" last year. I'm amazed when the id of the Deep Throat is revealed. This goes to show how fun unsolved history is, some 'new facts' will just spring up without notice.
This is an outdated essay, written in March 2004. At the point of writing, the id of the "Deep Throat" has yet to be revealed. Just to share my angles of reasoning...
Media role in Watergate scandal was a demonstration that the US news media has lived up to its reputation as a functioning Fourth Estate. Evaluate this statement.
The perception of news media as Fourth Estate originates from a British essayist Thomas Carlyle who proclaimed that “in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate” far more important than the other government institutions. According to Carlyle, “whoever can speak speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority.” The concept of Fourth Estate portrays news media as the guardian of public interest and protector of democracy acting as an independent political institution. Using Watergate as a case study, I intend to debunk the myth of news media as the Fourth Estate. Many scholars argue that the investigative report carried out by news media on Watergate was the epitome of free press and democracy, asserting that the US media is indeed a Fourth Estate that has successfully uncovered the “dirty tricks” of Nixon Administration. Admittedly, the press no doubt played a part in exposing misdeeds and exerting pressure on Nixon Administration, but it is an overstatement to say that the news media has lived up to its reputation as a functioning Fourth Estate. The media role is exaggerated and inflated mostly by the self-same media. There were other more important forces that were involved in the unraveling of the series of constitutional transgression by the Nixon Administration.
Watergate was a political scandal involving a web of bureaucratic intricacies to such a secretive and complicated level that even to this date, there is no one straightforward account of what actually happened between 1972 and 1974. It involved illegal break-ins and bugging at Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters stituated in Watergate complex between May and June 1972. It was believed that the break-in attempts were essentially a series of intelligence-gathering operations instigated by Nixon Administration to exploit possible scandals of the Democratic Party as part of the presidential re-election campaign. The US media began to take the center stage on August 1, 1972, when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters from The Washington Post published an article titled “Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds”, which established a direct link between Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP) and the break-in of headquarters of DNC. The subsequent reports revealed that Nixon’s close aides were the masterminds of the break-ins and that Nixon tried to cover up White House’s involvement through denials and deceits, abusing his power and obstructing justice by compelling the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to stop Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from furthering the investigation.
Many scholars credited Woodward and Bernstein, for the downfall of Richard Nixon. However, the scholars had taken for granted the political system of separation of powers among the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government. Even though Richard Nixon himself had attributed his downfall to media bias, I maintain that media had at most speed up the prosecution process. As a matter of fact, the judicial branch has already exercised its authority to limit the expansion of Nixon’s power in the incident of the leak of Pentagon Papers. When The New York Times published classified documents popularly known as the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, Nixon Administration sued the newspaper for publishing “top secret” documents. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the press had constitutional right to publish the documents.
Furthermore, there existed no real danger that power at the executive level could go unchecked. After Watergate break-ins, it was to the credit of Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) that enough evidence was collected that led to the indictments of Nixon’s close aides. Douglas Carter in his The Fourth Branch of Government claims that “[the press] operates as a de facto quasiofficial fourth branch of government, its institutions no less important because they have been developed informally and, indeed haphazardly,” in which the Washington Press Corps are “part of the privileged officialdom.” According to Carter, their source of power comes from their ability to “define what is news and what isn’t.” The power of the media thus derives from its ability to influence public opinion. However, it was the Senate’s decision to establish the Select Committee headed by Sam J. Ervin to investigate Watergate affair rather than media that began to seriously turn the public opinion against Nixon. Furthermore, the fact that Nixon was found guilty of several charges was a result of the order of Court of Appeals that forced Nixon to relinquish the tapes recording his conversations with his close aides. It was the House of Representatives that authorized Judiciary Committee impeachment inquiry. Finally, the main reason that compelled Nixon to resign was the Congress’s decision to impeach him, not pressure from media.
It is also important to note that media is an industry consists of different forms ranging from newspapers to televisions and controlled mostly by private corporations. Nixon had both “friends” and “enemies” in the press. Accordingly, eighty per cent newspapers supported him in his first campaign. His enemies, according to Tebbel and Watts, were The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In the Watergate report, it was mostly The New York Times and The Washington Post that gave an almost monthly coverage of the developments of Watergate affair from the start of Watergate break-in. other media started to bandwagon and placed Watergate reports at the front page only in the middle of 1973 after the resignation of key figures from Nixon Administration. The media’s frenzy in competing for exclusive headlines spawned untrue and exaggerated stories that added on to the confusion. For that reason, the motivation behind the persistent coverage was perhaps a combination of political opposition, profits and a simple desire to make news out of Watergate. To lump media as a collective entity, performing the task of Fourth Estate through coordinated goals and procedures, is to simplify the business orientations and inner workings of media industry. Some media, particularly The Washington Post did contributed to the exposure of Nixon’s abuse of power. However, without the persistent investigative reports of Woodward and Bernstein, The Washington Post would not have gotten out the story. It has also shown that reporters, rather than the whole media as a political institution, were the key individuals who had contributed to the uncovering of Watergate. Therefore, to understand media as a political institution, it has to be “grounded in specific, independent individual and organizational behaviors.” On the other hand, the high dependency on individuals exposed an inherent flaw of media as a Fourth Estate. In short, media is not a stable Fourth Estate, assuming that it is even qualified to be labeled as one.
In addition, there were many loose ends left tangling regarding the process of investigation and the personnel involved. In the whole Watergate episode, the media was more of an active participant rather than a neutral investigator and observer. When media itself was embroiled in the shady dealings of politics, its role as Fourth Estate was even more questionable. For instance, one question that remains unanswered even after all these years is who was the “Deep Throat”, the singularly important source that enabled two young and unknown reporters to shoot to fame and win the Pulitzer Prize? Far from spearheading the unfolding events, the media was caught up in the frenzy of the twists and turns of political activities at the very beginning. When examining the degree of media involvement in Watergate, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were critically important. In 1974, after the fall of Nixon, Woodward and Bernstein published a book titled “All the President’s Men”, revealing that the source was “in the Executive Branch” and “had access to information at CRP as well as at the White House.” To begin with, the identity of the key informant who fed Woodward and Bernstein with valuable information is still shrouded in mystery. The questions inevitably emerged as to why such a person within the Nixon close circle was willing to become the informant, risking his career and reputation in the process? How Woodward and Bernstein managed to establish contact with the Deep Throat? Why even to this day the identity of the source has to remain a secret? Although professional integrity is often cited as the reason for keeping the identity of Deep Throat secret, it is difficult not to speculate on the hidden reasons behind the silence. The two reporters and The Washington Post only reveal partial truth to the public in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, which only showed that the press was not immune to the political machinations and brought on another doubt as to whether or not media has became an unwitting tool by an insider of Nixon Administration who harboured a personal agenda. It boils down to the fact that the operation of media has not been transparent and therefore, free from accountability. Unlike the othyer three branches of government, media is not subjected to public scrutiny, which leave room for abuses of the type of power that media posses. This lead one to question who ultimately benefited from the Watergate episode.
Prior to Watergate, there existed in America a group of disaffected elites who was able to form a powerful opposition force against Nixon Administration, particularly on the issue of Vietnam War that divided the nation. Prominent newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times merely capitalized on this opposing force to report on Richard Nixon who happened to be the most newsworthy men in America. During the whole process of Watergate investigation, there was a significant number of public who believed that Nixon was victimized by “a hostile, Eastern Establishment press, full of liberals and quite possibly dictated by the Kremlin.” Regardless of the truth of the public sentiment, one thing is clear: it is impossible for a media company or a journalist to be non-partisan. The selective reports and the manner of the reporting indicate the political orientation of the media company. The exposure of the Watergate affair by the media did not help to mitigate the situation; it seemed to have increased public cynicism and distrust of the press.
The exaggeration of the role of media in Watergate was partly contributed by Nixon’s hatred of media that bordered on paranoia. His hostile attitude towards media was publicized after he was elected as the president for the first term. He had allegedlyl said that the relationship between “news media” and his administration was “adversary”, prophesying to his cabinet members that “[t]he time will come when [news media] will run lies about you, when the columnists and editorial writers will make you seem to be scoundrels or fools or both, and the cartoonists will depict you as ogres.” After Watergate, the media had reason to be smugh about their decision to stand on the right side of law. However, the Watergate affair demonstrates the rationale behind the separation of powers which enables the three government institutions to be in perennial conflict rather than cooperation. At best, the whole Watergate affair demonstrated the independence of judicial and legislative from the coercive power of the executive level. At worst, media had been used as a willing tool for bureaucratic infighting within as well as without Nixon Administration.
Another aspect of the Watergate episode that discredited the role of media as Fourth Estate was the excessive “Nixon-bashing”. Subsequent evidence shows that Nixon did not play a direct role in the Watergate break-ins. His main crime was the covering up of the criminal actions of his close aides and campaign team. But media, at that point in time, demonized Nixon, which further obscure the whole incident rather than clarify the tangled web. Media has to be held accountable for the fact that public understanding of Watergate remains at superficial level. Dramatizing Watergate episode and the wholesale blaming of Nixon and his aides did not help to disclose the deep-rooted problems within the structural deficiencies of the American political system. Even to this day, there are journalists who still clung to the image of Nixon as evil-doer who had committed crime no less than Hitler or Stalin. The tendency of media to mythicize or exaggerate Nixon role in the Watergate break-ins and the subsequent cover-ups influenced not only the American public but also the scholars. There are scholars like John Kincaid who painted Nixon an image of a megalomaniac by his exaggerated interpretations of the Nixon Administration’s charges against Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Pentagon officer who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press. Tebbel and Watts accused Nixon of being obsessed with “imperialistic eminence” and concentration of “power in the executive branch that would make Congress and even the courts subservient.” It is a prime example of sensationalized media reports setting the framework for scholarly works on Nixon and Watergate. In the end, the prejudice was entrenched and internalized, and Watergate was narrowed down to one person in which balanced and in-depth discussions from alternative angles were neglected, to the detriment of the American public.
One of the more important issues which the media failed to address was the existing legal framework that allowed Nixon to abuse his power through the intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA. The status of media as the Fourth Estate was particularly unsubstantiated when the media discussion of Watergate centered on the corruption of the Nixon Administration with little attempt to dig deeper into the abuse of power at different levels. There was reason to suspect that the so-called investigative report was not as thorough as some might have believed. For instance, there was strong evidence liking the CIA role in the break-in operations. When the Watergate was first covered by the media, it was already known that the leader of the break-in operation E. Howard Hunt was a “former” CIA agent. The whole pursuit ended with Nixon resignation and no visible attempt had been made by media to do a thorough investigative job. By concentrating most of the attention on one single man and a few men close to him for such an obviously elaborated intelligence operations prior to and after Watergate which involved a wide spectrum of personnel and government institutions, the media failed to highlight possible power abuses at various levels. According to a report by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it was found that “[d]uring the 1960’s alone, the FBI and CIA conducted hundreds of break-ins, many against American citizens and domestic organizations.” The Committee also discovered that it was a frequent occurrences for FBI and CIA to “bug” and wiretap Americans without a warrant. In short, the media had unwittingly helped to exonerate the role played by intelligence agencies and the personnel involved by putting all the blames on Nixon Administration, leaving room for future abuses.
It might seem unfair to blame media for political ills, but the media did contributed in creating an atmosphere ripe for political espionage because any negative information dug out by one part could be used to blacken and discredit the other party in the eyes of the voters through media repots. Put simply, media thrived on scandals. Uncovering scandal was the quickest and cheapest way to discredit opposition candidates. Nixon was acutely aware of the power of media in which he put to good use in his 1968 presidential campaign. On hindsight, it could be said that Watergate began with media-driven campaigns that ended up with media unanimous condemnation of a single man who had, ironically, went to such extent to manipulate the media to portray him in a more favourable light.
In sum, media coverage of Watergate can hardly be used, as some scholars have done, to support the argument that Carlyle’s Fourth Estate does exist. Rather, it may be appropriate to argue that the media tend to exploit sensational issues, and in the process contributed in checking power abuses. The fact that if the five men were not arrested in the headquarters of Democratic National Committee, but in a house of ordinary American citizens, the whole process would probably ended up to be a simple case of failed burglary. To describe media as the Fourth Estate tend to heighten the expectation that media should have a permanent, unequivocal role in checking government abuse of power. Unfortunately, the nature of US media is such that it can only offer occasional check on power abuses and thus not qualified as a faithful watchdog serving the interest of the American public. Worse, in the case of Watergate, there exists a distinct possibility that media might have been sued as a tool to serve political ends of an influential group of individuals who wanted to undermine Nixon Administration. Watergate, in essence, was a clash of political will and power between branches of government. The outcome of Watergate demonstrates the judicial and legislative checks and balances against the expansion of the executive power. In other words, the status of news media as Fourth Estate is more of a self-congratulatory gesture than a genuine reflection of the role played by media in Watergate.
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