Thirty years have passed since Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began to cover the Watergate story. The investigative journalism that they did back then still stands out as exceptional. Unfortunately.
For a long time after the arrests of five burglars at the Democratic National Committee’s executive offices in the early morning of June 17, 1972, the conventional media wisdom was to accept the White House depiction of a minor crime without any political significance. During that summer and fall, few journalists devoted much time to probing the Watergate incident as President Nixon cruised to a landslide re-election victory in November.
“At the time of Watergate, there were some 2,000 full-time reporters in Washington, working for major news organizations,” Bernstein later pointed out. “In the first six months after the break-in … 14 of those reporters were assigned by their news organizations to cover the Watergate story on a full-time basis, and of these 14, half-a-dozen on what you might call an investigative basis.”
Speaking at Harvard’s Institute of Politics in 1989, Bernstein added: “The press has been engaged in a kind of orgy of self-congratulations about our performance in Watergate and about our performance in covering the news since. And it seems to me no attitude could be more unjustified.” He was right on target.
Helen Thomas is one of the most seasoned and candid members of the White House press corps. “We realize that we did a lousy job on Watergate,” she has recalled. “We just sat there and took what they said at face value.”
That’s been pretty standard media practice. Presidential assertions get the benefit of many doubts. And before the press declares a major national scandal, some movers and shakers need to be riled up.
A central factor in the Watergate story was that it involved foul play by one elite faction against another. The bungled burglary at the Watergate complex 30 years ago was part of a furtive illicit operation by a Republican organization, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (with the apt acronym CREEP), to filch documents from the headquarters of the other corporate party.
But what if — instead of being implicated in a burglary at a Democratic Party office — the White House had been implicated in a break-in aimed at a political party without power? We don’t have to speculate. Throughout the Watergate era, the U.S. government was committing far worse political crimes against the Socialist Workers Party. Meanwhile, no journalists with mainstream clout ever seemed to care.
A retrospective Los Angeles Times article, published in 1995, summarized the historical record: “For 38 years, the FBI waged a campaign of infiltration and harassment against a small Trotskyite organization called the Socialist Workers Party. The bureau staged burglaries, planted fake news stories and otherwise sought to discredit the party and its members, who, though pushing a radical political agenda, were engaging in peaceful and lawful political behavior. The 38 years, which ended in 1976, produced not a single arrest.”
Instead of viewing the best Watergate reporting as a model to build on, for the most part the biggest media outlets soon regarded it as a laurel to rest on. Before his retirement, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee acknowledged as much in an interview with author Mark Hertsgaard about a dozen years after President Nixon’s forced resignation. “The criticism was that we were going on too much, and trying to make a Watergate out of everything,” Bradlee said. “And I think we were sensitive to that criticism much more than we should have been, and that we did ease off.”
While fond of posturing as intrepid watchdogs, the major news media are still inclined to ease off. The overall dynamic could be described as “aggressive-passive.” The watchdogs growl sometimes, while routinely wagging their tails.
And so, White House media strategists must have been quite pleased after Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of a man for allegedly planning to explode a radiological bomb inside the United States.
In typical fashion, the June 11 front page of The New York Times showcased a well-spun headline — “Neutralizing Bush Critics: Arrest Seems to Show Threat, and Response” — over a story with an implicitly prescriptive description of the latest news. Before the article jumped to a back page, it reported in authoritative tones: “Today’s disclosure may well galvanize Americans once again behind the president and the notion that the country remains at war.” It was the kind of story that another wartime president, Richard Nixon, would have also appreciated.