You’ll be hearing a lot about Watergate in the next several weeks, as the 50th anniversary of the infamous June 17, 1972, burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters approaches. There will be documentaries, cable-news debates, the finale of that Julia Roberts miniseries (“Gaslit”) based on the popular Watergate podcast (“Slow Burn”). I’ll be moderating a panel discussion at the Library of Congress on the anniversary itself - and you can certainly count on a few retrospectives in this very newspaper.
The scandal has great resonance at The Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973 for its intrepid reporting and the courage it took to publish it. And it has particular meaning for me because, like many others of my generation, I was first drawn into journalism by the televised Senate hearings in 1973, and was enthralled by the 1976 movie “All the President’s Men,” based on the book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Yet thinking about Watergate saddens me these days. The nation that came together to force a corrupt president from office and send many of his co-conspirator aides to prison is a nation that no longer exists.
It’s not just our politics that have changed. It’s also our radically transformed media environment.
“The national newspapers mattered in a way that is unimaginable to us today, and even the regional newspapers were incredibly strong,” Garrett Graff, author of “Watergate: A New History,” told me last week. I have been immersed in his nearly 800-page history - a “remarkably rich narrative,” former Post executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. called it in a review - that sets out to retell the entire story.
Graff depicts Watergate not as a singular event but as the entire mind-set of the Nixon presidency - “a shaggy umbrella of a dozen distinct scandals,” as he told me. By the time the break-in captured the attention of the most Americans, they were essentially “walking into the second or third act of a play.”
Woodward and Bernstein were almost alone on the story for months. But eventually the leading newspapers of the nation started to cover the hell out of the burgeoning scandal and the percolating questions of what - and when - the president knew about the burglary plot.
Americans read this coverage in their local papers; many cities still had two or more dailies at that point. Later, they were riveted by the proceedings of the Senate Watergate Committee, whose hearings were aired live on the three big television networks during the summer of 1973. Graff reports that the average American household watched 30 hours of the hearings, which were also rebroadcast at night by PBS. (“The best thing that has happened to public television since ‘Sesame Street,’” one Los Angeles Times TV critic noted.)
Still, “we forget how close Nixon came to surviving Watergate,” Graff told me. “Even at the end of the hearings, there was no guarantee that Nixon was out of office.”
What changed that? The increasing public awareness of the president’s wrongdoing and the coverup. “The sheer accumulation of the lies,” he said, “at a time when the idea that a president could lie to America was unthinkable.”
Flash-forward to today. The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection will hold hearings beginning early next month, some of which will be televised during prime-time hours. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who is a prominent member, predicts the revelations will “blow the roof off the House” - offering evidence, he promises, of an organized coup attempt involving Trump, his closest allies and the supporters who attacked the Capitol as they tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
I’m willing to believe that the hearings will be dramatic. They might even change some people’s minds. But the amount of public attention they get will be minuscule compared with what happened when the folksy Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina presided over the Senate Watergate Committee.
Our media environment is far more fractured, and news organizations are far less trusted.
And in part, we can blame the rise of a right-wing media system. At its heart is Fox News, which was founded in 1996, nearly a quarter century after the break-in, with a purported mission to provide a “fair and balanced” counterpoint to the mainstream media. That message often manifested in relentless and damaging criticism of its news rivals. Meanwhile, Fox and company have served as a highly effective laundry service for Trump’s lies. With that network’s help, his tens of thousands of false or misleading claims have found fertile ground among his fervent supporters - oblivious to the skillful reporting elsewhere that has called out and debunked those lies.
As Graff sees it, the growth of right-wing media has enabled many Republican members of Congress to turn a blind eye to the malfeasance of Team Trump. Not so during the Watergate investigation; after all, it was Sen. Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican, who posed the immortal question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Even the stalwart conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona was among those who, at the end, managed to convince Nixon that he must resign.
“Republican members of Congress understood that they had a unique and important role as the legislative branch to hold the abuses of the executive branch in check,” Graff said. “That freedom of action was made possible because there was no right-wing media ecosystem.”
Not everything was good about the media world of the 1970s. It was almost entirely white and male, barely open to other views or voices. This was long before the democratizing effect of the internet, which has elevated the ideas of people of color, women and other marginalized groups.
But it was a time when we had a news media that commanded the trust of the general public, a necessity in helping bring Nixon to justice. That, at least during his presidency, was never possible with Donald Trump.
As we remember Watergate, we ought to remember how very unlikely its righteous conclusion would be today.
Richard Nixon’s presidency would have survived.
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