The Seventies: Watergate, Nixon and What the Hell Happened to the Fourth Estate?

CNN The Seventies, Watergate, Richard Nixon, politics

Quiz of the day: Why should you brush up on what Watergate meant then, as well as now?

It’s sad for me to realize that I am probably one of the youngest people around who has a real memory of the Watergate break-in, Senator Sam Ervin’s Congressional hearings, “Woodstein” and President Richard Nixon’s fall from grace. I was a political news geek in my high school days and it’s probably a safe bet that I was one of only a few teenage girls in the rural Pennsylvania county where I grew up who paid any attention to the unfolding Constitutional drama. I vividly remember warm summer afternoons when my mother begged me to get some sun and fresh air; instead, I was glued to the televised Watergate hearings that preempted the daytime soap operas in the summer of 1973.

But it’s been over four decades since Nixon resigned. And just as time has surely dulled our collective memory about what Nixon knew and when he knew it (including the attempts by those most senior in the Nixon White House to cover-up their own criminal acts), I fear we have also forgotten the lesson of what can happen when fealty to one takes precedence over duty to all and why the Fourth Estate is an important element in having a transparent government.

Generations X and Y who did not live through those events, know so little about the whole Watergate story, including the role that real journalism — the kind that is so rarely on display in our 21st century era of “listicles,” aggregated sites and link bait —  played in exposing the criminal acts of a president and his administration, and why that responsibility is a crucial one in our society.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were a new breed of reporter in the 1970s. Journalists had become suspicious about the information they were fed by government officials, particularly in light of unfolding events in Vietnam. For many years after the Watergate stories were written by Woodward and Bernstein — who came to be collectively referred to as “Woodstein” — investigative journalism flourished and it was the norm rather than the exception for reporters to approach stories with an honest amount of skepticism. I think it’s not a stretch to believe that few reporters now would clandestinely meet a source in a parking garage at 2 a.m. to further a story. Today, it is much more likely that members of the media will take on faith the honesty of information given to them by elected officials, forgetting that politicians and policy makers have agendas they are trying to promote, and that they carefully protect information they don’t want to see on the newsstands or the airwaves.

Question a media “get” too vigorously, and they won’t agree to appear on your morning news shows anymore. And then what do you have to promote for ratings?

But it’s a dangerous slope to be on — not just for journalism but for all of us — if reporters merely parrot back administration soundbites to Americans without approaching them with some measure of doubt, or at the least the cojones to ask the pertinent, tough questions every now and then. We need to remember that Nixon’s closest circle lied to protect him and on some level expected the press to take that bait. Do we really believe that Richard Nixon was the only politician capable of generating that kind of allegiance?

The public needs to know that in the event of another scandal, even if it is not of the magnitude of Watergate (can you say “weapons of mass destruction”?), that systems are in place for an investigation and full disclosure to voters. One of those systems is our free press. For those covering our lawmakers, it is crucial that they have the curiosity and the backbone to pursue stories, even when they reveal the dark side of government.

It’s been 42 years since the day deeply shamed Nixon gave the two-armed victory salute at his helicopter door as he left the White House for the last time. How can we make sure that today’s crop of reporters, pundits and media outlets don’t forget the events that led up to the moment? I’m guessing we have to convince them that the duties they have under the First amendment are more important than clicks and page views.

Joanne Bamberger is an independent journalist, journalism entrepreneur and founder of The Broad Side. She is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox (SheWrites Press, November 2015), already an Amazon #1 Hot New Release! You can find Joanne on Twitter at @jlcbamberger and on Facebook.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/ Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library/in the public domain

  • Amy Abbott

    I was right there with you in spirit during the Watergate Era Great article Joanne we could sure use a little Woodstein today I kept a number of Watergate Era front pages paricularly 8 8 and 8 9 74

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