THREE DECADES LATER, WATERGATE IS A CAUTIONARY TALE

By Norman Solomon

"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."

"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."

"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."

 

 

          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.

 

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

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