When President Trump called the mainstream media “the enemy of the people,” he called into question the very underpinnings of a free and vibrant democracy. The function of a free and undeterred press is so important that our founders made its protection part of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Similarly, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, unlike President Trump, had this to say about the Fourth Estate: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
In his recent book, “Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism,” author James T. Hamilton suggests that as print journalism’s profitability declines, it becomes more and more problematic for the investigative journalists who remain to perform their most essential functions: uncovering corruption, waste, and criminality by those who are sworn to serve.
Over the years, journalists have performed their craft admirably and can be credited with unearthing scandals and crimes that would have surely gone undetected without their diligence and dedication.
I, like so many of you, was glued to the television set in the early 1970s as the Watergate scandal unfolded. The exposure of a corrupt and ruthless President Nixon was not an easy undertaking. Reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post were credited with breaking the story that would eventually lead to the president’s resignation.
The Congressional hearings looking into the Watergate mess were fascinating to watch and I can remember being glued to my television set as the story of presidential abuse of power unfolded. As I think back to those days, I am struck by a question raised recently by a New York Times reporter: If Watergate happened today, would it result in the same outcome? To answer that question, we need to compare the state of our culture, then and now.
In the 1970s, we received our information from newspapers, radio and a handful of television stations. The internet, Facebook, social media and cable television did not yet exist. Unlike today, our leaders in Washington respected one another and would entertain principled arguments irrespective of partisan interest, even if they did not ultimately agree with them.
According to books and articles written about that era, Nixon met with his defenders as he prepared to do whatever he could to stay in power and fend off the investigation. After he fired the special prosecutor (Archibald Cox), he realized that all he had accomplished was to create a new, more pronounced uproar. He then called a meeting of his “team.” As the president complained that he had no defenders, his supporters argued that what they truly needed was a network that ignored the facts that were coming out and instead “told our story.” At that point, advisor Roger E. Ailes volunteered to create a pro-administration news service. But before he could, the president resigned. Mr. Ailes did go on to create Fox News, fulfilling the vision of creating a mouthpiece that would see “facts” through a lens that promoted predetermined objectives.
If Watergate happened today, it is quite likely that the true story of the burglary and the later obstruction of justice would be drowned out by other voices. Unlike 1974, mainstream journalism today is in a tattered state. Over the past decades, papers have lost their economic strength while partisans like President Trump and the extreme-right have had a field day sewing doubt in the public’s mind about their objectivity. In 2017, the airwaves are awash with right-wing talk radio and social media, Fox News, and mainstream conspiracy sites like InfoWars, which allow partisans to live in their own comfortable information (or misinformation) bubble. All these sources would have been ready, willing and able to attack Nixon’s detractors and to trumpet a counter narrative with a counterfactual version of events.
I can see in my mind’s eye television commentator Tucker Carlson, as he is doing with President Trump, assuring his audience “this whole story is a hoax!” President Nixon would be painted as a hero, a victim of a slanted and liberal press. The Democratic Party, the narrative would claim, was guilty of inventing a crime that never happened as they conspired to thwart a popular Republican president. Nixon (“I am not a crook”) would be vindicated as scores of Republican congressman would rise to defend him and denounce the press and the Democrats with whom they were obviously colluding.
Am I being too pessimistic? That original Watergate reporter Bob Woodward thinks so: “The strength of the evidence, including the Oval Office tapes of Nixon engaged in the plotting, was too overwhelming to be denied in any environment.” His former colleague Carl Bernstein is more receptive to my sentiment: “The big difference between then and now is that there was an open-mindedness among the citizens in the country to the best obtainable version of the truth.” What about today? “Now more and more people are looking for information in the media and elsewhere that will reinforce what they already believe.”
While Watergate may be ancient history, today we have our own budding presidential scandal. More than ever, we are in need of a free and vigilant press. Far from being our enemy, a free press is our best safeguard against a tyrannical presidency. As for President Trump: let’s hope that today’s White House really has tapes!