The Washington Post

What the me­dia has lost since Water­gate

- mar­garet.sul­li­van@wash­post.com U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · White House · Richard Nixon · Susan Zirinsky · Austria · Washington · Saturday Night Live · Iceland · Donald Trump · Belgium · New York City · York City F.C. · New York County, NY · Belarus · Bob Woodward · Carl Bernstein · Twentieth Century Fox Film Company Ltd. · Facebook · Columbia University · Colombia · Congress of the United States · James W. McCord, Jr. · U.S. Supreme Court · United States of America · United States Senate · Howard Baker · Republican Party (United States) · The Today Show · David Fahrenthold · Lester Holt · FBI · NBC · Elizabeth Warren · Warren · Sean Hannity · James B. Comey · Brett Kavanaugh

The ques­tion from an au­di­ence mem­ber made the three net­work chiefs bris­tle:

Why aren’t the news me­dia hold­ing the White House ac­count­able like they did dur­ing the Nixon/Water­gate era?

One of the TV hon­chos, Su­san Zirin­sky, had the per­fect back­ground to an­swer.

Just min­utes be­fore, she had de­scribed how — as a col­lege stu­dent work­ing part time at CBS — she was briefly in charge of the empty Wash­ing­ton bureau on Oct. 20, 1973, when news of the “Satur­day Night Mas­sacre” be­gan to break: Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon had fired the spe­cial prose­cu­tor. Forty-six years later, Zirin­sky re­ally is in charge at CBS; she was named pres­i­dent of the net­work early this year.

“We are hold­ing this White House ac­count­able — this is our job ev­ery day,” she said, with con­vic­tion ring­ing in her voice.

But it may not seem that way to those mem­bers of the pub­lic who’d like Pres­i­dent Trump’s lies and mis­deeds to catch up with him the way Nixon’s even­tu­ally did, but fore­see lit­tle hope of that.

“You can’t com­pare the eras,” Zirin­sky said.

As the an­niver­sary of the Water­gate scan­dal’s be­gin­ning comes around again — the breakin at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters was on June 17, 1972 — in­ves­tiga­tive

jour­nal­ism’s ef­fec­tive­ness is weak­ened. The re­port­ing may be ev­ery bit as skilled, but the re­sults are greatly di­luted be­cause so much has changed in the na­tion, in­clud­ing its me­dia.

Dur­ing the Water­gate era, as Zirin­sky noted, there were three net­works. Now, ca­ble news, talk ra­dio, thou­sands of web­sites and so­cial me­dia cre­ate a pol­luted fire­hose-blast of in­for­ma­tion mixed with dis­in­for­ma­tion.

“The ca­coph­ony,” Zirin­sky said, “is very hard to break through.” (Her re­marks came dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion at last week’s “Fu­ture of News” con­fer­ence in New York City.)

Back then, what was said on those three net­works — of­ten fed by rev­e­la­tions from The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein — was largely be­lieved.

Much more than now, there was a shared set of facts.

That doesn’t mean there was agree­ment about what to do about those facts, or that there wasn’t plenty of po­lit­i­cal spin and de­nial. (“I am not a crook,” Nixon fa­mously said, though he was.)

But in gen­eral, straight news was not re­lent­lessly coun­tered by bad-faith pro­pa­ganda in the style of Fox News’s Sean Han­nity. (Re­call that Fox News, with all of its in­tended-from-the-start evils, was founded in 1996.)

News came to ci­ti­zens from sources they trusted — in­clud­ing their lo­cal news­pa­pers. While many ed­i­to­rial pages sup­ported Nixon al­most to the end, front pages all around the coun­try were telling peo­ple what was hap­pen­ing, blow by blow. Those pa­pers are no longer a ma­jor news source in many places. Face­book, though, is.

What’s more, as Columbia Univer­sity Jour­nal­ism School pro­fes­sor Wil­liam Grue­skin pointed out to me re­cently, to­day’s si­t­u­a­tion is not only about how the me­dia has changed.

“The press can do only so much,” he said.

“With­out an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary, plus a Congress that’s in­vested in a gen­uine search for truth, rather than cover­ing for the pres­i­dent, even the most in­trepid jour­nal­ism can slip into the void.”

Grue­skin men­tions, in par­tic­u­lar, the Water­gate-era ju­di­ciary, par­tic­u­larly John Sir­ica, the district court judge who got de­fen­dant James McCord to fess up about the Water­gate bur­glary and who helped com­pel Nixon to turn over the dam­ag­ing White House tapes. (The first line of Sir­ica’s Wash­ing­ton Post obit­u­ary de­scribed him as the judge “whose per­sis­tence in search­ing for the facts while pre­sid­ing over the Water­gate cases led to Pres­i­dent Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion.”)

And this: On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court unan­i­mously up­held Sir­ica’s or­der that the pres­i­dent must cough up the Water­gate tapes. Two weeks later, Nixon an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion.

Grue­skin added that there also was a more up­stand­ing U.S. Se­nate, as per­son­i­fied by Howard Baker, the rank­ing Repub­li­can on the Water­gate com­mit­tee, who de­spite ini­tial in­cli­na­tions be­came gen­uinely in­ter­ested in get­ting to the bot­tom of the scan­dal, ex­em­pli­fied by his fa­mous query: “What did the pres­i­dent know, and when did he know it?”

To­day’s jour­nal­is­tic work — David Fahren­thold’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Trump fi­nances in The Post, Lester Holt’s in­ter­view with Trump about why he fired FBI di­rec­tor James B. Comey on NBC, the many in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­tacts with Rus­sian of­fi­cials dur­ing the cam­paign — should have made far more dif­fer­ence than it has.

In an ear­lier era, too, the Mueller re­port very prob­a­bly would have blown a pres­i­dency out of the wa­ter.

As pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Eliz­a­beth Warren put it with ad­mirable di­rect­ness in a re­cent MSNBC town hall, she was left with three un­de­ni­able take­aways af­ter an in­tense ses­sion of read­ing it into the night:

“Part one, a hos­tile for­eign gov­ern­ment at­tacked our 2016 elec­tions for the pur­pose of get­ting Don­ald Trump elected. Part two, then-can­di­date Don­ald Trump wel­comed that help. And part three, when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment tried to in­ves­ti­gate part one and part two, Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent de­layed, de­flected, moved, fired, and did ev­ery­thing he could to ob­struct jus­tice.”

Warren added: “If he were any other per­son in the United States, based on what’s doc­u­mented in that re­port, he would be car­ried out in hand­cuffs.”

Much of what was in the re­port had al­ready been re­ported in the press — in The Post, the New York Times, on the net­work news, and by re­porters for ProPublica, BuzzFeed News, Mother Jones and the Wall Street Jour­nal.

But, as Su­san Zirin­sky put it, it’s lost in the ca­coph­ony. (Tele­vised im­peach­ment hear­ings, of course, might change that to some de­gree.)

What does get through the noise to sway the pub­lic may then be lost in an in­creas­ingly politi­cized ju­di­ciary — Brett M. Ka­vanaugh, any­one? — and the re­ac­tions of a ve­nal Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader and his min­ions.

By it­self, jour­nal­ism — no mat­ter how pro­fi­cient or how brave — can’t save us from po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion at the high­est level. It never could.

Just as in the 1970s, the Fourth Es­tate needs the of­fi­cial branches of gov­ern­ment to do their jobs, too.

Sadly, there’s less rea­son now to be­lieve they will. For more by Mar­garet Sul­li­van visit wapo.st/sul­li­van.

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 ?? CHARLES TASNADI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? Pres­i­dent Nixon at a news con­fer­ence in March 1973, in the mid­dle of the Water­gate era. Much more than now, there was a shared set of facts and politi­cians who sup­ported un­cov­er­ing the truth.
CHARLES TASNADI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Pres­i­dent Nixon at a news con­fer­ence in March 1973, in the mid­dle of the Water­gate era. Much more than now, there was a shared set of facts and politi­cians who sup­ported un­cov­er­ing the truth.

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