May 19, 2013
The mother of all gates
Don’t think for a minute the high-voltage confrontation between the Argentine government and the media establishment is a nuisance exclusive of the Southern pampas or even anything new. The recorded tape of a US President 40 years ago, for instance, included a line like this: “No reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again.”
Forty years ago tomorrow started a saga that changed the reputation of Western journalism and citizen’s relationship with democracy for decades to come. Watergate did not just cost Richard Nixon the job, but also raised independent journalism to a pedestal of truth and righteousness, while turning citizens into chronic cynical critics of their elected leaders.
The tides are turning, somehow, and the press establishment is here and everywhere shedding the catchall clout. But it is not clear the lost credibility is shifting back to politicos.
If anything more than a scandal escalating to unpredictable proportions, Watergate played the historic role of crafting a myth surrounding the relationship between politics and press. Journalists — non-elected representatives of the public — are there to hold elected public servants accountable, point a limelight to wrongdoings the establishment would obviously want to keep in the dark. The storyline, no doubt, captured the public’s imagination. Superman was after all a journalist — if only mediocre — on his free time. Flying and having all sorts of superpowers and reporting the news were ultimately two sides of the same we-save-the-world coin.
Watergate anniversary stories abounded this week. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post journalists who unearthed the mother of all gates starting with a hotel burglary and leading to cash connections with Nixon’s campaign team and cover-up operations orchestrated from the President’s Office, produced their first joint byline in 36 years to mark the occasion (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/woodward-and-bernstein-40-years-after-watergate-nixon-was-far-worse-than-we-thought/2012/06/08/gJQAlsi0NV_story.html). As they discussed the long-term meaning of Watergate, the pair recalled the Nixon office war on the press, which in the President’s viewpoint was playing hardball against the war in Vietnam and fuelling the anti-war movement. Bernstein and Woodward cite a Nixon tape from the Oval office about a year before the Watergate scandal in which Nixon produces a line that could go down in history as classic anti-press: “In the short run, it would be so much easier, wouldn’t it, to run this war in a dictatorial way, kill all the reporters and carry on with war.”
Studies on the media coined the word “gatekeeper” to describe one key role of journalists: filtering what is important from what it is not among the cornucopia of facts that constitute everyday reality. Scooping, à la Bernstein and Woodward, would be another of the jobs. Investigative reporting, no question, is regrettably waning. Investigation, however, should not necessarily limit to exposing politicians’ wrongdoings. Investigation can also lead to explanation and citizen enlightenment on complex issues.
Journalism may have lost part, if not most, of its yesteryear prestige, as the gates that kept information and opinion in a closet of exclusivity have been broken open. And still, a certain relationship that ties reporters with sources continues to be at the core of most of the politically-sensitive information the public gets and uses as first input to opine. When the name of the source who guided the Washington Post duo through the maze of Watergate — known for years as Deep Throat — was revealed (Mark Felt, associate director at the FBI), it became clear that the romantic tale of cub reporters turning the White House upside-down did not contain the entire truth and that there had also been, as it usually happens with big political stories, some sort of an inside job.
The Watergate anniversary this week coincided with fresh public debate on leaks in Washington. Over the last few weeks, a series of stories seemingly based on US government sources presented scoops on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy calls and counterterrorism actions. The Republican opposition has complained that the leaks are a breach in national security designed to boost Obama’s commander-in-chief stature on the eve of his re-election race. The leaks have placed Attorney-General Eric Holder in hot water for declining to appoint special attorneys to investigate the leaks and eventually target the White House. A columnist with the British newspaper The Guardian said that these stories had showed that Obama administration was making the media its “mouthpiece.” The Judith Miller weapons-of-mass-destruction stories in the run up to the Iraq war are still in the air.
Romanticism aside, it is not coincidental that there have not been many Watergate gates in the last 40 years of history, not only in the US but elsewhere. Secret information tends to be more often than not thrown out from inside the political system to settle its own miseries in the public light via the press, which also has its own explicit or implicit agenda. Journalists and news organizations, meanwhile, will have to get used to the idea of hanging their Supermen suits away and instead agree to more shoe-leather reporting if they are to find anything worth telling their audiences.