This week marks 50 years since the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, touching off what is still probably the most famous political scandal in American history, notwithstanding the attempted coup of 2021, a story not fully written.
The break-in also triggered one of the shining moments in the history of journalism, as the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein doggedly followed the story to its source, which of course was President Richard Nixon directly.
In the end, a president was toppled, the rule of law upheld, and a thousand journalism careers were launched as idealistic graduates sought to similarly make their mark.
I got to thinking about the moment while seeing both Woodward and Bernstein on CNN over the weekend, and reading about that appearance and the anniversary in a whole host of media outlets.
Nowadays, the sheen is off the profession. Many Americans view journalists with suspicion, and refer to the great brands as “mainstream media,” a label meant as a derisive insult. The media ecosystem has evolved dramatically, and the legitimate mainstream press is caught in a vise between the left and the right in a polarized society. But the two sides are not equivalent.
On the left, critics mostly complain about factual mistakes or how mainstream media engages in chronic both sides-ism. Which it does. On the right, a whole alternative media ecosystem has developed. It’s insular, self-sustaining and focused overwhelmingly on grievance and conspiracy theories. The point isn’t truth. It isn’t credibility—many of the websites out there are glorified blogs with few real standards.
But that’s not the point. The aim is to gain traction and amplify some insane idea until it gradually becomes accepted as fact.
The 1987 rescinding of the Fairness Doctrine was part of a gradual degrading of media. The decline was turbocharged by the rise of social media, where lack of laws and regulations leaves the platforms immune from sanction when users publish false and incendiary posts.
Woodward and Bernstein are still around and still very influential. In a forward to the 50th anniversary edition of the landmark book “All the President’s Men,” they do an extensive comparison of Nixon and former President Donald Trump. Trump, they write, is the first seditious president in American history and engaged in “deception that exceeded even Nixon’s imagination.”
They add, "Donald Trump not only sought to destroy the electoral system through false claims of voter fraud and unprecedented public intimidation of state election officials, but he also then attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to his duly elected successor, for the first time in American history.”
The third president, Thomas Jefferson, is often quoted: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter.”
Woodward and Bernstein, and the anniversary of Watergate, remind us of the power of those words.