Monday, June 06, 2005

The News Media Is Still Recovering From Watergate

The New York Times
The News Media Is Still Recovering From Watergate

WASHINGTON — Last week, the country was transported back to another time: the Pentagon Papers had been published, a president had just resigned in disgrace, and journalism was a respectable profession.

Journalism, of course, has lost much of the luster it enjoyed during that golden era. The question for many in the profession last week was not whether Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had been right to use Deep Throat as a secret source, but rather: How did the news media's image slip so badly?

The reasons are many, of course. Public respect for the press has risen and dipped over the years, falling even at times when public wariness was not stoked by partisans.

But in retrospect, some disenchantment may have been planted during the Watergate investigation itself. Indeed, Watergate and the Vietnam War, especially with the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, set the stage for a particularly hostile relationship between journalists in the mainstream media - "the elites," as Nixon liked to call them - and the political establishment.

The tension between the press and the government was already high in the Johnson administration. But Nixon's antagonistic relationship with the press was unrivaled, dating to 1962, when after losing his bid for governor of California, he stormed away with the declaration, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

As president, Nixon regularly put down journalists. "Nixon relentlessly and explicitly attacked the media, calling it biased, saying it didn't represent the views of the silent majority," said Bruce J. Schulman, a history professor at Boston University, who wrote a book about the 1970's. "Nixon kind of cut almost a two-edged swath in the relationship between politics and journalism."

In his 1995 memoirs, Benjamin Bradlee, the editor The Washington Post during Watergate, wryly thanked Nixon for giving a boost to journalism.

"It is wonderfully ironical that a man who so disliked - and never understood - the press did so much to further the reputation of the press, and particularly The Washington Post," he wrote. "In his darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour."

But in the end, Watergate gave an important boost to conservatives who were critical of news organizations as far back as the late 1960's, because of their coverage of Vietnam, according to Adrian Wooldridge, the co-author of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America."

Watergate fueled suspicions already mounting among politicians - especially conservatives - that journalists approached their work with partisan bias.

"The conservative movement, the conservative establishment, was very much spawned by the reaction to what happened to Nixon," Mr. Wooldridge said.

For many politicians today, like Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "a lot of their perceptions of how politics works, and to some sense, Bush, was formed in this era as well," he said. "They came to maturity on the political scene at a time when you had a very weak executive and a very powerful media, and I think they set themselves to reverse that."

Indeed, conservatives were still visibly angry last week when the identity of Deep Throat was revealed to be W. Mark Felt, a former F.B.I. official. Among the most vocal critics was Patrick J. Buchanan, a White House speechwriter and author of a famous 1969 speech by Spiro Agnew attacking the media as a "small and unelected elite."

"We've always conceded that the 'old man' handled it badly," Mr. Buchanan was quoted last week as saying of Nixon's handling of Watergate. "But he was not brought down by a band of angels. He was brought down by a band of Nixon-haters."

Reporters have a different view, contending that their motive, if they have one, is to expose wrongdoing or depict conflict. Reporters can point to scandals uncovered like Abu Ghraib that follow in the tradition of Watergate.

The public can see this impulse differently. That became clear during the Clinton impeachment, and the race to find every detail of Mr. Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In January 1998, when the scandal first broke, only 52 percent of people surveyed said they approved of Mr. Clinton. But once the media jumped fully into the story, his approval numbers rose to 62 percent, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.

When the respondents were asked what had changed their minds about Mr. Clinton, they offered up, unsolicited, the view that the media and other politicians "were being unfair to him," Mr. Kohut said.

"The public values the watchdog role of the press, but not as much as it once did," he said. Over time, the public "came to see the press as a watchdog that barked too much, and sometimes was out of control."

Watergate, according to Mr. Kohut and others, led some journalists to overreach. "It created a model of journalism that is easily abused and debased," said Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University. "It created generations of people trying to replicate that role by digging in more and more unsavory ways. As much as Watergate is a model of the journalism that we admire, you can also see in it the origins of the distrust we have today."

Robert Dallek, a biographer of Lyndon Johnson, said the news media may have suffered over the years by its own rise in prominence and by the public's general disillusionment in institutions generally.

But, he said, "as a presidential historian who gets into the records 30, 35 years after the fact, I know how much manipulation there is, how much spin doctoring there is." Mr. Dallek, who is writing a book about the relationship between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, said that on Friday he taped a television interview with among others, Mr. Buchanan, who repeated his theory that there was a "political coup" against Nixon by the press.

"There are probably a number of people in this country who believe that," Mr. Dallek said he responded. "But there are a number of people, like myself, who feel praise be for the press when you have an administration like that."