June 17 marks the 35th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. And America isn’t planning anything to mark the occasion. This may be because Americans do not know much about Watergate. A survey by a US TV channel some years back reported that a third of the respondents said they were not familiar with the scandal that drove President Nixon out of office.
Watergate brings to mind in most of us in the media the names of Woodward and Bernstein. It was the story that turned the two Washington Post reporters into media celebrities, though scores of other Washington-based journalists from several other publications contributed to the uncovering of the Watergate scandal. Lesley Stahl of CBS, in her memoirs – Reporting Live, writes that Watergate had glamorized journalism as a profession.
Hollywood immortalized the Woodward-Bernstein story in All the President’s Men, featuring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the lead. Lost in all the myth-making was the fact that it was the US courts and the Congress that had played the crucial role, not the press. Yet an impression was left that the press had single-handedly driven President Nixon from office, giving media an aura of invincible power, writes Lesley Stahl, who was in on the Watergate story right from the start. Those in the media know enough to realize the limitation of its power. Newspaper and TV coverage do not alter the course of history. Reporters and columnists can nudge the pace of pendulum in its swing, but cannot reverse the swing of the pendulum.
Watergate, however, changed the way the media reported people in power. According to the CBS reporter, it ushered in a swarm-around-'em mentality where reporters and cameramen hounded people related to a developing story. Considerations of public dignity and decorum are thrown to the wind in the pursuit of a story.As Lesley put it, Franklin D Roosevelt’s wheelchair and John Kennedy’s women had gone unreported because newsmen in their times respected and protected the President’s privacy. Watergate brought an end to the protections.
Writing of her experiences Lesley Stahl noted that she got assigned to Watergate because there was no one else her junior available in the newsroom.The story then was seen as a third-rate burglary at the Watergate office complex. Incidentally, CBS was the only channel and Lesley Stahl, the only television reporter that covered the early court appearances of those arrested for the burglary. As a result Lesley's first 'scoop' in her reporting career came when she and her cameramen bet the competition by telecasting the first picutres of the Watergate burglars.
Lesley’s complaint was that finer points in her reports and exclusive findings about the accused often went unreported on the CBS radio. Her superiors in the CBS newsroom, who relied more on the print media,didn’t think much of the Watergate story that was, at that stage, not even being covered by The New York Times. Lesley was the first to report that the burglars were from Cuba, with phony passports; and they had in possession wads of hundred-dollar bills, consecutively numbered. But her reports rarely went on the air.
As Watergate story got bigger CBS weighed in with a senior correspondent, relegating Lesley Stahl to be his number two. Her input was used by the prime Watergate correspondent who, at times, neglected to give credit for Lesley's contribution.
Cross-filed in Zine5 and Desicritics.