June 2, 2007

Watergate, the unreported story

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.


Guru said...

I can only partially agree with Lesley. I was in America as a student when the burglary was reported, and many within days realised that it was a 'floating ice berg', i.e.there is more that it hides because Nixon's White House Staff-Haldeman and Ehrlichman
could have effectively denied the White House link, but they trying to be too clever messed it up. It was then Bob Woodward who like a blood hound sniffed around, got to know the person called 'deep throat'(who died recently) and through his help step by step unraveled the link between the White House and the burglary. But even he could not say for certain what the part Nixon played. The televised impeachment hearings in the Senate chaired by Senator Rodino added to the drama that Bob Woodward was uncovering. But it was the tape that was sequestrated from the Oval office which contained the a few minutes of recorded conversation between Nixon and his minions that produced the climax and the killer blow. Nixon very cleverly arranged to erase the conversations that he secretly taped with any one who talked with him in the Oval office( even Kissinger said that he was unaware of the existence of the recording machine-a Sony), but a mistake meant that a few minutes worth of spoken words stayed in the tape, and they betrayed Nixon!! The part played by 'deep throat' was unique and his identity was kept secret until a few years before his death. He was in the CIA.

Guru said...

When Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became the President, he unconditionally pardoned Nixon ( rumour was that Nixon exacted this promise as a condition for his resignation) and thus effectively put a stop to Media regurgitating the Watergate scandal. America has no national newspapers, for example, the LA Times was lukewarm to Watergate, and was more concerned with LA issues. Except in the Washington Post, not much column inches were devoted to Watergate at that time even in newspapers like Baltimore Sun, Christian Science Monitor etc.. The national TV channels like CBS and NBC were a bit more critical but not much on what Nixon was up to, because their News anchors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor were old fashioned journalists(Second World War reporters), and were unlikely to rock the establishment. The American Journalism even at the time of crisis like Watergate (not much has changed today)was fairly non-confrontational (compare this to British journalism which takes irreverent look at all aspects of establishment)when it comes to all things government. The President does not have to appear in the Houses every week like a prime minister in a parliamentary democracy, and Nixon used this aspect effectively. This has been the weakness of the American Democracy. Bush got away with his ill-advised Iraq invasion virtually unquestioned and unexamined by elected representatives . Indeed, when Nixon resigned, Senior senators like Rodino the Senate Majority Leader was happy that their democracy was working, because he was not sure that Nixon could have been impeached given the divisions in the Senate.

Finally, just like in India, for elected representatives, political leaders, students, journalists and citizens, political history of the country has never been a strong topic in America. If it was, after the Vietnam war, there would have been no question of Iraq war.

Long after he resigned, Nixon came to London, and strictly forbade journalists asking any question on Watergate. Many non-Americans were surprised how quickly he was rehabilitated again. The argument was that the person who occupies the presidency and the presidency itself were two different things. The presidency survived and only that matters thus echoing Senator Rodino. As for Nixon as an ex-president life should move forward and not backward!!!

Guru said...

"Watergate, however, changed the way the media reported people in power".

I beg to differ with the above. As I said in my earlier posting, American journalism does not take an iconoclastic view of people in power even today. The media is still singularly forgiving to their leaders. Hence Nixon was able to rehabilitate himself successfully. David Frost the British journalist was only one who critically questioned Nixon after the ex-president demanded millions of dollars for the interview and got it ( David Frost took a loan of 20 million dollars, a huge gamble and this could have ruined him financially) If you look at the interview Nixon implies that American media is different and seems to imply that there has to be a deferential aspect when it comes to questioning even ex-president like him! Bill Clinton and Hilary Clinton blamed the right wing press and politicians in America for Bill Clinton's Monica problem!! Hilary tehn seemed to suggest as Nixon did, a certain degree of deference towards an American President. In contrast, Tony Blair has lost his credibility and is unlikely to be rehabilitated for the crime of supporting Bush based on faulty intelligence evidence and sending troops to Iraq even though the House of Commons supported the involvement in war. Every time he appears on British Media he is asked to regret and apologise by journalists and members of the public. Watching the American president hopeful like Obama, the American media has not been asking the one question- whether he has the experience for the job having held no responsible position outside the Senate.

Now with hundreds of cable channels, national news channels like CBS, NBC and ABC have lost even their 'mild cynical attitude' as they have become irrelevant to a viewer in a distant county.