“The work that brought down a presidency…perhaps the most influential piece of journalism in history” ~ Time Magazine
“…cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government” ~ George Washington cautioned in his 1796 Farewell Address
Democracy, simply put, is rule by the people. It is a form of government where the citizens of a country are in control of deciding who their leaders are, how legislation is developed and how laws are enforced. One of the key conditions for organizing, promoting and maintaining a democratic government is for the public to be accurately informed about who is involved in governance, how they are fulfilling their responsibilities, and to what issues they are dedicating their time and energy. Without the direct experience of attending public meetings for school boards, city councils, county boards of supervisors, etc., there are few effective pathways for a typical resident to acquire that valuable information, i.e. how the government is being governed. Hence, the role of journalism, or the ‘fourth estate’, to serve as the purveyor of factual information and a watchdog over government is vital to a functioning democracy.
Fifty years ago, two young journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began following the leads of a minor story regarding a break-in at an office building in Washington DC.
Starting with this seemingly inconsequential story, they went on to produce headline after headline for the Washington Post, zeroing in on what became referred to as the Watergate scandal. The Post, then helmed by Katharine Graham who was one of the first female publishers of an American newspaper, expected journalistic integrity from these novice reporters. What these young men subsequently exposed was a president and an administration that were desperate to hold onto power and a second term at any cost. The truth that they uncovered would ultimately change the course of history, including the resignation of the president, the only time that has occurred in the United States. How the public viewed democratic institutions was also irrevocably impacted.
The investigative journalism of Bernstein and Woodward in the “Watergate” scandal went on to won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and led to the publishing of a behind-the-scenes book All the President’s Men (ATPM) in 1974. Considered one of Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Best Nonfiction Books, it was published just months before President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The sensational book was also turned into an Academy Award nominated film starring Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein and Robert Redford as Woodward the following year. The 50th Anniversary Edition of this seminal book was released in June of 2022 and features a new foreword that describes what Watergate’s significance is today.
With the new edition in mind what, ultimately, has been the impact of All the President’s Men?
And are there commonalities between what happened in the Nixon era and the current situation in American politics, with a House select committee investigating January 6 examining efforts by the last American president to hold on to power and garner a second term seemingly at any cost? And how have those efforts undermined the stability of democracy in America? What was and continues to be the role of the fourth estate in attempting to preserve democratic structures in this country?
Woodward and Bernstein’s detailed reporting showed that the Nixon administration’s illegal activities included bugging the offices of political opponents, ordering investigations of activist organizations and opposition politicians, harnessing the power of government agencies, such as the FBI, CIA and IRA, as political weapons, and of course disparaging and blaming the press at all turns for its woes. Facing certain impeachment, Nixon resigned August 9, 1974 and ultimately there were 69 government officials indicted , 48 of them—many of them his top aides—convicted and sentenced to prison in the Watergate scandal.
Fast forward to today, as a country we find ourselves reeling from revelations uncovered by the House select committee investigating January 6 that detail just how far the former president Donald Trump would go in order to his ensure his bid to win the presidency for a second term succeeded.
Based on the evidence presented, his thirst for power led him to attempt a multi-pronged plan meant to forestall the electoral vote count on that day and continues to embolden him to delegitimize the presidential election, even though the final results were tallied over 20 months ago. In addition, Trump has pilloried the news media, calling outlets like CNN, MSNBC, ABC and others ‘fake news’ and ‘enemies of the people’. If these labels ring any bells, it may be because Nixon is quoted as saying, “Never forget, the press is the enemy.”
There is little that separates these two disgraced American leaders, particularly with respect to their venal, narcissistic personalities. And there are two areas where they are in lockstep: subversion of democratic governmental institutions and devout lambasting of the news media, particularly those outlets that are critical of their illegal and unethical actions designed to hold on to power at any cost.
In 1974 there were essentially three main television news stations, ABC, NBC, and CBS, that provided the nation with news on a daily basis.
In addition, most people subscribed to a local newspaper which was delivered to their homes in the morning, or some subscribed to larger papers like the New York Times, Washington Post or L.A. Times. The process of gathering news during that era is described in detail in All the President’s Men, particularly the stress of meeting the daily deadlines in order to be printed in the next day’s papers. Today the news stream is constant with the ‘breaking news’ headline as the mechanism by which the public’s attention is attracted every moment of the day.
The challenge today, as it was in the ‘70’s, is for the public is to have access to the truth of what happens in government. Throughout All the President’s Men “Woodstein”, as they were affectionately called at the Washington Post, describes in great detail the lengths that they went to in order to uncover the facts of the case. Even the preeminent ‘Deep Throat’ (DT) was used as a fact checker rather than as a primary source of information. Conversations with DT were organized to confirm data that had been acquired from other individuals who were working in either the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP) or in the White House (WH) at the time. Stories were often supported by three different perspectives or more. In order to maintain journalistic integrity, the team (which included editors Barry Sussman and Harry Rosenfeld) implemented a rule that said unless there were two independent and credible sources that confirmed a criminal activity, the specific allegation was not printed in the paper.
ATPM pulls back the curtain on how journalism was practiced at the time. Late night rendezvous with a primary source in the depths of an isolated parking lot, night-time visits to employees of the CRP and WH, triangulation of information from multiple sources, confirmation of the facts, cold phone calls to potential sources, persistent contacts with hesitant sources in the hopes that one day they will flip. All of these tactics were implemented by Woodstein in order to piece together a story that was being obscured and hidden by people in the highest offices of government.
How is journalism practiced today?
The recent president continues to decry the voice of the mainstream media as some sort of a cunning machine hell bent on undermining his legitimate claim on the presidency. However, if it were not for the dozens of news outlets that practice journalistic ethics and standards, the public might never know about the autocratic actions of politicians like Nixon or Trump. The added complication of this moment in time is the cornucopia of news media outlets that have been formed over the past fifty years and that have been developed not to provide the public with the facts, but instead to blur the lines between fact, fiction, and entertainment by producing stories based on innuendo, rumor and outright falsehoods. How then does the general public stay accurately informed about government activities when it is constantly told the lie that the 2020 election was rigged and other misinformation?
For one example, it is interesting to note that during the 8th Hearing of the January 6th Select Committee, Fox News did not broadcast that extremely important hearing on the air. Instead, they presented stories about the inflation rate and the current president’s recent positive test result for COVID-19. In fact, one of the networks most popular hosts stated in a conversation with South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem that the January 6 committee hearings were intended to distract the public from the real critical issue for the country which is inflation and not to determine what happened during the insurrection on January 6.
All the President’s Men demonstrates the value of an ethical, independent press to reinforce the values of a democratic nation.
In authoritarian countries it would be hard to fathom that journalists would be able to investigate stories at such a profound level, let alone publish a book critical of a president and those in power. Even now, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and others from that era are providing commentary on major established and respected news outlets during the January 6 congressional hearings. They warn of the danger of unchecked power and autocratic leadership in our country. Their presence also defines the critical role of the news media in protecting democracy. And they describe in detail the damage that can be done if there is no accountability in these situations.
“Once you lose democracy, you will never get it back,” – Carl Bernstein on CNN, July 21, 2022.
Story editing by Georgia Sanders