The Media Legacy of Watergate

CommentaryOn June 17, it will be 50 years since operatives connected to President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (also known as CREEP) were arrested trying to plant surveillance equipment at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington. This was the beginning of the process that was ultimately to drive the president from office a little more than two years later, despite his landslide victory over the hapless George McGovern in that fall’s presidential election. As more than one commentator has mentioned since, the irony was that there was no need for the attempted bugging, since Nixon won easily without it. Even at the time, hardly anyone regarded what White House press secretary Ron Ziegler described as a “third-rate burglary” as any big deal. No, the Golden Anniversary being celebrated this year is not that of the Watergate break-in itself but that of the modern media which, after some false starts, finally figured out how to turn the affair into their own foundational mythology. Henceforth, in the eyes of the media anyway, The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were to be regarded as the heroes who, through diligent reporting, brought down a corrupt president and therefore served as models for all investigative journalists as well as the basis for the media’s now routine assumption of their own moral superiority and unassailability in the political process. It has long been known that this self-serving media narrative is false. The Woodward and Bernstein source, known at the time as “Deep Throat,” was a disgruntled FBI agent named Mark Felt who, having been passed over for the top job, fed the reporters information, much of it false, to the discredit of the man who got the top job instead, FBI director L. Patrick Gray. Felt also told our intrepid reporters details of a conspiracy theory about a dirty tricks campaign, orchestrated from the Nixon White House, which he seems to have made up out of whole cloth. None of Felt’s allegedly leaked information, and therefore none of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting, had anything to do with the wrong-doing that actually led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. And yet the myth of media heroism in exposing government perfidy lives on. Between 2017 and 2019, Watergate was cited again and again as the precedent for the media’s reporting of the “Russian collusion” hoax—sometimes called “Russiagate” in homage to its great predecessor—aimed at the presidency of Donald Trump. And it was a precedent too, in the sense that both media-reported scandals were based on false information fed to journalists by the FBI in furtherance of its own agenda. In neither case has there ever been a serious attempt by the media to correct their false reports or to apologize for allowing themselves to be used for nakedly partisan purposes. One can only conclude that the media have again been willing participants in the partisan effort to discredit a president of the opposing party. Except that, this time, the swarm of new Woodwards and Bernsteins had to have known all along that their information was false. They didn’t care. The fact that they reported it was enough to make it true in their eyes. Thus, too, all the media’s reporting on the Jan. 6 committee of Congress depends on the constant repetition of the Democrats’ talking point that President Trump’s belief that the 2020 election was “stolen” is not a sincerely held opinion based on unprecedentedly lax election security in key states but a “lie.” How can they possibly know that except by their prior assumption that it’s a liar who says it? It seems that in the courts, now, as in the media and the political culture more generally, neither “truth” nor “lies” have any independent existence apart from which side is telling them. I believe that none of this could have happened without the myth of the media’s Watergate and the scandal culture that it ushered into our national life. When Woodward and Bernstein seized the high moral ground on behalf of the progressive media and with little dissent from those who should have known better, they began the process that has brought us to the point at which we have now arrived: the point at which the media and their Democratic acolytes occupy a position not unlike that of the Grand Inquisitors of medieval Spain, with absolute power to decide what is true belief and what is false and must be punished. Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Follow James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for The American Spectator and the media critic for The New Criterion.

The Media Legacy of Watergate

Commentary

On June 17, it will be 50 years since operatives connected to President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (also known as CREEP) were arrested trying to plant surveillance equipment at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington.

This was the beginning of the process that was ultimately to drive the president from office a little more than two years later, despite his landslide victory over the hapless George McGovern in that fall’s presidential election.

As more than one commentator has mentioned since, the irony was that there was no need for the attempted bugging, since Nixon won easily without it. Even at the time, hardly anyone regarded what White House press secretary Ron Ziegler described as a “third-rate burglary” as any big deal.

No, the Golden Anniversary being celebrated this year is not that of the Watergate break-in itself but that of the modern media which, after some false starts, finally figured out how to turn the affair into their own foundational mythology.

Henceforth, in the eyes of the media anyway, The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were to be regarded as the heroes who, through diligent reporting, brought down a corrupt president and therefore served as models for all investigative journalists as well as the basis for the media’s now routine assumption of their own moral superiority and unassailability in the political process.

It has long been known that this self-serving media narrative is false. The Woodward and Bernstein source, known at the time as “Deep Throat,” was a disgruntled FBI agent named Mark Felt who, having been passed over for the top job, fed the reporters information, much of it false, to the discredit of the man who got the top job instead, FBI director L. Patrick Gray.

Felt also told our intrepid reporters details of a conspiracy theory about a dirty tricks campaign, orchestrated from the Nixon White House, which he seems to have made up out of whole cloth.

None of Felt’s allegedly leaked information, and therefore none of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting, had anything to do with the wrong-doing that actually led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

And yet the myth of media heroism in exposing government perfidy lives on.

Between 2017 and 2019, Watergate was cited again and again as the precedent for the media’s reporting of the “Russian collusion” hoax—sometimes called “Russiagate” in homage to its great predecessor—aimed at the presidency of Donald Trump.

And it was a precedent too, in the sense that both media-reported scandals were based on false information fed to journalists by the FBI in furtherance of its own agenda.

In neither case has there ever been a serious attempt by the media to correct their false reports or to apologize for allowing themselves to be used for nakedly partisan purposes.

One can only conclude that the media have again been willing participants in the partisan effort to discredit a president of the opposing party. Except that, this time, the swarm of new Woodwards and Bernsteins had to have known all along that their information was false.

They didn’t care. The fact that they reported it was enough to make it true in their eyes.

Thus, too, all the media’s reporting on the Jan. 6 committee of Congress depends on the constant repetition of the Democrats’ talking point that President Trump’s belief that the 2020 election was “stolen” is not a sincerely held opinion based on unprecedentedly lax election security in key states but a “lie.”

How can they possibly know that except by their prior assumption that it’s a liar who says it?

It seems that in the courts, now, as in the media and the political culture more generally, neither “truth” nor “lies” have any independent existence apart from which side is telling them.

I believe that none of this could have happened without the myth of the media’s Watergate and the scandal culture that it ushered into our national life.

When Woodward and Bernstein seized the high moral ground on behalf of the progressive media and with little dissent from those who should have known better, they began the process that has brought us to the point at which we have now arrived: the point at which the media and their Democratic acolytes occupy a position not unlike that of the Grand Inquisitors of medieval Spain, with absolute power to decide what is true belief and what is false and must be punished.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for The American Spectator and the media critic for The New Criterion.