Richard Reeves

Imagine Watergate 2005

AUSTIN -- There were impressive ceremonies here a couple of weeks ago for the opening of the Watergate papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which will now and forever be housed at the University of Texas. Historians and journalists came from around the country to talk about what happened in those thrilling days of yesteryear when the two young Washington Post reporters saved the country or darned near ruined it, depending on your viewpoint.

The most impressive thing about the show, at least to the journalists there, was that the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center paid Bob and Carl $5 million for their old notebooks, old clippings and crumpled-up first drafts of the stories that were the beginning of the end of the presidency of Richard Nixon. Some of us were tempted to rush home and see what we still had in those boxes down in the basement. Was it possible our trash was treasure?

The most disturbing thing about the two days of re-living the events of the early 1970s and the role of journalism -- or non-role, as some historians argued -- was a nagging question that hung there unanswered: If two young reporters came up with unproved evidence and incomplete testimony of dark doings today at the higher levels of government power, would that information be published or broadcast for more than a few days or even a few hours?

Whatever the Woodward and Bernstein papers show -- and some of them will not be opened for years because the many Watergate figures are still alive and suing -- a critical part of the story is nowhere in the boxes opened here.

The journalism of Watergate was more than a movie about intrepid and ambitious young reporters. It was about the willingness of The Washington Post (and later other outlets) to continue publishing less-than-sensational stories attacking or chipping away at the power of government -- week after week, month after month. That was done even as the government denied it all and threatened the owners of the Post with the loss of things like the Federal Communications Commission licenses of Post-owned television stations.

It was the persistence and courage of the press that made the difference 30 years ago. Above and behind the often confused and sometimes inaccurate young men were the publisher of the Post, Katharine Graham, and her editor, Ben Bradlee, who hung tough when it counted. Would that happen today?

I seriously doubt it. Under today's rules of the game, Nixon would have survived the rape of the Constitution and various counts of burglary and perjury. The American press is being driven into the ground like a stake by courts and government attorneys arguing that there is no such thing as constitutional recognition of any legal protections of news-gathering.

The American press is barely being protected by its own owners, many of them entertainment corporations prone to erase any facts inconvenient to those who write tax laws and approve mergers and acquisitions. The straight American press, and most of it is, is being nibbled to death by a Greek chorus of know-nothing mouthpieces mocking anyone brazen enough to question the orthodoxy of the day or the cut of the emperor's wardrobe.

Imagine Watergate 2005, with Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly preaching their sermons on the patriotism of a 29-year-old reporter who was close to being fired for forgetting where he abandoned rental cars (private property) and whose parents were both communists -- that would be Carl Bernstein. Disney and Viacom and Fox have their virtues, I'm sure, but they are no Graham and Bradlee. Graham bet the company on journalism. I think she would be laughed off the business pages today -- and, in fact, over a lifetime she did decide to (or have to) plead for Wall Street's forgiveness for her own brave brand of Americanism.

Now the laughers are in charge. In the last year, the White House has explicitly stated that it believes it has no obligation to deal with the press as anything but another special interest. In the past week, federal judges have ruled that Time magazine and New York Times reporters should go to jail for what they know, even if it was never published. Another federal court ruled that the governor of Maryland has the right to order state employees never to answer questions posed by The Baltimore Sun.

So it goes in the land of the free. The ceremonies in Austin were about history and journalism. The former is by definition old news, the latter an inconvenience losing its standing in court.

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