Watergate's Lessons for the New media Age

04/09/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

The shadow of Watergate falls only lightly across the U.S. political landscape. Instead, the epic scandal is discernible mainly in the absence of the evils that engendered it. Even during the panicky post-9/11 era, when the temptation to ignore the law at times overwhelmed good judgment, never were even the most zealous of Bush-Cheney toadies accused of using the machinery of state to punish partisan adversaries.

No, that was a uniquely Nixonian response to political challenge: shadowy operatives with national security credentials tapped phones of columnists; dissidents were burgled and bullied; critics had their taxes audited; black bag operations were authorized at cabinet level and above.

That was Watergate, and since it cost Richard Nixon his presidency, it seems now to have been banished from the political sphere, an absence that is rarely noticed. So Watergate's traces on the political culture are, I think, faint.

But for journalists it's quite a different matter: For them, Watergate remains the defining event of the past half-century. It was a towering moment of heroism, an episode of legendary stature in which journalism's foundational purposes were triumphantly validated and a drift toward despotism was stopped, all thanks to a single-minded dedication to the craft of determined reporting.

And it has been a powerful inspiration for the two generations of journalists that came since. "We're all the sons and daughters of Watergate," as Jeff Leen, investigations editor of the Washington Post, told a gathering at the American Society of News Editors annual conference in Washington last week.

Leen's comment came during a remarkable panel marking the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, when burglars hired by the Nixon re-election campaign were busted while trying to plant listening devices at Democratic Party headquarters. (The anniversary isn't until June, but nobody seemed to care.)

The ASNE panel included both reporting stars of the Post's historic investigation, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. No less important, in the front row of the audience were their then-editor, Ben Bradlee, now 90, and Donald Graham, CEO of the Post organization, whose late mother Katharine, then publisher, stood firm before the fierce counterattack of the Nixon cabal.

The panel's ostensible topic was how the media would handle that affair today, in a radically different informational world. Now, with cascading opportunities for news to come to light and for informants to go public at dizzying speed, and with a burgeoning corps of amateur and semi-pro sleuths and commentators, wouldn't the secrets of the vast conspiracy have surfaced months sooner, with no need for two reporters to place calls, ring doorbells and trudge along with notebooks and questions?

Surely nowadays an election-season break-in at opposition headquarters would trigger an informational avalanche, and the mystery would unravel in days, rather than the nearly two years of courthouse and congressional hearings that it took to eviscerate Nixon's administration and force him out.

But the panel was skeptical, and it was hard not to wonder whether, paradoxically, exposing a conspiracy of that scope might actually be harder now. For one thing, Bernstein suggested, he and Woodward were writing for an audience that was interested in facts. Today's readers are looking more single-mindedly to confirm what they believe. "I'm not sure the story could withstand that cultural reception," he said. "It'd get ground up."

For another, he and Woodward both spoke reverently about the steadfastness of the institution that sheltered them. Watergate, Bernstein said, "was about a newspaper." Faced with the possibility they might be compelled to turn over their records, Woodward recalled, Katharine Graham responded, "They're not their notes, they're my notes."

That kind of resoluteness is in short supply in an era when newsroom staffs have shrunk and public mission is a line item on a quarterly marketing plan.

And there's yet another reason to wonder how readily Watergate would be exposed today. That's the capacity of authorities to identify and move against sources. The warm reception President Obama received from the editors conference a few hours before the Watergate panel was ironic in view of the unprecedented six Espionage Act prosecutions his Justice Department has mounted against people who leaked information to the press -- information that while institutionally embarrassing, was miles from constituting any detectable security threat.

Nowadays, those sources are being ferreted out and shut down with 21st century techniques of surveillance and digital information retrieval. It's good that Nixon's henchmen didn't have those tools to roll up the network of sources so patiently cultivated by Woodward and Bernstein.