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Trump, the media and Watergate.

May 22, 2017

It is no accident that President Trump is being compared to Richard Nixon, or that the Russian collusion/Manchurian Candidate meme is being advanced by virtually every media outlet as being analogous to Watergate.

Since even Harvard concurs  that as much as 90% of the media coverage is negative concerning President Trump, that’s a lot of people parroting the word Watergate. It’s the current dog whistle for the media, and it’s always meant to convey a negative image.

A quick survey of people under the age of 40 indicates that many only make the association with Watergate in the context of Nixon resigning the presidency. Most don’t really know how the news media, much less the facts, figured into that process. One young man (19) said he thought Nixon was arrested while robbing the hotel. Another said it was “proven” that Nixon ordered the break-in.

Of course, the five men arrested were people attached to the 1972 Nixon re-election campaign and were trying to steal documents from the Democratic National Committee and wiretap their phones to gain an edge in the election.

More disturbingly, many assume that if mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times are making the comparison, then President Trump is guilty of something and he should resign too.

That judgment is based on a false understanding of the history of Watergate and the level of trust in journalism at the time.

Also worthy of note is the still declining revenue for print media and their digital offshoots. People have to read  “papers” for advertisers to place ads.  Less readers, less ad dollars.

Watergate references bring readers, but how similar are the two stories?

Historical similarities

Historians and journalists alike have studied the Nixon era down to the dust on the floor at the time. If you want to know how to dethrone a president, there’s a blueprint already in place.

Both “Russiagate” and Watergate took place during presidential campaigns.

It was two journalists working for the Washington Post that looked at each other and said “This is a BFD” when they came across information about a burglary at the Watergate Hotel reported by a WaPo colleague working the police beat. The names in the police report were known campaign workers for Nixon.

Eventually that information led them to believe Nixon was masterminding a cover-up of  what was essentially a ham-fisted burglary, now usually believed to have been committed without his knowledge but on his behalf, during the 1972 presidential campaign.

President Trump has been found guilty by association to a crime which his detractors haven’t yet proven even exists. No one knows yet whether someone, presumably Michael Flynn, was just feathering his own nest with the “speaking fees” he received and failed to disclose or if he was working as a clandestine agent of a foreign power to install some sort of puppet government, either with or without Trump’s knowledge.

President Nixon didn’t help himself much. Nixon wasn’t a people person. Every account of his personality shows him as a suspicious, highly-self protective and secretive individual. His dislike and disdain for the press is well documented long before Watergate, and they responded in kind.

In contrast, the press seems to have largely created the visceral animosity between itself and President Trump during the campaign and beyond, although he was certainly news story material before then, usually in the tabloids.

Back to 1972. Along comes the Watergate break-in, and two young journalists who smelled the makings of a story.

Indeed, one reason the Washington Post is still cited by so many as an unimpeachable source is because of the stellar reputation it gained through the work of  Robert (Bob) Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (The initial story on the 1972 break-in during the campaign season was authored by one Alfred Lewis, then the Post’s police beat reporter, who reported on the actual arrests.)

Absolutely no one with the slightest interest in either the machinations behind the scenes in politics or the process of investigative journalism has not studied the whole Watergate story.

There have been innumerable books written and movies made about the process by which Bernstein and Woodward developed their sources and eventually made the public case that led to Nixon resigning as President on August 8, 1974.

As yet, we don’t know who will be the Mark Felt  (self-identified and later confirmed as the major “unidentified” source known as Deep Throat) of this era, but there is little doubt that there is at least one this time around.

The question this time is whether the motives behind the media campaign to unseat Trump are as “pure” as they were in Nixon’s time.

It’s not him, it’s us.

Trite, but true. The attacks against President Trump are equally meant to apply to both his close confidants and the ordinary citizens who voted for him. There is a feeling that Democrats would gladly permanently excise every Trump voter from the country if they could.

We are also different, as a society.

For one thing we are a lot more cynical and lot less analytical. The person holding the office of the President is no longer revered simply for holding the title. The generations post-Nixon take the presumed integrity of the nation’s chief executive with a large side of salt.

Even the Democrats have had their heroes dethroned due to the numerous revelations that President Kennedy was hardly a paragon of personal virtue. He was just a lot smarter than Bill Clinton about getting caught.

More recently, the Democrat’s dedication to the election strategy of dividing the nation by fostering racial,  ethnic and gender-based politics, or tribalism, has become increasingly more repugnant to a large swath of voters on both sides of the party line.

No discussion of modern politics and journalism would be complete without mention of the internet and cable television.

No longer are we held captive to the six o’clock news, three networks or the press runs of the major newspapers.

Today, if the President has an itch we all scratch in unison. The news cycle is the last ten minutes or less, and the attention span of the average Twitter user is about seven seconds. In fact even as this is being written, statistics predict that not 1 in 10,000 people will read the whole thing.

The number of people who actually read a paper newspaper cover to cover are dwindling so fast they should be on the endangered species list.

Now we have the digital version of the news, a format that by necessity caters to short pieces that don’t include many facts, and even less context. Television follows the “three minutes for news, two minutes for ads” format so slavishly, it’s auto-programmed into the news hour.

We had more patience in 1972, and doing something well was more important than doing it fast.

History has judged that Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein upheld the highest standards of journalism. It is still a major coup for a cable, broadcast or web news outlet to score a guest appearance by either Woodward or Bernstein, both now in their mid-seventies.

Both still comment on the political scene, Bernstein as recently as four days ago, and Woodward commented just this past Friday on the motives behind the NYT and WaPo reporting.

At the time of Watergate, the two journalists frequently cited unnamed sources, understandable when you realize that Felt was the No. 2  guy at the FBI when he was leaking the Nixon information.

The role of the informer enjoys a newfound respect. Today we call them whistleblowers and celebrate them, and many times that has proven to be a good thing, in the tradition of Erin Brockovich and more recently Dr. Dale Klein of the VA. Sometimes not so much, as in the case of Edward Snowden.

Then, as now, President Nixon was not the accused perpetrator, but he was close enough for the backwash to touch him, and his own actions eventually made a story that should have stayed a minor ripple into the flood that swept him out of office.

Why the distrust of the media on the Trump stories?

Those are the similarities, but the feel is different this time. Meaner, for want of a better word.

Given that the issues driving the news during Nixon’s first term (1968-72) and carrying forward into the second were Viet Nam, civil rights, race riots and draft dodgers, that’s saying a lot.

The object now is to get something, anything, out before the competition can scoop you. Given the instantaneous nature of the information age today, that means there isn’t much investigation behind the stories.

That leads to a lot of retractions, corrections, and outright embarrassingly amateurish reporting.

There is also far more of what can only be described as a herd mentality among the press.

In 1972-74, the Washington Post was almost completely alone and often ridiculed for pursuing the Watergate story. One of the Post’s chief rivals then as now was the New York Times.

Today, even weekly news aggregators include some sort of Trump coverage, usually negative and it all sounds monotonously the same.

If you were reading WaPo’s articles on the Watergate incident at the time the events were happening, you didn’t get the feeling that the story just political. It was also about the corrupting influence of power.

It’s different today, and not just because Nixon was the poor boy who became a savvy politician and made good and Trump is a rich man’s son, born holding a solid gold spoon, and a political neophyte.

Today, the whole aura around the criticism of President Trump is rooted in what many feel is a concerted effort by the left to, as former President Obama said, fundamentally change the character and complexion (politically) of the United States.

To that end, it is doubtful that it would have mattered which Republican won, assuming someone other than Trump could have pulled that off.  Certainly during the campaign, the majority of the left leaning media attacked any potential GOP adversary with equal enthusiasm and vitriol.  Male, female, black, white or brown, it didn’t matter.

In a sense, the very tribalism the left has embraced is now working against the credibility of the press. Stories documenting the left’s very real strategy to undermine our centuries-old rule of law  are only solidifying the battle lines.

We are also a far less free society than at any time in our most recent past, literally and figuratively.

What used to be celebrated as individualism is now a lock-step culture of its own. Younger generations, far more secular than their parents and grandparents, have nevertheless found a central belief system called variously socialism, globalism or internationalism.

Where their grandparents prayed for divine guidance, today’s activists advocate for progressive supremacy.  Woe betide the person who demands they examine their doctrine.

President Trump’s message of populism and national pride, even if he had lived the personal life of a 10th century hermit monk,  is a grave threat to that new belief system.

Since that’s what’s popular, the media caters to it in the name of revenue, and that means that there has to be a villain in the modern day fantasy world of the left.

Trump is that villain.

And finally there is the hypocrisy of the left and the left-leaning press. Where Bernstein and Woodward were reporting on an actual crime for which people were arrested and later served time, the press has largely invented the crime Trump is being accused of out of whole cloth.

The very media outlets that pilloried Trump for the coarse language on the audio tapes has no shame whatsoever about CNN program host Anderson Cooper, once a fairly well respected TV media type, saying on-air that his backers would defend Trump even “…if he took a dump on his desk.”

Sort of a case of the pot calling the kettle black, isn’t it?

Forecasting the future.

Barring a direct hit by an asteroid, there will be life after Trump, whether he is proven to be a turncoat, is taken down by his enemies in a barrage of half-truths and innuendo,  or prevails and serves out his term(s).

There will still be some version of the media, although how “free” it will be is open to speculation.

We will live under the mores of one side or the other, and we are making that choice now.

Right now, that future is being shaped by a weaponized media that some of us no longer recognize, and surely can’t memorialize.

Fortunately salt is still cheap.  Stock up the next time you see it on sale.

From → op-ed

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