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Why the press will never have another Watergate moment

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You’ll be hearing a lot about Watergate in the coming weeks, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the infamous June 17, 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. There will be documentaries, cable debates, the finale of this miniseries by Julia Roberts (“Gaslit”) based on the popular Watergate podcast (“Slow Burn”). I’ll be hosting a panel discussion at the Library of Congress on the anniversary itself — and you can certainly count on a few retrospectives in that same journal.

The scandal resonates strongly with the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973 for its fearless reporting and the courage it took to publish it. And that has special meaning for me because, like many of my generation, I was first drawn into journalism by the Senate television hearings in 1973, and I was captivated by the film of 1976 “All the President’s Men”, based on the book by Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Yet thinking about Watergate saddens me these days. The nation that came together to force a corrupt president to resign and send many of his co-conspirator prison aides is a nation that no longer exists.

It’s not just our policies that have changed. This is also our radically transformed media environment.

“National newspapers mattered in ways unimaginable to us today, and even regional newspapers were incredibly strong,” Garrett Graff, author of “Watergate: A New History,” told me last week. I was immersed in its nearly 800-page story — a “remarkably rich narrative,” former Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. called it in a review — that aims to tell the whole story.

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Graff portrays Watergate not as a singular event, but as the entire mindset of the Nixon presidency – “a shaggy umbrella of a dozen separate scandals”, as he told me. By the time the burglary caught the attention of most Americans, they were “essentially entering the second or third act of a play.”

Woodward and Bernstein were almost alone on the story for months. But eventually, the nation’s major newspapers began covering the hell out of the budding scandal and the percolating questions of what — and when — the president knew about the burglary plot.

Americans read this coverage in their local newspapers; many towns still had two or more dailies at this time. Later, they were fascinated by the proceedings of the Senate Watergate Committee, whose hearings were broadcast live on all three major television networks in the summer of 1973. Graff reports that the average American household watched 30 hours of the hearings, which were also rebroadcast at night by PBS. (“Best thing to happen to public television since ‘Sesame Street,'” noted a television reviewer from the Los Angeles Times.)

Still, “We forget how nearly Nixon survived Watergate,” Graff told me. “Even at the end of the hearings, there was no guarantee that Nixon was out of office.”

What changed that? Growing public awareness of the president’s misdeeds and cover-up. “The mere hoarding of lies,” he said, “at a time when the idea that a president could lie to America was unthinkable.”

Flash-forward to today. The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection will hold hearings beginning early next month, some of which will be televised in prime time. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Democrat from Maryland who is a prominent member, predicts the revelations will ‘blow the roof off the House’ – offering evidence, he promises, of a staged coup attempt involving Trump, his closest allies and supporters who attacked the Capitol as they attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

I am ready to believe that the hearings will be dramatic. They might even change some people’s minds. But the amount of public attention they will get will be miniscule compared to what happened when folksy Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina chaired the Senate Watergate committee.

Our media environment is much more fractured and news agencies are much less reliable.

And in part, we can blame the rise of a right-wing media system. At its heart is Fox News, which was founded in 1996, nearly a quarter century after the heist, with a purported mission to provide “fair and balanced” counterpoint to mainstream media. Of course, that message often manifested itself in relentless and damaging criticism of his new rivals. Meanwhile, Fox and company have served as a very effective laundry service for Trump’s lies. With the help of this network, his tens of thousands of false or misleading claims have found fertile ground among his staunch supporters – oblivious to the skillful reporting elsewhere that has exposed and debunked these lies.

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According to Graff, the growth of right-wing media has allowed many Republican members of Congress to turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of Team Trump. This was not the case during the Watergate investigation; after all, it was Senator Howard Baker, the Republican of Tennessee, who asked the immortal question: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Even stalwart conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was among those who, in the end, managed to convince Nixon that he should step down.

“Republican members of Congress realized they had a unique and important role as the legislative branch to check executive branch abuses,” Graff said. “This freedom of action was made possible because there was no right-wing media ecosystem.”

All was not good in the media world of the 1970s. It was almost entirely white and male, barely open to other views or voices. This was long before the democratizing effect of the internet, which elevated the ideas of people of color, women and other marginalized groups.

But it was a time when we had news media earning the trust of the general public, a necessity to help bring Nixon to justice. This, at least during his presidency, was never possible with Donald Trump.

As we remember Watergate, we must remember how highly unlikely its just conclusion would be today.

The presidency of Richard M. Nixon would have survived.