This originally appeared in Reason Revolution, episode five.
The front page of the June 18, 1972 issue of the Washington Post centered around the Nixon administration’s efforts in North Vietnam, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s chances in the New York primary, and an impending US appeals court ruling involving an airline pilot strike and its demands for stronger protections against hijacking. However, among the other articles on the front page, one became the most important, not only for that day, but for the ensuing two years. “5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here,” was the headline for an article by veteran Post reporter Alfred Lewis. “Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here,” Lewis reported.
It was the beginning of the “long, national nightmare” of Watergate, a scandal so deep and so intricate that it took two years, multiple news reports, congressional testimonies, and a near impeachment to end. The linchpin that kept democracy safe against further abuses of the 37th President was a free press, the news. Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein’s subsequent reporting in the Washington Post blew the story wide open, took down a president, and made them legends in the process. A free press and unadulterated journalism pushed Richard M. Nixon to resign and for Washington to clean up what had gone wrong for so very long.
It is easy to make parallels from Watergate to our own times. Perhaps our White House’s current occupant is as corrupt, if not more corrupt, than “Tricky Dick.” However the chips may fall with regards to Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russians, it was because of good, unfaltering journalism that we know about it. And a lot of it has come from the very same institution that went after Nixon: the Washington Post.
As it is easy to mention Watergate, it is equally easy to trash the press. Many times, they make it easy for us. When three CNN reports recently went too early and played too loose with sources on a Trump-Russia story, they were asked to resign. Weeks later, CNN went after a reddit user who had a created a WWE-style, smackdown gif of Trump, body slamming a person with their logo over his face, that the president later tweeted. The redditor has since apologized and removed his original gif, but the news network wrote:
CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
The last sentence, which sent shockwaves through the American zeitgeist, amounted to what some called “blackmail.” In fact, there was even a hashtag started, “CNNblackmail,” addressing their step of potential editorial overreach.
I agree with the critics of CNN in concluding that its actions were extremely unethical, not to mention downright silly. Our country faces immense challenges and you’re wasting time and news copy on a person who goes by the name, “HanAssholeSolo”? It gives Trump and all those who seek to undermine the press the very fuel they need to continue their crusades. CNN shouldn’t have let it get to it and focused on good reporting and solid analysis. But it is cable news, so it doesn’t always act idealistically.
Despite its problems, a free and independent press is essential for the flourishing of our American democracy. Journalism is a bulwark against those who oppress, undermine, and disparage a free society. The post-inaugural success of outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post speaks to just how important the press is as an institution. They do get things wrong, but the difference between them and Trump, for the most part, is they own their mistakes. When the CNN reporters ran their Trump-Russia story too early, they apologized, retracted the piece, and left CNN respectfully. Imagine Trump apologizing for a falsehood or a complete fabrication. It’s pretty difficult to, right? The press will get things wrong; it doesn’t mean they should be disregarded outright.
It’s pretty fashionable to disparage the media these days. It seems like everyone is getting in on it, despite the fact that it is an indispensable part of our lives and social contract. The goal shouldn’t be to abandon the press altogether. Rather, one should use critical thinking when reading a story. Read something a couple of times. Check the sources in the piece. If an article has hyperlinks, click on them and check out what they’re citing. Read an opposing viewpoint; read many of them. And most importantly, don’t get too comfortable in your own bubble. We all have them; puncture yours every once and awhile and see if you learn something in the process. More often than not, you will.
This issue (no pun intended) matters to me because I see the big picture in ways that others have not. I work with historic newspapers from the state of Indiana every single working day. I’ve seen nearly 200 years of papers, from before we were a state to just a few years ago. It gives me a broader and less cynical perspective. Papers back then were wildly partisan and got things wrong all the time! Some even told you their leanings in the masthead. Papers like the Greencastle Democrat and the Marshall County Republican let you know right off the bat just what kind of paper they were. It compels me, as an historian, to look at multiple papers about the same topic, to get a flavor of how people thought about it back then. People these days think that there was a time when news wasn’t partisan, it was just about the “facts.” That’s a load of bullshit. In reality, papers were incredibly biased and gave you just as much commentary as they did pure news content. That doesn’t mean they weren’t important or weren’t valuable; it just underscored how a free and open press will give you so many ways of seeing events. Your job as a citizen was, and still is, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good reporting from nonsense.
The reason we must be mindful of journalism’s place in our society is that it is the very thing that can keep our country free. Watergate, the failures of Vietnam, Iran Contra, the failed War in Iraq, and the alleged corruption of the Trump administration were all brought to light by journalism. They work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to get the story right. They fail, like all people do, but it shouldn’t completely destroy our confidence in them. If we do, our civic life will fall apart. Thus, the founders believed that a free press lived at the heart of our American experiment. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer that latter.” I feel exactly the same way.