It's sad, but I never got around to watching the film All The President's Men until this weekend.
For the last few years, I have lamented the sorry state of journalism in America, and wondered where all the Woodwards and Bernsteins got to. Surely, I reasoned, budding journalists would emulate the dedication and resourcefulness of these two journalists because the breaking of the Watergate story was probably the single most notable Pulitzer prize win in journalistic history. By cracking the complex Watergate case, and saving America from mass corruption, Woodward and Bernstein became journalism heroes.
Yet, most contemporary journalists are content to remain mere entertainers. White House reporters are the sorriest of the bunch. They rarely demand answers when the President or his spokespeople tell blatant lies. I have personally witnessed Bush justify the invasion of Iraq by telling reporters that Saddam Hussein barred the UN inspectors from entering Iraq. In both cases, the reporters failed to follow up Bush's comment with the correction that it was the United States that forced the UN inspectors out of Iraq, not Hussein. Now, if I know these facts, shouldn't a White House reporter?
Of course, it's not exclusively the journalists' fault. American media corporations (save for PBS) feel little or no duty to serve the public by informing them of news and current events. The corporations will argue that if Americans wanted news, they would ask for it. And they are right. However, it's reasonable to ask whether any competent leader of the United States would think the status quo is acceptable. After all, if our leaders aren't going to demand excellence from us, why do we need leaders at all? But I digress.
The interesting thing I learned from the movie was that the generations of 1970's weren't so different from our own. Even after Woodward and Bernstein amassed a considerable volume of circumstantial evidence, Gallup polls indicated that fewer than half of Americans knew the name Watergate. It took a whistle-blower to come forward and connect the dots (all the way to the White House) before the American people came to their senses.
Today, getting public awareness of such issues is even harder than it was in the seventies, when TV news sources were more widely received. The handful of broadcast channels that existed were required to provide the public service of professional journalism in exchange for their access to the public airwaves. In today's era of cable TV, most of us rarely watch the news. Today, we could choose to watch nothing but, say, auto-racing TV shows, and never be inconvenienced by people telling us that our democracy is in jeopardy.
All of this is relevant because the Watergate gang are back. Karl Rove led the College Republicans, a bunch of political thugs who ran dirty tricks in the Watergate era. Indeed, Rove was the protégé of one Donald Segretti, the dirty trickster who did time for his misdeeds. The Watergate scandal was about more than just a burglary. It was a systematic effort to corrupt democracy coordinated from within the White House. The Watergate coverup was an effort to hide this criminal enterprise.
How soon we forget. Today, Republican operatives are being investigated for dirty tricks in the 2004 campaign. Specifically, James Tobin was recently convicted for jamming the phones of Democratic activists on Election Day in the New Hampshire. Given this information alone, it's plausible that this was an isolated incident. However, the press knows more than this. Tobin was George W. Bush's regional campaign director. On the day of the phone-jamming, there were numerous phone calls between Tobin and the White House, suggesting White House coordination. The approximately $15,000 it cost to implement the phone-jamming was deposited to the local campaign primarily in three $5,000 increments, suggesting that the cost of the jamming was covered by Republican sources with coordination. Finally, the Republicans have spent $6 million, no doubt out of the goodness of their hearts, to pay the legal bills of Tobin, suggesting a coverup.
It's Watergate all over again. I just hope that Americans care this time.