Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Who Will Be Trump's Woodward and Bernstein?

Image from Simon & Schuster
This might be a good time for folks to get a copy of All The President's Men  Carl Bernstein and Bob
Woodward's book on their investigation of Watergate.  It gives sense of how long it took from when the burglary happened (June 17, 1972) until Nixon resigned (August 8, 1974) and what all happened in between.  It chronicles how these two reporters had to fight skepticism, how their editor had to protect them, and how public opinion slowly came around.

The details will be different, the timing will be different, but the same forces will be (are) in tension:

  • president versus the media;  
  • the pressure to publish now versus the risk of losing credibility because there isn't enough publishable evidence;  
  • people's belief systems versus facts that challenge those beliefs; 
  • the pressure on the Republicans to protect their president and their power versus doing what's right for  the country.  

Some details are eerily similar.

Nixon was brought down by Republicans breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex.  The burglars were caught because an observant 24 year old security guard, Frank Wills, saw that there was tape that covered the latch and kept the door from locking.  The burglars were caught that night.  Then Woodward and Bernstein had to follow the trail that led from the burglars to the oval office.

Today an electronic burglary at the Democratic National Committee is also at the center of Trump's problems.  And as with Watergate, the thieves were identified before the election, but Trump won nevertheless.  Today, too, journalists are pursuing the question of the connection to the Oval Office.

There are significant differences between the two periods as well.   Nixon had long list of major accomplishments from the Clean Water Act, Affirmative Action, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Privacy Act, opening relations with China.  But he was being dragged down by the Vietnam War and the anti-war protests.  The break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters happened during the campaign for his second term.  In 1972, Nixon's approval ratings were at 50% after his China trip and would climb to almost 70% after the Paris Peace accords were signed in 1973.  But then his ratings began to plunge to just under 30% by the end of 1973.

Trump's big achievements include:

  • failing in his immediate push to ban Muslims from the US (I'm using Trump's campaign rhetoric here, just as the judges have when they blocked the implementation.)
  • failing to overturn Obamacare
  • dismantling regulations whose whose ultimate impacts are yet to be known

And he comes into office far less popular.  His approval ratings according to Gallup are already at 36%, only in his third month in office.

So who will be the next Woodward and Bernstein?

By blocking key media from White House press briefings, this administration is sending them out to do real investigative reporting and the White House loses control of the agenda.  And while Trump's tweets do get significant attention, they don't set the kind of agenda those around Trump want set.

The Washington Post (Woodward and Bernstein's paper), the New York Times, The New Yorker, even the Wall Street Journal are bringing stories to print on a regular basis.

Woodward and Bernstein were blessed with a very high level informant who they dubbed Deep Throat after the first pornographic movie to be shown in regular theaters.  Their informant only outed himself thirty years later.  Woodward had cultivated him as a source in 1970 and they basically used him to confirm information they had gathered in other ways.

Image from IMDB
I suspect this time around, a lot of different reporters will be contributing important stories and things may well move faster now because social media speeds up the spread of news so dramatically.  But I'm guessing there are reporters now who, over drinks, are contemplating who will play them in the movie.

If you would rather watch the movie (with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman), it's available as a Netflix DVD and probably in your public library.

1 comment:

  1. I can't guess who the two (or more) award-winning reporters will be, but I would really enjoy a Trump administration destroying book co-authored by writers John Dean, of Watergate fame, and Malcolm Nance, from the Intelligence Community. Both do an excellent job when appearing on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.


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