Technology has historically destroyed elitism in information dissemination. The printing press for example, reduced the hegemonies of religious authorities, who handed out interpretations of philosophy and Scripture in nearly monopoly fashion (Alia, 2004).
Democratization of information resources is a defining axis of social development. However, every technology is dependant on and limited by people. New communication technologies will not empower the public at large without the active involvement of those involved in related systems.
Technology is limited by those who own it. There is interplay between private media owners and governments in how information is disseminated amongst the public. Though the potential of media to shape public opinion is unquestioned, there can be serious gaps between the ideal and ground realities.
This document reviews the role and development of media in the United States, with the specific backdrop of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, which culminated in the resignation of President Nixon.
Distinctions of the Media in the United States
Watergate was an exceptional event in the history of the United States. It is widely believed that the underlying forces which influenced illegal and unethical action by an executive head of government are prevalent and even common in many countries of the world. Certainly, global relations and the state of technology have changed in the decades since Watergate. It is therefore necessary to view the distinguishing marks of the media in the United States before examining specific aspects of its role during and after the Watergate disaster.
Contrary to populist and hopeful thinking, information dissemination is not entirely free in the U.S. (Alia, 2004). There are powerful controls in the form of ownership and in the alleged interests of security, which date back to the days of World War II. However, not all the means of distortion can be pinned on administrators and owners: reporters and broad casters are allowed to use each other’s materials; there is no compulsion to reveal sources, and hence the access to factual and unbiased information for the public may be vitiated on occasion or even by design (Alia, 2004).
The media community has been seized of the dangers of their powers and of the limitations of the system, even before Watergate broke. Safeguards have been developed to prevent abuse. Members of the media have evolved codes to which they are committed to adhere (Alia, 2004); fair play, accuracy, honesty, decency, and independence, are cardinal values. Constructive criticism and vigorous exposure of wrong doing, and abuse of power, are other essential parameters of the best journalism.
While codes apply to media groups and to networks as units, a counter to the safeguards lurks in the extreme positions to which some reporters and commentators are catapulted. Individual members exert sweeping powers on the minds of audience groups, sometimes outside their areas of expertise, and often rivaling the powers of large media organizations (Garber, Matlock, and Walkowitz, 1993) and (Kick, 2003). Such extreme types of authority may also be derived by securing the trust of people, which is an achievement in its own right.
The U.S. media has its pet dislikes, and unabashedly promotes some of its main biases for and against chosen institutions. The media has played, for example, a part in creating an excessively negative public image of political institutions and processes (Mann, 1994). Further, scandals help the media business (Perse, E, 2000), so it is not unreasonable to suspect that the media may have hidden motives in putting certain issues under special lights.
Finally, the U.S. media performance, when seen in comparative perspective with other nations, has remarkable legislative support. U.S. laws and precedents protect the media from libel claims as long as malice is not established (Perse, E, 2000). There are important distinctions between private citizens and those in public life. Every politician, including those in the most powerful positions, can expect the slightest insinuation of impropriety on their parts, to be presented to the public as unequivocal crimes. Politicians in other countries have far greater laxities in this sense.
Overall, while the media is not perfect in the United States, and though it is subject to mortal bias, have great powers and responsibilities, relative to the norms of other countries. The U.S. media is a potent agent in the cause of democratic and accountable governance.
Historic and Conventional Features of Watergate
It is common knowledge that the Watergate affair should not have happened, and that it even caused the resignation of a U.S. President. However, the ability of the national media to cover the scandal objectively and fairly requires a review of the facts.
Watergate is a timeless event of great significance in American Presidential politics, in terms of seriousness and its lasting effects on public life (Genovese, 1999). Doubts will always linger whether such incidents have escaped public attention in the past. It is of even greater concern that it might happen again. Thus, the specifics of break-in at the premises used by a political party have now become a generic tern for all sorts of crimes by people in positions of power (Genovese, 1999). All politics, in the U.S. or elsewhere has seamy sides, and there is a widespread if cynical view that Watergate-type incidents are integral to public administration.
The direct involvement of the Executive Head of State has probably set a precedent, of which all Nixon’s successors will remain wary (Genovese, 1999). All the resources expended in the investigations could not answer why a thinking person would get involved in such a ridiculous break-in (Kick, 2003). A Presidential election filters out average people. Though ideological polarization is inevitable, no one can expect a U.S. President to be a person without mature judgment and insights. Yet, the pettiness and futility of the Watergate break-in remains inexplicable. The cover up component aggravated but was separate from the specifics of the break-in (Genovese, 1999). Watergate in hindsight could have been contained by simple but timely admission of error in judgment.
The divisiveness over the Vietnam War may have influenced desperate cover-ups by Nixon, which culminated in Watergate (Genovese, 1999). This angle warns us that people who occupy high places in governance may fall prey to deviousness in order to hide from public view, simple mistakes and inevitable consequences, which may confront them.
Watergate is a classic example of the fact that Presidents and the media are inevitably at loggerheads, because the media reveals things which Presidents wish to hide (Genovese, 1999). The media restricts and counters Presidential powers. Watergate was certainly an extreme matter, but it is far from an exception in terms of the essential structure of a working democracy. The resignation of President Nixon was in this unpleasant way, a striking example of the merits of representative powers of citizens and the watchdog role of a free media.
Watergate also represents the insatiable and irrepressible urge of powerful people to collate intelligence about their adversaries, to use all means to further sectarian objectives, and to fall prey to the temptations of abusing the resources commanded by the offices and positions they occupy.
The Originating Version
The Washington Post, which originally held center-stage in bringing Watergate to the public mind, has been one of the most respected members of its tribe, both before and after the Presidency of Nixon. How does its coverage appear after more than 3 decades?
Remarkable objectivity and restraint, even when reporting on the ultimate resignation, stand out for the Washington Post (The Watergate Story, 2005). Nixon’s own declarations about not sparing the guilty are covered fully and fairly. There is little speculation on motives and some of the issues for which factual bases are not available. There are studious analyses of the deeper malaise, with many columns devoted to the plan for rising above the quagmire. A tone of healing has underlined the days after the full weight of the national crisis unfolded.
Though it was not easy for people from far corners of the globe to access U.S. daily newspapers in the early 1970s, the diplomatic community in Washington must have been seized of reporting in their leading city newspaper. Therefore, the Washington Post did a remarkable job of show casing U.S. democracy and responsible journalism as well, to the international community, as was possible with the technologies of the last century.
The manner in which the Washington Post reported on Watergate is an extraordinary essay in objectivity, self-denial, and dedication to the cause of its readers. The newspaper has truly emerged from the quagmire of Watergate with its brilliance only more embellished, and entirely unscathed by the blot on the American dream. All of the reports of the Washington Post on Watergate are worth using as standards for the best traditions in journalism in the national interest. It will serve succeeding generations of reporters and their editors well in protecting the rights of ordinary people, and with respect to integrity in exposing corruption of thought in all its hues.
A Television Perspective
It is remarkable at how little has changed over the last 3 decades and more, in terms of sensational reporting on television (Beginning of the End, 1972)! The archives show that major networks in the United States have dealt with the information values of Watergate very much as they might with comparable sensations of today.
Such persistent norms are not without their merits. CBS has been most diligent in telling their audience about the specifics of the Watergate tort (Beginning of the End, 1972). There are adequate facts about the break-in took places, the surveillance infrastructure which had been set up in a neighboring building, and about the professional backgrounds of some of the people arrested. It is clear that the law and order machinery has acted with alacrity, thus limiting the damage of the wrongful action. Another admirable feature of the reporting and coverage are the references to the constitutional implications of the incident.
A major lapse appears to be the failure to include random voices of ordinary citizens, at least in the initial reporting (Beginning of the End, 1972). Perhaps CBS would have made the coverage more interactive if such an incident were to occur in conventional times. The capsule could have been improved by professional and opposing opinions of lawyers on the legal and constitutional aspects of the incident, but the network should be given some margin for the limitations of time in this respect.
Views expressed by politicians during the recording (Beginning of the End, 1972) also follow the same lines as one would expect today. Responses are qualified and stop short of outright condemnation of the powerful person behind the incident. One key political respondent even questions the rationale of the break in, as though any end could have justified such means!
The packaging of information within the approximately 6 minutes of recording time available, have been used well, the short comings notwithstanding (Beginning of the End, 1972). The coverage should leave every viewer reflecting on all the images and sounds which have been transmitted, as well as looking forward to further and continued information on the sensational development. The choice of anchor and his mannerisms are appropriate for the gravity of the moment. A viewer does not suffer materially because of the limitations of technology in the early 1970s.
Overall, we may conclude that American television responded adequately in bringing Watergate to the homes of citizens, with reasonably balanced perspectives which would have allowed most audience categories to introspect on the matter for themselves.
From America to the World
It is not easy to relate the material in the archives of the Time magazine on Watergate to that fed to domestic audiences by CBS and the Washington Post. Nixon is presented by Time in benign fashion (Newsfile: Watergate, 2007). There are excessive references to his virtues, his achievements in geo-politics, and his association with Kissinger. Even his failure in Vietnam is presented in apologetic manner; Nixon is made out to be a kind of messiah for the world as Time justifies choosing Kissinger and him as people of the year in 1973. There is much emphasis on how a part of the tapes have been deleted, and there are insidious suggestions that these parts may have somehow exonerated Nixon. There are attempts to present the virtues of the investigation and legal systems, glossing over the criminal thinking behind the act. Time emphasizes that he submitted before the prosecutor appointed by his own hand, trying subtly to anoint a silly law breaker! Since Time magazine in the 1970s was a key harbinger of U.S. interests on the world stage, it appears that Watergate reporting has been colored to look less evil than it was, to the world.
Cynicism dominates politics in the public mind (Mann, 1994). Not all of it is justified, but we may blame incidents such as Watergate for the distortion. Criticism should lead to constructive change, and the eventual success of the U.S. media with respect to Watergate, was to enforce such a prescription, rising above the immediacy of the scandal. However, major differences in domestic and international reporting are obvious from the records of those fortunately distant times of life before the Internet and satellite TV!
Alia, V, 2004, Media Ethics and Social Change, Routledge
Beginning of the End, 1972, CBS Archives, backfile, You Tube web site, retrieved May 2007 from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I28mQEVJQso
Garber, M, Matlock, J, and Walkowitz, R, 1993, Media Spectacles, Routledge
Genovese, M, 1999, The Watergate Crisis, Greenwood Press
Kick, R, 2003, Abuse Your Illusions: The Disinformation Guide to Media Mirages and Establishment Lies, The Disinformation
Mann, T, 1994, Congress, the Press, and the Public, Brookings Institution
Newsfile: Watergate, 2007, Archives of Time magazine, retrieved May 2007 from: http://www.time.com/time/newsfiles/watergate/
Perse, E, 2000, Media Effects and Society, Lawrence Erlbaum
Sanford, B, 1991, Libel and Privacy, Aspen Publishers
The Watergate Story, 2005, Archives of The Washington Post, retrieved May 2007 from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/politics/specials/watergate/articles/