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Citizen Journalism and Lessons from Watergate
The role of investigative reporting in unraveling scandal
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-06-20 07:32 (KST)   
An important anniversary in American politics passed this weekend with very little notice. June 17, 2006 was the 34th anniversary of the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. The investigation into the break-in and its connections to the Republican Party eventually revealed a set of wide ranging "dirty tricks" designed to subvert the whole electoral process as it functioned in the US.

The headquarters of the illegal activity reached into the Nixon White House. The cover-up that had stymied the effort to investigate the illegal activity reached into the FBI, the Justice Department, the Secret Service and even Congress. The very institutions within the US government created to investigate and prosecute the illegal activity were enmeshed in its intricate web.

At the time, however, there still existed institutions and people able to investigate and uncover the crimes. The critical institution was the press. Foremost was the Washington Post. Also, though, reporters like Seymour Hersh then at the New York Times, and reporters at other media institutions like Time Magazine and United Press International (UPI) contributed to unraveling and making public the deeds and connections like "ratfucking" (1) and "offensive security" (2) and the "secret fund" (3) which made a mockery out of any legitimate election campaign.

The book "All the President's Men" written by Bernstein and Woodward was first published in 1974. It presents a vivid account of the effort of these reporters, their editors at the Washington Post, and the owner of the newspaper Katherine Graham, to carry out a difficult investigation to learn who was behind the Watergate break-in and the web of high level political intrigue that was the backdrop for the break-in. Through a concentrated but dedicated process they uncovered the web of political espionage and sabotage that connected the office of the presidency itself with the activities manipulating the electoral campaigns of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Finally, the web of subversion and cover-up began to unravel under the continuing pressure of the press and the opening of an investigation by Congress.

The account by investigative reporters Bernstein and Woodward of the difficult process they had to undertake to crack the story of the Watergate break-in is particularly prescient for an understanding what is happening in the investigation of the outing of the undercover CIA identity of Valerie Plame. The Watergate story shows that the US government is not capable of investigating crimes within its own high level ranks on its own. The investigation of the Watergate burglary was treated in a narrow perspective by the FBI and the Justice Department. Though their investigators found that there were ties to other activities like the funding of illegal election activities, the government investigators were not able to pursue these ties. Eventually, it was revealed that the acting head of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray had acted to contain the investigation, even to the extent of destroying some of the most damaging documents himself.(4)

Another lesson is that the White House sought to attack the Washington Post and its reporters and other newspapers working on investigating the crimes. Wire taps were used, and a campaign of seeking to discredit the newspapers and their investigation was mounted. The White House sought to learn the reporters' sources and to get access to their notes.

Without an independent investigation by reporters like Bernstein, Woodward, Hersh and others into the details of the illegal activity, and the links to a broadranging set of illegal activity, the web of deceit and intrigue would not have been uncovered, nor understood.

Katherine Graham, who was then the owner of the Washington Post, describes the various forms of pressure by the Nixon administration on the newspaper to get it to stop reporting on Watergate. Along with public attacks on the credibility of the newspaper from the White House, from Nixon's campaign manager and from Congressman Bob Dole, access of reporters from the newspaper to events and people at the White House was withdrawn, and a plan was in process to get a conservative Pittsburgh millionaire to buy the newspaper. Also challenges were filed to withdraw the licenses of the Post's two Florida television stations. Most devastating, Graham reports, was the fact that there was a sharp decline in the stock price of the company and the legal bills were growing leading to her concern for the very survival of the newspaper itself. Her article helps to document the risk to a newspaper which supports its reporters to investigate a crime in the upper levels of the US government. In describing her own role in the Watergate investigation, she writes(5):

"I have often been credited with courage for backing our editors in Watergate. The truth is that I never felt much choice. There was never one major decisive moment when I, or anyone, could have suggested that we stop reporting the story. Watergate unfolded gradually. By the time the story had grown to the point where the size of it dawned on us, we had already waded deeply into its stream. Once I found myself in the deepest water in the middle of the current, there was no going back."

There are many more lessons to be learned from reviewing the Watergate break-in and the role of the press in unraveling the web of deceit and illegality it was part of. Without the persistent and active investigation into the trails that led from the break-in into the highest reaches of political power in the US government at the time, however, little progress would have been made. To expect that reporters and their organization will be attacked by those being investigated, is one critical tenet to be drawn from reviewing Watergate. Another is that the government itself is in a poor position to conduct the investigation if there isn셳 the watchdog that an independent investigative press can provide. While the uncovering of the corruption underlying the Watergate break-in was a critical achievement of the US press in 1970s, the current state of the US press raises the question of whether it is possible to undercover such corruption in our times.

Speaking about the degeneration of US news organizations in a talk in Florida in 2004, Carl Bernstein condemned "that type of news (which) panders to the public and insults their intelligence, ignoring the context of real life."(6) Instead he offered that, "Good journalism should challenge people, not just mindlessly amuse them." Bernstein's analysis was that the "modern press lacks true leadership." He gave as an example the media owner, Rupert Murdoch who Bernstein said, has "abandoned the principles of meaningful reporting." Bernstein expressed the hope it would become possible to find reputable sources providing their own news about important world matters via the Internet.

Can the Internet and the online community of netizens fulfill the need for investigative journalism and the kind of systematic probing needed to learn what is really behind an important story like the Watergate break-in? (7) Solving such a problem remains as a serious challenge to the developing world of 21st century citizen journalism.

Notes:

(1) Ratfucking is an American slang term for "a program of orchestrated political sabotage by supporters of Richard Nixon against Nixon's political opponents. These included, but were not limited to, cancelling meeting-hall reservations just prior to rallies, releasing false press releases or 'leaked documents' in the name of political opponents, spying on rival campaigns, stuffing ballot boxes, ordering vast quantities of food for delivery in the name of rival campaigns, conducting deceptive or offensive get out the vote phone canvasses, push polls and similar activities." From Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratfucking

(2) Offensive Security is the term for an intelligence-sabotage operation쫛f the Nixon forces. "It included: following members of Democratic candidates' families and assembling dossiers on their personal lives; forging letters and distributing them under the candidates' letterheads; leaking false and manufactured items to the press; throwing campaign schedules into disarray; seizing confidential campaign files; and investigating the lives of dozens of Democratic campaign workers In addition, investigators said the activities included planting provocateurs in the ranks of organizations expected to demonstrate at the Republican and Democratic conventions; and investigating potential donors to the Nixon campaign before their contributions were solicited" --from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, "FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats," Washington Post, Tuesday, October 10, 1972.
http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/HIUS316/mbase/docs/washpost.htm

(3) "Secret Fund" - the slush fund that was used to finance the campaign of dirty tricks. The fund was first controlled by Attorney General John Mitchell and then control was shared with others. The fund was kept in the safe in an office of Nixon셲 chief fund raiser. Bernstein and Woodward reported on the fund in the October 10 1972 issue of The Washington Post.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/articles/101072-1.htm

(4) About the role of L. Patrick Gray, see
http://ap.grolier.com/article?assetid=0411680-00

See also documents
http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB156/index2.htm

(5) Katherine Graham, who died in July 2001, describes her role in providing the leadership and support for the investigative reporting that uncovered the Watergate story, see
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/stories/graham.htm
Katherine Graham, Washington Post, January 28, 1997, "The Watergate Watershed: A Turning Point for a Nation and a Newspaper."

(6) Brady Dennis, "Ex-Watergate writer laments 'idiot culture,' St Petersburg Times, March 19, 2004.
http://www.sptimes.com/2004/03/19/Tampabay/Ex_Watergate_writer_l.shtml

(7) See for example the debate over the problems of investigative reporting experienced by the online news site "Truthout" at
http://forum.truthout.org/blog/story/2006/6/14/182858/234
and AmericaBlog.com:
http://www.haloscan.com/comments.php?user=katsiva&comment=115059857988460158
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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