I hadn’t thought a lot about Watergate until recently. But about a month or so ago, I read Bob Woodward’s The Secret Man, the story of Deep Throat, and watched All the President’s Men. And I just finished Ben Bradlee’s memoir A Good Life .
My purpose here is not to compare Watergate with the current Russia investigation. But rather to think about the role of the press. Or, as some call it, the “mainstream media”.
The media was very different in the early 1970s. There was network news but no cable news, and – although there was a long history of muckraking – investigatory journalism had really not yet been invented.
So when Woodward and Bernstein began to look at the Watergate break-in and discovered that at least one of the five burglars had been a CIA official and two of them were in contact with Howard Hunt at the White House, they were lucky enough to have no competition, and to work for a financially struggling newspaper which gave them pretty well free reign, at some risk.
As it turned out, Woodward and Bernstein became heroes and investigative journalism was born.
Today, of course, hundreds of journalists for print, on-line and cable media are tripping over themselves looking for signs of Trump-Russian connivance, and pointing out the myriad of self-inflicted Trump snafus and stumbles.
Of course, some things have not changed. Investigative reporter’s still rely on leaks and inside sources which all administrations look to root out without success. Everything negative reported about the government’s activities are now, as then, vehemently denied, with most of the denials easily challenged. And government officials continually attack the press both for bias and for inaccurate (and often purposely so) reporting. This is all the same – 1972 or 2017.
Reading The Secret Man you realize the importance of sources. Mark Felt, Deep Throat, was #2 at the FBI, and bitter that he had been passed over for Director after J. Edgar Hoover died. So he was mad at Nixon – is this why he became a source for Woodward? Or is it because Felt and Woodward had known each other for years with Felt sometimes acting as a mentor for the much younger Woodward? (In the film, the identity of Deep Throat was still unknown, so nothing about his connection to Woodward or his bitterness was hinted at.)
But you learn from reading Woodward how hard he and Bernstein worked on Watergate, but also, with Felt, how important connections are. And when you read Bradlee, it’s the connections which seem the more important.
Bradlee worked as a foreign correspondent, as a reporter for the Washington Post and Newsweek, and then as managing editor and executive editor of the Post, holding the last job for over 20 years. If I had had the opportunity to meet Bradlee, I think I would have disliked him. Too much of a sense of privilege and noblesse oblige. He came from a prominent Boston family with connection after connection, he was tall, thin and personable. He fooled around through Harvard, married a Saltonstall and joined the Navy. After four exciting years in the South Pacific, and a turn as a fun loving American reporter in Paris (with diversions in Israel and Algeria), he divorced the Saltonstall and married a Pinchot.
Moving back to Washington, he bought a Georgetown house and soon found himself a neighbor of Senator John F. Kennedy and his young wife Jackie. Through his background, his wives, his jobs and his neighbors, he knew absolutely everyone. If you want to be executive editor of the Washington Post, these connections are central. (By the way, Bradlee divorced the Pinchot and married Sally Quinn. This marriage worked, lasting over 30 years until Bradlee died. But, with his first two wives, and three children, he was far from being an ideal husband or father.)
Both of these books are worth reading. Woodward’s relationship with Felt is absolutely fascinating. And Bradlee, like him or not, gives a very readable account of Watergate, along with interesting stories of his youth, his Navy service, his time in Paris, and other big stories, including Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and many other stories, with an emphasis on how they were covered by the paper and the choices that had to be made regarding their publication.
Journalism has never been easy. And, in case you haven’t figured this out, it is not an exact science.