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As relevant today as it was in 1973 - Democracy dies in darkness without a free press
on March 10, 2017
Timothy Crouse covers a lot of territory in this description of how the press covers a presidential campaign, or at least how it used to. While there are differences between the 1972 regime and today’s coverage, there are some disturbing similarities.
One major difference is the degree to which news, including campaign coverage, has shifted from the printed page to the instant communications of today and the degree to which social media has overtaken or distorted traditional news coverage. I wondered if today’s media could afford the sort of budgets that the campaign coverage must have required in 1972, including the size of their staffs. The book describes the intimacy of some relationships between the journalists, as well as editors and owners, and Washington politicians, which sometimes led to favoritism. These included long-term relationships like those of Robert Novak of Evans & Novak, for example, as well as outright shills who acted as little more than PR flacks for Nixon, some of whom received favors from the White House, like exclusive stories or interviews. The author even cites his own close relationships to both Goldwater and LBJ, and says that he never heared from either after criticizing them in print.
I would be surprised if any of the personal data grubbing reporters did in those days is still used today. I was surprised to learn that even high-end reporters like Novak travelled to many cities during the year to personally canvas residents, door-to-door. Today’s computerized surveying and polling has likely made that approach obsolete, as has diminishing budgets, but we might speculate as to whether the November election would have been as big a shock as it was had more of that kind of canvassing been done.
The book offers a stark reminder of the Nixon administration’s efforts to stifle and demonize the press, not unlike the far more clumsy attempts by our current Clown-in-Chief’s attempt to do the same thing. But, even though Nixon and Ron Ziegler were more adept at doing that, the objective, and quite possibly the result, was the same. Agnew, particularly, bashed the press, accusing them of bias and elitism, especially his labeling the “elite eastern press” in an effort to discredit anything it reported. I found interesting the reaction of newspapers to those charges with initiatives like “mood of the country” pieces and visits to cities and towns designed to take the country’s pulse (with mixed results). Ironically, newspapers like the New York Times, long a favorite whipping boy for conservatives who claimed bias, bent over backwards to kill stories that it deemed too one-sided or inappropriate for campaign coverage. This apparent timidity or stubbornness on the part of that newspaper, and undoubtedly others, often frustrated their reporters, who found stories rejected or edited on that basis, but which they felt were the real news coming out of campaigns and the purpose of their work. Indeed, by the end of the book we get the impression that the campaigns and the media coverage of them, were a lot of superficial fluff, nearly devoid of substance, which ultimately drove the reporters to fits of boredom and frustration. The traveling press corps seemed to rely heavily on printed handouts or prepared speeches, which they knew their competitors would lead with, rather than branching out on their own to dig into more substantive questions about the candidates and their views.
While the author portrays a hard-working press and zealous, dedicated reporters, he also shows a kind of corruption within the press that suppressed stories, filtered information, and both reporters and editors who valued important sources and cozy relationships with politicians more than tenacious journalism. Most of the reporters showed a healthy degree of cynicism and saw through the campaign rhetoric, sometimes reporting it, but often seeing their stories killed by editors. Many reporters, editors, and publishers felt they were part of the establishment or administration, referring to it as “we”, including some vacuous, superficial, self-serving writers like Hugh Sidey.
This “blind eye” approach appeared in a more ominous way when police and Nixon supporters beat and stomped a group of protestors at a Nixon rally in New York. Nixon smiled and praised the police. Other protestors where assaulted by Nixon supporters near the stage as well. With few exceptions, the press failed to report the violence. The author suggests some of this neglect was born of the White House press’s boredom with the dull, orchestrated Nixon campaign, or newspaper “rules”, written or otherwise, that rejected such stories as not objective or inappropriate for campaign coverage. He also suggests that some reporters were cowed by Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler or curried favor with him. A few reporters tried to file the story but were either rejected by editors or found it buried deep inside the paper. This event was similar to violence at some Trump rallies, which today’s press at least reported. Although that may be inevitable and beyond press control these days, thanks to cell phone cameras and the internet’s social media platforms, it is still one improvement over 1972’s self-censorship.
Even as the Watergate story began to emerge, and many in the press corps finally woke up when it smelled blood, editors remained reluctant to go too far into the story or make it a major one. Far worse was the press’s barracuda-like infighting, exemplified by most of the press seeking to isolate the Washington Post when it broke the Watergate story. Instead of joining in the investigation that later took Nixon down, other news organizations ignored those stories or buried them deep in their papers, which played into Nixon’s efforts to isolate the Post and supported his claim that the Post had a vendetta against him. Only later, when the story could not be ignored or marginalized, did other papers pile onto the Watergate story.
Similarly, major news organizations were reluctant to do the kind of fact checking and reporting that is common today. The author singles out Cassie Mackin’s TV news report exposing the false charges that Nixon was making against McGovern, which he considered brave and extraordinary because the rest of the press failed to do so. This only added to the image of the extensive, costly campaign coverage being of little journalistic value.
By 1972, Nixon had learned how to play the press, which was not organized for, or inclined to mount, a unified offensive. The White House press corps was not assertive in face of Nixon's attacks on them either, which echoes those of the Trump administration today. The corps behaved in a cowardly way by not supporting Clark Mollenhoff when he battled Ziegler over a quote he’d given Mollenhoff regarding the source of money used by the Watergate burglars, which Ziegler said must have come from CREEP. Molenhoff’s colleagues hypocritically patted him on the back even as they enabled Ziegler's lying denial.
Again, it is hard to avoid the similarities to coverage of the 2016 campaign as superficial and irresponsible. News media often sought to “equalize” Clinton and Trump, feeding the claim that they were both equally unpopular and not very different from one another. This portrayal was coupled with an attempt to “normalize” Trump, despite his incendiary language and divisive speeches, although some blame for this has been leveled at the Clinton campaign for its focus on Trump’s shortcomings rather than promoting its own agenda and policies. Today the press is showing timidity toward Trump, although it is to be hoped that his ham-fisted assault on the press will awaken it and bring on a counter-offensive much sooner than its response to Nixon.
The press also has seemed reluctant to pursue information suggesting that Trump and some of his associates have unsavory ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin, including their efforts to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia in order to open it to oil exploration by Exxon. Only 4 weeks into the Trump administration, information has leaked exposing Trump’s efforts to do exactly that by brokering some sort of deal with Russia regarding Ukraine. It was Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and advances into eastern Ukraine that resulted in the Obama administration placing those sanctions on Russia. Only now does the press (not to mention Congress) seem to be taking these things seriously (maybe).
Similarly, the press (and Congress) has largely laid off of FBI Director Comey, who violated Justice Department policies by unilaterally releasing a memo only 11 days prior to the election suggesting there were more Hillary Clinton emails that had come to light that might result in the FBI reopening its investigation of her. Comey had not even seen these emails and they turned out to be either insignificant or duplicates of emails the FBI had already investigated, but the damage of his announcement had already been done and may have impacted the outcome of the election. On the other hand, Comey made no statements regarding an FBI investigation of the Trump-Russia connection and illegal Russian contacts that had been made by Trump’s representatives. Flynn was fired, not for his own illegal contacts with Russian diplomats prior to Trump’s inauguration, but for lying about them to Pence.
In fairness, I do not know if the press was aware of any of this. Now, however, it remains to be seen how deeply the press is willing to go in its investigation of these allegations, or if Congress will look into them, which might embolden the press. Are there any Woodwards and Bernsteins today, or newspapers that will back them? What resources can newspapers bring to that effort today and are they able to counter the avalanche of fake news, speculation, conspiracy theories, and outright nonsense churned out on social media (and from the White House) every hour?
Some have suggested that Trump’s opponents are misguided in their efforts to ridicule him or fixate on his daily nonsensical statements and pratfalls because it distracts attention from the more meaningful policy decisions the administration is making. Some have compared Trump’s rise and his popular support to that of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. Berlusconi was also an easy target for personal attacks, but they only increased his popularity and created a kind of sympathy for him. Only when political opponents focused on his policies, showed how they were harmful, and treated him like any other politician, were they able to unseat him – after nine years! The same may be true of how the press can best treat Trump.
If any of this is true, it is also an indication of how badly informed a lot of voters are, or how little they care about the truth, choosing instead to believe what makes them comfortable and comports with their pre-conceived notions of what reality is and how it should be dealt with. Hence, hysteria over imaginary hordes of drug addicts, murderers and rapists surging over our southern border, along with legions of Muslim immigrants bent on carrying out terrorist attacks, and “millions” of illegals voting in the 2016 election. We are now witnessing ugly scenes of immigration officials breaking into homes and rounding up illegals, including children, some of whom have lived and worked here for years and have not committed any crimes while here. President Obama deported more illegal immigrants than any president before him, but he focused on those who committed crimes in the United States. Trump, instead, has instituted a roundup of all illegals. It may be an exaggeration to compare this to Hitler’s rounding up of Jews or the U.S. interment of Japanese Americans during World War II, but it is ominous.
If support for such programs and the existence of such hysteria can be put down to an inability or unwillingness of the press to adequately inform the public, this book is as relevant today as it was when published. If, instead, it is the result of people simply shutting out news that they find unacceptable, no matter how true it may be, that is something else. Since “St. Ronnie” killed the Fairness Doctrine, slanted “news” and outright propaganda and falsehoods have been routinely broadcast to millions of Americans every day by people like Rush Limbaugh and outlets like Fox News, which could not exist or carry on this way if they were required to give equal time to opposing points of view, as was required under the Fairness Doctrine.
All of this may be moot by now, given the immediacy of the internet and social media. Countering that may be like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Which does not bode well for us or for the role that history should play in political life, because history, too, has been woefully distorted and manipulated by politicians. Uninformed people who are ready to believe anything that makes them feel good are putty in the hands of those politicians. It’s enough to drive a fellow to existential nihilism.