Opinion

45 years of Watergate: Why the journalism of the Washington Post-NYT holds lessons for today’s media

What could have been passed off as an innocuous burglary became one of the biggest stories in journalism globally.

On June 17, 1972, burglars owing allegiance to the Republican Party broke into the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington DC and tried to steal secrets that could embarrass their rivals in the Democratic Party. What could have been passed off as an innocuous burglary became one of the biggest stories in journalism globally, and reshaped the way reporters could hold establishments accountable. The story started in 1972 and nearly two years of courageous reporting led to the resignation of the then United States President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.

That was 45 years ago. Ideally, the episode should have set higher standards for journalism globally. It did not.

Brothers in arms

On May 19 this year, the New York Times tweeted a column by James Stewart praising The Washington Post for its stellar work in exposing links between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians. Stewart was referring to the Post’s latest break on how Trump may have revealed highly classified intelligence that had come to the Central Intelligence Agency through the Israelis during a chat at the White House. The story was astounding and Stewart went on to describe how important the reporting by the Post was.

The story was tweeted by the official handle of The New York Times, followed immediately by a second tweet asking their followers to follow The Washington Post’s Twitter handle. The Washington Post replied within minutes, posting a GIF image of the two main characters from the TV series The X-Files. It was an acknowledgement that they were partners in a national narrative to use journalism to expose the truth.

To those not familiar with the two newspapers, their relationship goes back decades, embodying a healthy competitive spirit that has defined journalism in many ways. This is beautifully captured by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book on the Watergate scandal, All The President’s Men.

The Watergate investigation was a very difficult one. As the two reporters stumbled from one scrap of information to the other, their editors often expressed frustration. A scene from the now famous 1976 film based on the book has Jason Robards, portraying the then Post editor Ben Bradlee, burst out saying: “When the f#*k is someone going on record on this story?” Those are the dilemmas an editor faces in the newsroom every day.

At another point in the investigation, the two reporters are hunched over the fax machine, waiting for The New York Times to send across a facsimile of its front page. The papers had started a tradition of exchanging front pages before they went into print. For the two Post reporters, it was a low point in their investigation with sources drying up, and they were keen to see if The New York Times had broken new ground. As expected, it had broken a big story that would push the investigation forward. And not only was The New York Times expressing support for The Washington Post, it was actively helping push the investigation. While the reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, hunted as a pair, so did the two newspapers.

But this was not the first instance, or the last one, of the two newspapers thus partnering up. In 1971, when The New York Times scooped the secret Pentagon Papers, exposing the United States government’s lies about the Vietnam war, The Washington Post immediately gave chase, getting their own copy of the papers. The Nixon administration immediately moved court to shut down the publication. It was left to these two newspapers to go to court and push it to the Supreme Court, which ruled with a majority of 6-3 that freedom of the press was supreme and outweighed all other concerns, including national security.

Journalism in the Trump era

Once again, after the election of President Donald Trump, who assumed office in January, we see the two newspapers combine their journalistic skills to push the expose, doggedly following every lead. They have received active support from their colleagues in other media organisations, be it CNN or the Los Angeles Times or the online media. Largely together, the media has acted as a bulwark against Trump, pushing back on his claims and fact-checking everything to reveal the truth.

This is not easy in a post-truth or alternative-facts world. Facts have stopped mattering, as belief has taken over. Tweets by Trump labelling inconvenient reports as “fake news” has sought to delegitimise the one institution that has refused to toe his line – the media. So, a familiar campaign has started where Trump and his online followers target the media by quietly shutting out facts and uncomfortable questions that could undermine his presidency. But the papers and the media have not given up, and continue to use the first amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees them their freedom to report.

What has encouraged this counter-narrative is the willingness of media houses to continue to fund reporting. Journalism can be expensive business: salaries have to be paid and technology upgraded to survive the competition. For media owners, the return on investment can get frustrating as balance sheets refuse to justify the costs.

But that has not been the case here. Despite major cutbacks and layoffs, major media houses have continued to fund investigations and journalists so that they can go about doing their reportage. This, in turn, as both The New York Times and The Washington Post are realising, has helped them find new audiences and new revenue streams to support their work.

Journalism in the Modi era

There is a fallacy that the media in India has become more subservient than it was earlier. Clearly, this is not the case. The role of the media in India, just after the Watergate scandal was winding down, is well documented and shameful. Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani’s famous quote – “Some crawled when asked to bend” – will be forever immortalised as a damning indictment of the media in India during the Emergency, a 21-month-long period in the 1970s when civil liberties were curbed and the press censored.

At no time has India witnessed a partnership like that between The New York Times and The Washington Post, hunting as a pair, except perhaps in the investigation into the Bofors scandal – which implicated the Rajiv Gandhi government in allegations of receiving kickbacks from Swedish defence firm Bofors AB for the supply of Howitzer guns – when The Indian Express and The Hindu chased the story with help from The Statesman. But it was not really a partnership.

As pressures have increased and bottom lines have shrunk, media houses have cut down on reporting: the key ingredient that differentiated the media from other publications. Today, opinions rule the market. This is not because the Indian audience has evolved significantly to grow on an exclusive diet of opinions. This is because opinions are cheap. Everyone has them and they can be churned out quickly. Panel discussions on television news channels are the electronic version of opinion in print.

A TV panel shouts, provokes and fights, with a screaming anchor thrown in the mix, while reportage and facts are shelved. This is convenient and cheap. A guest on a panel discussion costs Rs 4,000 or less, and the topic is the outrage of the day. This means the channel has no need to spend money on supporting reporters who can get stories. The visuals come from a single agency, further cutting costs, while the outrage of the day not only makes for a good bottom line but also decent viewership, all translating into revenue.

So, we are now witness to a phenomenon where TV channels focus on the Opposition rather than the government. Take the delay in extraditing Vijay Mallya, whose now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines owes banks several thousand crores in unpaid loans, from the United Kingdom. Instead of talking about the inordinate delay by the Central Bureau of Investigation in filing the necessary papers in the British court, a TV channel instead asks if India should break off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. The fact that the courts are independent of the British government is cast aside. The fact that the Central Bureau of Investigation, which reports to a ministry headed by the prime minister, has delayed submitting its papers is ignored as well. Facts can be inconvenient and impede efforts to manufacture consent.

The same abuse of those in the media who question the establishment in the United States has been prevalent in India since 2014, when the BJP government took over. This is not to say the insidious relationship between media owners and the establishment did not exist earlier. It existed, and was brought out in great detail by the Radia tapes in 2008-2009, which saw hundreds of conversations between lobbyist Nira Radia and senior editors trying to fix everything from newspaper coverage to ministerial berths.

Those compromises weakened Indian journalists to such an extent that they have had to either hold on to their contracts or report the story. Clearly, the former pays the bills while the latter only earns new enemies.

In the 45th year of the Watergate scandal and the investigative journalism that defined it, these are important thoughts to ponder. The fate of a democracy depends on it.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.