Watergate and the Washington Post
Watergate and the Washington Post
As he began to plan his reelection campaign in 1971, Nixon developed the ambition, according to Kissinger, of winning “by the biggest electoral land- slide in history.” Nixon let his close advisers know that he would support and authorize any action, no matter how unethical or illegal, to bring about this result. His paid staffers and supporters reacted with enthusiasm. With Nixon’s approval, they disrupted Democratic candidates’ speeches and rallies, started riots, made inappropriate and embarrassing statements while posing as Democratic campaigners, and sent out oddly-worded or incoherent mailings on Democratic Party letterhead that made voters, thinking Democrats had written them, withdraw their support. Nixon succeeded in winning the 1972 election by a huge landslide, but he and his supporters destroyed his reputation in the process. The step that brought down the entire house of cards happened several months before the election—a break-in at the Democratic Party’s national offices in the Watergate buildings in Washington.
Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, police entered the Watergate and arrested five burglars carrying wiretapping equipment, cameras, and wads of hundred-dollar bills. Because this was a local crime story, the Washington Post city editor sent two city reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, to cover it. These two men pursued the story for months, uncovering new leads and evidence of crimes that led straight to the Oval Office. Woodward and Bernstein soon learned that the Committee to Re-elect the President, run by Nixon and his White House staff, had paid the Watergate burglars in cash to break into the offices to look for damaging or embarrassing information that might be used against Democratic candidates.
Woodward had a friend of some years’ standing in the upper levels of the federal government; this man, known only as “Deep Throat” to protect his security, became one of the most important sources on the Watergate story. More than 30 years later, a soft-spoken elderly man named W. Mark Felt informed Vanity Fair magazine that he was Deep Throat. During the Nixon administration, Felt had served as deputy director of the FBI.
The Watergate coverage reveals an extremely important principle of the free press—that the names of sources must be kept confidential. A reporter must judge whether the source’s information is reliable. If it is not reliable, the reporter will not print it. If it is reliable, the reporter must protect the source by quoting him or her anonymously, using a phrase such as “one highly placed source says” or “a source inside the White House stated.” This ensures that people who possess damaging information about powerful figures feel free to inform the press without risking their careers or their lives. Woodward and Bernstein extended this protection not only to Felt, but to many White House staffers or former staffers whose positions were much less prominent than his. These clerks, switchboard operators, staffers, and secretaries gave the reporters a wealth of specific details about wrongdoing in the Nixon White House.
In 1791, the United States became almost the only nation in the world to guarantee freedom of the press in its Constitution. The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage proves that a free press is one of the basic essentials of a democratic society. It is a necessary check on the power of the government. It proves the validity of Abraham Lincoln’s description of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
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