On October 19, 1972, four months after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that set off the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, gave the president some shocking news on the source of a series of damaging stories in The Washington Post that had begun to tie the bungled break-in to the White House. “We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told Nixon as the Oval Office tapes whirred in the background.
“Is it somebody in the FBI?” Nixon asked.
“Yes, sir,” Haldeman reported. “Very high up.”
Nearly half a century later, as another American president finds himself engulfed in scandal over claims of election misconduct, his staff may well want to start reading up on the Watergate scandal. Thanks in large part to the bestselling book All the President’s Men, the source for the classic film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is understood in the popular imagination as the story of a newspaper investigation. In this version of the tale, two hotshot reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, fueled by righteous indignation and a burning desire to get the story, nearly single-handedly brought down the leader of the Western world.
But this slant on Watergate is, in many ways, an accident of history. Because Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal their prime source, famously nicknamed Deep Throat, until 2005, it has taken historians decades to piece together an accurate account of how the scandal unfolded. In fact, as Tim Weiner details in his recent history of the Nixon presidency, One Man Against the World, one of the principal architects of the president’s downfall was Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI who, as a deep background source to Woodward and Bernstein, leaked incriminating information from the FBI files that he knew would probably never see the light of day in any other way.
Felt held a personal grudge against Nixon. A 30-year veteran of the FBI, Felt believed he was the rightful heir to the job of FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in. When Nixon passed him over for L. Patrick Gray, Felt was hurt — and smelled a cover-up. But Felt was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to understand that a mere FBI agent, even the deputy director, could not take on a president alone. So he used the best tool at hand, a young, ambitious reporter he happened to know at The Washington Post.
In other words, while the Watergate scandal was the product of shoe-leather investigations by a pair of dogged reporters, and later by an equally dogged pair of special prosecutors, Richard Nixon was also very much the target of a palace coup.
This is the essence of the news Haldeman delivered to Nixon in October 1972. The recording of their conversation is now available on YouTube, and it is worth a listen for anyone interested in speculating on the kinds of conversations Donald Trump may be having with his aides as he combats the recent spate of damaging leaks from intelligence operatives and his own staff.
Felt, Haldeman explains in that October 19 conversation, is the source of the press leaks, but there isn’t much the president can do about it. “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything,” Haldeman tells Nixon. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.”
“What would you do to Felt?” Nixon asks.
“I asked (White House Counsel John] Dean,” Haldeman says. “He says you can’t prosecute him.”
“Oh, no?” Nixon says.
“He hasn’t committed any crime,” Haldeman reminds him.
Trump, of course, faces no such constraint in his own skirmishes over press leaks. Since much of the material being leaked about alleged connections between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government during the election involves classified national security matters, Trump can plausibly threaten to prosecute the leakers. And, unlike Nixon, Trump has a stalwart Republican majority in both houses of Congress as well as a popular distrust of the media almost unimaginable in the early 1970s.
Still, if there is any truth to leaked claims that Trump’s aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials involved in hacking into the Clinton campaign’s email servers during the 2016 election, Trump and his team would do well to heed the hard lessons of Nixon’s discovery of the Watergate leaker, Mark Felt. On the October 19 tape, Haldeman, grasping at straws, suggests transferring Felt to “Ottumwa, Iowa,” to which Nixon replies: “Christ! You’d know what I’d do with him? Ambassador.” (“He’d like that, you know,” Haldeman says.)
But in the end they did nothing. According to Weiner, FBI director Patrick Gray was ordered to fire Felt five times, but he never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Gray himself was ousted, and Felt retired from the FBI in 1973 after Nixon again passed him over the top job. He eventually moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived in relative obscurity until Woodward outed him as Deep Throat in his 2005 book The Secret Man.
Felt died, a hero to many, in 2008.
In 1798, a decade after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, President John Adams signed the infamous Sedition Act. The controversial law, passed alongside a slate of Alien Acts aimed at cracking down on immigrants deemed dangerous to the state, made it illegal to produce any “false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States…with intent to defame the said government…or to stir up sedition within the United States.”
The brief history of the Sedition Act, which expired in 1800 after Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, had its comic moments. One day, an elderly New Jerseyan, Luther Baldwin, stopped to watch President Adams and his wife parade down Newark’s Broad Street accompanied by a 16-gun salute. According to James MacGregor Burns’s judicial history, Packing the Court, someone in the crowd shouted, “There goes the President and they’re firing at his a – !” Baldwin, who had been drinking, retorted that he “did not care if they fired thro’ his a – !” and was promptly clapped into jail.
But the Sedition Act was also used to silence press criticism. Scottish-born polemicist James Callender spent nine months in jail and paid a $200 fine for calling President Adams, among other things, a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” More famously, Benjamin Bache, editor of the virulently anti-Federalist paper the Aurora, was arrested under the Sedition Act after printing stories attacking Adams and accusing George Washington of secretly collaborating with the British during the Revolutionary War.
I was reminded of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the opening days of the Administration of Donald Trump when, in rapid succession, the president halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and his chief policy adviser, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times that the media “should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Like a lot of people who read Bannon’s interview during that first tumultuous week when the president was signing one new wildly controversial executive order after another and millions of Americans were flooding the streets and airports in protest, I heard only the line about the nation’s media needing to sit down and shut up.
When I reread the Times piece some days later I realized that Bannon wasn’t simply trying to muzzle the American media. He was also delivering a blistering critique of a media culture so lost in its bubble of urbane liberal comfort that it missed what may one day prove to be the story of the century. “The media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” he said of the 2016 election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.” This, the blown coverage of the 2016 campaign, is the context for his headline-making denunciations. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he told Times reporter Michael Grynbaum, adding: “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”
Now, obviously, mainstream media outlets weren’t the only ones who misread the Trump election. Everybody missed that story, including some members of Trump’s own campaign staff. It is also absurd to suggest that “the media,” en masse, are out to get Trump and his administration. There is, after all, a well-financed network of right-leaning news sites, one of which, Breitbart.com, Bannon himself has run, offering full-throated support to Trump’s presidency and even more full-throated condemnation of his enemies.
But if you look past the bombast and exaggeration, you can detect in Bannon’s comments the outlines of a chillingly accurate analysis of an American news media crippled by half a century of technological disruption. The national media did miss the white-working-class rage that propelled Trump into office last fall, and even now large swatches of the mainstream press seems perplexed by — and in some cases, openly opposed to — the president that populist anger helped elect. Meanwhile, the news sites that saw Trump coming, the Breitbarts of the world, seem dangerously uninterested in facts and instead relentlessly push a hard-right political agenda.
This, then, is the predicament facing the American news consumer today. It’s not just that we live in a polarized media universe. It’s that we are, journalistically speaking, flying blind. One segment of the population, the one that just elected a president, is in thrall to a fact-challenged ideological fringe while the rest of the population relies on a badly weakened legacy media whose reporters are highly educated and professionally concerned with facts and evidence, but so deeply ensconced in their elite, urban echo chamber that they’re not always capable of making sense of the facts they find.
Thus, as we stand in the still-smoking ruins of the 20th-century American media machine, we risk returning to a media environment not unlike the one before the rise of the mass-circulated print newspapers when a hyper-partisan press free-for-all pushed an American president to sign a law allowing the government to lock up journalists it didn’t like.
I care about news because I read and watch a lot of it and because I rely on it as a voter, but in another way, this is personal for me. Thirty years ago, as a 22-year-old straight out of college, I lucked into a job at my hometown weekly, the Mill Valley Record. I had no journalism training, and I hadn’t written a news story since high school. I just showed up one day in the newsroom looking for work and the editor handed me a press release for an upcoming public meeting. “Why don’t you go to this?” he said. “If there’s any news in it, we’ll print it.” Three months later, I had a full-time job covering local politics.
Like many young reporters in those days, what little I knew about journalism before I began practicing it myself came from two books, All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. The Halberstam book is a massive doorstop history of 20th-century journalism while the Woodward and Bernstein book is a tick-tock thriller about a single major news investigation, but both books offer riveting accounts of American print journalism’s finest hour, the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate Scandal, which ultimately caused the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
At the Record, I may have been covering planning and zoning meetings and writing puff pieces about local businesses, but in my mind I was a junior Bob Woodward nailing down that last fact, making that extra phone call, so that one day I would be able to speak truth to power on the front pages of a major metro daily. What I didn’t know — what no one of that era understood — was that in a little more than a decade the Internet would strangle the small-town weeklies that had trained generations of cub reporters like me and put the major metro dailies that I aspired to join on life support.
Three decades on, I understand that the media landscape that I knew as a small-town reporter in the late-1980s and early-1990s was just one iteration in the ever-shifting continuum of American journalism. In the early days of the Republic, the era that brought us John Adams’s Sedition Act, newspapers were a luxury item sold by subscription to a relatively narrow, educated elite. Often, these journals were owned and operated by political parties with the express purpose of advocating for their candidates and embarrassing their rivals.
That changed with the advent of the steam-powered press, which so radically reduced the cost and sped up the process of printing a newspaper that editors could slash the cover price from six cents to a penny and market it to a working-class audience. Over the next century, print newspapers grew from a handful of blog-like broadsheets into a complex network of newspapers ranging from tiny, one-man-band local weeklies to national publishing chains run by tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In 1950, before TV began stealing eyeballs and ad dollars, there were 25 percent more newspapers sold each day in America than there were American households.
The midcentury American newspaper, written for a local readership and dependent on local advertising dollars, naturally reflected the political outlook of its audience A newspaper in a segregated Southern town had to toe the segregationist line or go out of business, just as a newspaper in a well-to-to liberal suburb faced disaster if its news columns contradicted the views of its readers. But in both cases, editors had a strong incentive to avoid extreme rhetoric or wildly inaccurate reporting because they depended on local advertisers, who would pull ads from a publication whose reputation besmirched their own.
The system was far from perfect, but it built the journalistic world I stumbled into the day I took that press release from my editor at the Mill Valley Record. The reporters and editors I worked with were not especially serious people, but they took their jobs seriously. When a reader buttonholed one of us on the street to complain about an issue of local import, we asked questions and followed up. We called both sides in any dispute, always. We knew the people we covered well, but we routinely rotated beats so we wouldn’t get too cozy with our sources. We called back to double-check facts, and when we screwed up, we wrote a correction for the next day’s paper. More than anything, we prided ourselves on being able to cut through the bullshit and explain in clear, direct prose what had happened.
Thirty years later, that world is fast vanishing into the digital ether. No footloose 22-year-old without journalism training could expect to fall backward into a full-time newspaper job today, unless, of course, he or she was of the social class that could afford to take a nonpaying internship and follow that up with two years of journalism school.
That, more than any nefarious liberal cabal, explains the leftward tilt of what remains of the mainstream media. As local newspapers in smaller cities and towns die off, we’re increasingly left with national publications and TV and cable networks based in liberal urban centers. Meanwhile, digital disruption has changed how reporters are trained, which is changing who enters the profession. A generation before me, news reporting was still a union job only a small step up from the guys who ran the Linotype machines. Today, thanks to the same forces of technological disruption that have hollowed out so many middle-class professions, journalism is the province of a highly educated and urban elite — precisely the class of person most likely to look askance at a man like Donald Trump.
This, I think, is what Stephen Bannon means when he calls the media the opposition party. Bannon sees himself as leading a white working-class revolt against the multicultural liberal elite, which is neatly personified by the latte-sipping chattering classes of Washington DC. Of course, by declaring war on the media and by prodding his boss to make ever more alarming moves in office, Bannon is himself pushing an already liberal-leaning press corps in an ever more shrilly leftward direction.
But really, this fact is less frightening than the fact that he can do it so effortlessly. Without that truth-seeking ecosystem of healthy small- and mid-size daily newspapers to explain national news in terms local readers can understand, Americans are left stewing in separate echo chambers, one urban, educated, and liberal, the other working-class, rural, and spoiling for a fight. Not only do the inhabitants of these echo chambers not talk to each other; they barely speak the same language.
It’s heartening to hear that digital subscriptions to legacy media sites like The New York Times and The Atlantic are on the rise, just as it’s refreshing to see ordinary Americans using social media to organize and keep themselves informed. Maybe over time, as we grow more sophisticated about our digital tools, we’ll get better at using Snopes.com-like sites to knock down fake news stories and start crowd-funding citizen-journalists to cover small cities and towns the way I once did. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the Internet. It’s a tool like any other. We just have to learn how to use it.
For now, though, we would be crazy not to acknowledge the danger we face as a nation flying blind without a media we fully trust. No one in government has discussed reviving John Adams’s Sedition Act, but every day that Trump sends his press secretary into the White House briefing room to dress down the media or uses Twitter to gaslight Americans into disbelieving the facts they hear on the nightly news is a day we inch a step closer to that reality.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ahmad Hammoud.
June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr