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THOMPSON: Is Watergate relevant in the era of Trump?

May 08, 2017 - 12:24 PM

 


OPINION


Frank Wills. You might not recognize the name. But Frank helped topple a president of the United States. Some of you are old enough to remember Watergate, the landmark political scandal that started with the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972, and ended with President Richard Nixon's resignation on Aug. 8, 1974.

Actually, Watergate ended almost three years later when former Attorney General John Mitchell - the nation's top law enforcement officer - and Nixon Administration Chief of Staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, exhausted their court appeals and went to prison for 19 months and 18 months, respectively.

Even if you weren't alive in 1972, you've likely heard more famous names associated with Watergate, including the two reporters from the Washington Post. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein collectively wrote more than 300 stories linking the break-in and later the cover up to the highest levels within the Justice Department, the FBI and CIA, and ultimately, the White House.

Frank Wills had a small but vital role in Watergate...without him none of us would be the wiser about breaches of law that ended a presidency. He was on duty as a security guard at the Watergate - a posh, relatively new 11-story apartment and office complex - overlooking the Potomac River in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighbourhood.

Frank, 24 years old, had come to the nation's capital just a year earlier from Detroit and fell in love with the city. I understand that, having lived in the District twice for eight years and still count it among my favourite cities in the world. A high school dropout, he eventually earned an equivalency diploma between part-time work, before landing a factory job at Chrysler. After meeting some people from the nation's capital who spoke highly of the city, he moved to D.C. in the Spring of 1971, finding a job with a private security firm six months later.

The night of the Watergate break-in - a steamy Saturday - Frank was the sole security guard on duty. Near midnight, at the end of routine hourly rounds, he noticed a piece of duct tape over the lock on a basement door and ripped it off. He noted this abnormality in his event log. He then took a break, had an orange juice, and for some reason that he later called "a sixth sense," returned to that basement door. The lock was, as before, taped so that someone could enter easily. Just before 2 A.M. he called his supervisor, then the police.

I was at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications during Watergate and would soon be in Washington, D.C. myself. As an avid reader of the Washington Post, The New York Times and Time Magazine - the three media outlets that best covered Watergate - I followed the story almost daily. I remember well Woodward and Bernstein's articles. Their byline was so common on Watergate stories that Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee often referred to them as a singular writer..."Woodstein."

What I remember especially well was how various Nixon operatives tried to discredit The New York Times, Time Magazine and the two reporters from the Washington Post. Press Secretary Ron Ziegler called the Watergate break-in a "third-rate burglary" and said Woodward and Bernstein were guilty of "character assassination" and practiced "shabby journalism."  Vice-President Spiro Agnew was Nixon's hatchet man and similarly attacked all media, especially the Post and Times.

Today, Trump's surrogates and official spokespersons - Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway, CNN's Jeffrey Lord, Katrina Pierson, Scottie Nell Hughes, Kayleigh McEnany, and the Fox News crew of Eric Bolling, Jeanine Pirro, Andrea Tantaros, Jesse Watters and Sean Hannity - make Nixon surrogates look lame. All - every single one of the above Trump minions - have been caught in lies too numerous to count or invented "alternate facts."

Other than interesting history, is Watergate relevant today? Yes, indeed. Especially now, when the current president has declared the news media an "enemy of the people." This, of course, is a lie...even though nine out of ten Trump supporters believe it true. Disturbing, to say the least.

Journalists covering politics - locally or nationally - aren't public relations people for our elected officials...our public servants. Any and all administrations - Republican or Democrat in America and Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green in Canada - put the best possible spin on what they do and don't do. It would be nice if politicians told the truth all the time...but most don't...and when you get them together in a party or an administration...the search for the Holy Grail might appear easier than finding truth.

So, a journalist's duty - first and foremost - is to seek "the best obtainable version of the truth," according to Woodward and Bernstein, who did just that during Watergate. That is what good journalists do.

Sadly, President Trump has given credence to "Fake News" and even when confronted with irrefutable facts, doubles down, stacking lie upon lie. Today, bloggers and ideologues posing as journalists would have you believe that facts and truths are debatable. They most assuredly, are not.

So, what to do? Keep a watchful eye and when lying and secrecy seem prevalent, start looking for the truth, because it's being covered up by those with a vested interest in the public not knowing it. Yes, money makes the world turn, and reporters should be willing to follow the money. But look for secrecy and follow the lies, as well, and you're likely to find truth.

Truth in any story is more than a litany of facts. Sources - people who offer their version of facts and context of what happened in any story - aren't characters in a novel's plot. They are people with knowledge and feelings and insights...and sometimes their perspectives are not completely accurate.

That's why any good reporter knows you need sources...the more the better. And sometimes you go back to those sources with different questions aimed at getting a single fact or clarification. That's why Woodward and Bernstein had more than a thousand sources - from secretaries to Mark Felt - a deputy director at the FBI then known only as "Deep Throat."

Felt was one of the many unnamed sources on Watergate. Today, as during the Nixon years, the Trump White House rails against unnamed sources. That's how journalism works. As a reporter, when an unnamed source's information doesn't jibe with the preponderance of information from other sources...he or she is no longer a source on that story. The sum of all this digging is "the best obtainable version of the truth."

Good reporters have obvious skills...an ability to write clearly...an ability to ask questions that don't leave much wiggle room. But listening is the most prized talent or skill. If you listen well you hear what you didn't know before.

Watergate saw 69 government officials charged...48 of them were found guilty. Some people - right now mostly Republicans and Trump supporters - hate the news media today. That's usually what happens when reporters are working hard to find truth.

A good journalist doesn't play favourites or give anyone a free pass because of shared political views. Likewise, a good journalist doesn't dig harder on stories about those with opposing views. Vendettas might work in fake news, but they don't work in real journalism. Those in power and those who voted for them don't usually believe the last three sentences. But, as the Washington Post's most esteemed editor Ben Bradlee once said about those who complain about aggressive reporting seeking truth, "So be it."

Right now, good journalists are digging...seeking facts...talking and listening to sources. I can assure you that one or more of them will ferret out the truth about Russia and the most recent American presidential race. We'll know whether Donald Trump or those who represent him did anything wrong...or not. Time is on our side...the public. You see, there will always be a Frank Wills, a Mark Felt and enough other sources to find the one and only...truth.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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