Domestic Affairs

All the President’s Men Volume 2

“We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there,” Robards says. “Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.” (2004). “All the President’s Men.” Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.

Written in 1974 by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward,“All the President’s Men,” chronicles the authors’ investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal that led to former President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The nonfiction book was later adapted into an excellent Alan Pakula film (from which the quote above is taken) starring Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein and Robert Redford as Woodward. The story follows the two young journalists who were assigned to cover a break-in at the Watergate office. Through covert interviews with Hugh Sloan, former treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect the President, and “Deep Throat”, an anonymous government informant, the journalists linked the burglary to both a massive slush fund and Attorney General John Mitchell. Their discoveries led to further investigations of President Nixon, who resigned in 1974 to avoid impeachment. Largely informed by the extensive notes kept while writing for the Washington Post, the book was a major bestseller, and the pair received the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting.

Nearly five decades later, the election of 2020 breathed new life into the themes of the political thriller: freedom of the press, anti-establishmentism, deception, and distrust of authority. 

Even prior to his election in 2016, Donald Trump’s relationship with the media has been consistently hostile. As a presidential candidate, he blacklisted reporters and news outlets, referred to journalists as “scum,” mocked a reporter for having a disability, and promised to sue journalists “like [they’ve] never got sued before.” Trump’s war with the media only intensified following his election.

Admittedly, many news outlets have turned against the 45th president, with particularly unimpressive attempts at impartiality following Joe Biden’s victory, as seen at Fox News through the weekend following Election Day. However, Trump’s plaintive wails about “#fakenews” and tales of his personal victimization at the hands of the vulture-like press fall flat in light of the 50 false or misleading claims spouted by the President daily (as estimated by the Washington Post fact checker). 

It should further be noted that notions of Trump’s victimization by the press seem to have little bearing on the integrity of his public image.The expected impact of the New York Times tax publication barely dented his popularity. Contrary to the legacy of scrutiny and negative campaigning endured by former candidates, Trump seems to have enjoyed amnesty from the  media’s influence on public opinion. 

While the media may have turned against the president, the same cannot be said for the current Republican Party. Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting success rested on powerful party members’ readiness to hold Nixon accountable. Despite the birth of the Lincoln Project — a political action committee formed in 2019 by a group of lifelong Republicans aiming to prevent Trump’s re-election — the current state of polarization makes it unclear how many present politicians would exhibit the same courageous disloyalty.  

With incessant attempts to destroy the credibility of the press and condemn journalism as the “enemy of the people,” Trump’s attack on the press amounts to his greatest assault on the cornerstone of American democracy: the First Amendment. Consensus and unity were critical as the distrust of the media infiltrated the American psyche at a time in which the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the lives of millions of Americans, and solidarity was most critical. Instead of collective action and mutuality, the political arena was satiated with finger-pointing and cheap shots.

Pointing accusingly at the favorable coverage of the Democratic campaign from the mainstream media in the 2020 presidential race, some right-wing news sources relayed fear of, to quote the WSJ, “America’s free press [becoming] an instrument of state propaganda.” While President-elect Biden has been subject to cruelty from the press, with echoes of President Trump’s “sleepy Joe” insults and harsh attacks on the Biden family circulating on right-wing platforms, one cannot honestly say that the candidates enjoyed equal treatment from the press. On the other hand, it may be argued that the degree to which Trump’s character has been attacked relative to Biden’s is proportional to their respective moral legacies.

Today, can we still rely on investigative journalists like Bernstein and Woodward as a last line of defence against presidential fabrications? How can we mend the rift between the media and politics? 

Biden’s call for Americans to “put away the harsh rhetoric and lower the temperature” directly addressed the stark political gridlock of party politics, but this sentiment also seems to extend towards the media. According to the campaign’s national press secretary TJ Ducklo, “President-elect Biden believes that the media is a critical piece of our democracy,” and that, “[its] job is to hold him accountable.” After four years of venomous attacks against the media from the White House, the statement sets a more cooperative tone for future relations.

Criticism, even outright opposition, from a free press is a necessary force in the political realm of the United States. Free, independent thought is crucial; a constant state of hostility is redundant. Striking a balance is tricky. Both the media and the president are responsible for upholding this precarious relationship.

When, in the summer of 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attempted to get the president to publicly accept responsibility, Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler angrily rejected the idea, saying “contrition is bullshit.” With accusations of criminal negligence and responsibility for the deaths of 240,000 Americans from COVD-19 alone, it will be interesting to monitor Trump’s future relationship with the media. Will he take his cue from Ziegler’s adage or seek a path of reconciliation? And will his departure from the White House mark a turning point in president-media relations? We are yet to see this play out under Biden, but positive change undoubtedly will require powerful impetus from both sides.

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