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The Media's Odyssey Since Watergate

TWENTY years after the break-in that started it all, on June 17, 1992, Watergate still stands as a watershed in our perceptions of the press. Six important changes have taken place since then.

First, the press grew in seriousness. Watergate marked a change in its role, after all, from observer to participant. A look at the decorous filmed press conferences of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson is enough to suggest the magnitude of the change. The press came into the electronic age still thinking that its job was to help create the climate of opinion needed by the executive branch to put its policies into effect.

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The press had been referred to, academically, as the "Fourth Estate" ever since Thomas Carlyle coined the phrase in 1837 to describe the contribution of "Able Editors" to the French Revolution. But when the probing of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and others led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974, the press came of age as a player.

Second, and consequently, the press grew in self-regard. Perhaps a little of its narcissism can be attributed to the glamor and the hip mythology created on screen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in Alan J. Pakula's 1976 film "All the President's Men." But even so, like some clumsy amateur photographer, the press keeps casting its own shadow across the picture.

We had the sharpest reminders of this narcissism during the Gulf war, when the press kept making a story out of its own coverage of the story.

Third, a crucial change has occurred in the relative standings of our media since Watergate. The press has gone from being print-and-word-driven to being TV-and-image-driven. In '72, the Washington Post and then other papers broke the story, while TV news was but a cultural afterthought. In 1992, it's the electronic press that leads the pack, breaking stories globally. The print press is left, essentially, to perform the necessary thoughtful analysis after the event has already had its televisual impact.

Fourth, finding itself in a newly hostile, competitive environment, the press has become, like the rest of the commercial media, ratings-driven. While the number of newspapers continues to dwindle, they must now compete for our time and attention with the cable TV channel explosion, not to mention the dizzying options introduced by the videocassette revolution and its rental shop down the street.

MOST visibly on TV, but in fact across the entire media spectrum, we have created for ourselves a ratings-driven commercial culture that is designed for the express purpose of delivering "eyeballs to advertisers." What is "news," in this system, is often decided not by what we need to know, but what we will watch.

Fifth, the culture has shifted its energies, since Watergate, from the synthesis of information to the stimulation of feelings. The market-driven media have gradually shirked the costly efforts of understanding, gravitating instead toward the instant rewards of a feeling, a look, and a sound.

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We are indeed living through an "information explosion," as we often are told. But much more powerful is an explosion of emotional feeling, disseminated mainly by the tube.

Sixth, and to return finally to our occasion, the break-in now emerges as an early symptom of two-party paralysis. When there's spying of one side on the other, that's a travesty of communication and a sure sign of paralysis. The foiled break-in by Republican Party operatives at the Democratic National Committee in 1972 was an uncanny repetition of the 1960 U-2 embarrassment: Again, one side was caught in the act of spying on the other, and then caught in the act of trying to lie its way out.

In this light, even the candidacy of Ross Perot takes on new meaning. Perot's insurgency seems to dramatize the inadequacy of the two-party system of polarized politics.

Any binary opposition, such as the gridlock of divided government typified in Watergate's tale of spy vs. spy, calls for restoration of what philosophers used to call the excluded middle. Ironically enough, our two-party politics, although driven, as we say, by "the media," would seem to have forgotten the meaning of that very word, medium. The anniversary's timing is perfect as we find ourselves, just now, struggling out of a culture of polarities toward one that restores the excluded middles.

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