Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part Three: The Watergate Investigation

Young adults today may not even understand Watergate or its significance, but it was an amazing example of the media toppling an errant presidential administration. The arrest of burglars at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. in 1972 prompted an investigation that ultimately implicated many members of the White House staff and President Richard Nixon himself.  It was made famous by the book “All the President’s Men” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and later by the Oscar-nominated movie of the same name starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.  I have not seen the movie or read the book, though I plan to do both after reading this fascinating account of the Watergate drama told through the perspective of the journalists who covered it. The Washington Post team of Woodward and Bernstein were the heroes and stars of Watergate, of course, but other papers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times also got important scoops, and CBS news with Walter Cronkite brought the Washington Post’s continuing Watergate stories to widespread national exposure.  At first it was very much a singular effort by the Post, but as events unfolded and more and more corruption and cover-up became known, the media from all over the country became involved.  It was valiant media David meeting the goliath Nixon White House in an arena that encompassed the entire country.  What began as a simple burglary, buried under crusts of carefully crafted delusion, was chipped away little by little by media exposure until the entire sickly visage of the beast became apparent.

It would not be like this today, I realized as I read.  The media is much faster; exposés swiftly circumnavigate the globe in the era of the Internet.  What took many months of painstaking research in the face of governmental animosity would have blown up instantly nowadays.  This is the age of the common person as reporter, of quick upload and quick censure.  I have mixed feelings about whether or not such rapid exposure and approbation is a good thing, as sometimes one ugly but sensational detail can obscure balancing information.  But it is what it is, and public figures, reporters, writers, and anyone with a smart phone who uploads data and photos to the Internet have to deal with the present reality.  It often puts responsibility in the hands of those who are not capable of dealing with it, but it also provides freedom to those who need to expose genuine corruption.

Be that as it may, Halberstam, as usual, delves deep into the characters of the players in the Watergate game:  the reporters struggling for credibility while making reputation-shattering accusations against the government, the publishers faced with difficult decisions of on the one hand being accountable to the truth their employees have dug up and on the other hand serious threats of persecution and shutdown by a vengeful administration, the politicians and their staffs threatened with prosecutions and punishments for their criminal activity or complicity.  It went all the way to the president himself, who finally had to resign in disgrace.

This is an amazing story of investigation and eventual denouement as exciting as any contrived fictional thriller.  Halberstam is a master historian and journalist and got most of his information through years of interviews with people intimately involved in the Watergate conspiracy.  It is a fitting close to a superlative book on the rise of modern pre-Internet media.  Although media techniques and technology have changed to embrace personal computers and the Internet, there are many relevant lessons herein on how media evolved and how it continues to be used by those in power.

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