Secrecy and Democracy
Trusting "Honorable Men"
excerpted from the book
Challenging the Secret Government
The Post-Watergate Investigation
of the CIA and FBI
by Kathryn S. Olmsted
University of North Carloina
Press, 1996, paper
When Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, the United States
concluded one of the most traumatic chapters in its history. During
the Watergate scandal, Americans had been shocked by the crimes
of the Nixon presidency. Investigations by the press and Congress
had exposed previously unimaginable levels of corruption and conspiracy
in the executive branch. The public's faith in government had
been shaken; indeed, the entire "system" had been tested.
Now, with Nixon's resignation, two years of agonizing revelations
finally seemed to be over. The system had worked.
Yet only four months later, New York Times
reporter Seymour Hersh disclosed that the government's crimes
went beyond Watergate. After months of persistent digging, Hersh
had unearthed a new case of the imperial presidency's abuse of
secrecy and power: a "massive" domestic spying program
by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). According to Hersh,
the CIA had violated its charter and broken the law by launching
a spying program of Orwellian dimensions against American dissidents
during the Vietnam War. The Times called it "son of Watergate."
These revelations produced a dramatic
response from the newly energized post-Watergate Congress and
press. Both houses of Congress mounted extensive, year-long investigations
of the intelligence community. These highly publicized inquiries,
headed by experienced investigators Senator Frank Church and Congressman
Otis Pike, produced shocking accusations of murder plots and poison
caches, of FBI corruption and CIA incompetence. In addition to
the congressional inquiries, the press, seemingly at the height
of its power after Watergate, launched investigations of its own.
The New York Times continued to crusade against CIA abuses; the
Washington Post exposed abuses and illegalities committed by the
FBI; and CBS's Daniel Schorr shocked the nation by revealing that
there might be "literal" skeletons in the CIA closet
as a result of its assassination plots.
In this charged atmosphere, editorial
writers, columnists, political scientists, historians, and even
former officials of the CIA weighed in with various suggestions
for reforming an agency that many agreed had become a ''monster.''
Several policymakers, including presidential candidates Fred Harris
and Morris Udall, called for massive restructuring or abolition
of the CIA. Media and political pundits suggested banning CIA
covert operations; transferring most CIA functions to the Pentagon
or the State Department; or, at the very least, devising a new,
strict charter for all members of the intelligence community.
Few barriers seemed to stand in the way
of such reforms. The liberal, post-Watergate Congress faced an
appointed president who did not appear to have the strength to
resist this "tidal shift in attitude," as Senator Church
called it. Change seemed so likely in early 1975 that a writer
for The Nation declared "the heyday of the National Security
State', to be over, at least temporarily.
But a year and a half later, when the
Pike and Church committees finally finished their work, the passion
for reform had cooled. The House overwhelmingly rejected the work
of the Pike committee and voted to suppress its final report.
It even refused to set up a standing intelligence committee. The
Senate dealt more favorably with the Church committee, but it
too came close to rejecting all of the committee's recommendations.
Only last-minute parliamentary maneuvering enabled Church to salvage
one reform, the creation of a new standing committee on intelligence.
The proposed charter for the intelligence community, though its
various components continued to be hotly debated for several years,
never came to pass.
The investigations failed to promote the
careers of those who had inspired and led them. Daniel Schorr,
the CBS reporter who had advanced the CIA story at several important
points and eventually had become part of the story himself, was
investigated by Congress, threatened with jail, and fired by CBS
for his role in leaking the suppressed Pike report. Seymour Hersh's
exposes were dismissed by his peers as "overwritten, over-played,
under-researched and underproven." Otis Pike, despite the
many accomplishments of his committee, found his name linked with
congressional sensationalism, leaks, and poor administration.
Frank Church's role in the investigation failed to boost his presidential
campaign, forced him to delay his entry into the race, and, he
thought, might have cost him the vice presidency.
The targets of the investigation had the
last laugh on the investigators. "When all is said and done,
what did it achieve ?" asked Richard Helms, the former director
of the CIA who was at the heart of many of the scandals unearthed
by Congress and the media. "Where is the legislation, the
great piece of legislation, that was going to come out of the
Church committee hearings ? I haven't seen it." Hersh, the
reporter who prompted the inquiries, was also unimpressed by the
investigators' accomplishments. "They generated a lot of
new information, but ultimately they didn't come up with much,"
These investigations illustrate a historic moment in post-1945
American history: the breakdown of the Cold War consensus. As
Godfrey Hodgson has pointed out, U.S. foreign policy during the
1950s and early 1960s was supported by a broad, almost universal
spectrum of Americans from left to right. This was the foreign
policy of the "liberal consensus.'' Conservative Republicans
and liberal Democrats alike agreed on the need for an aggressive,
anticommunist foreign policy, including overt and overt intervention
abroad. Even the most liberal policymakers in this era agreed
that the president needed extraordinary power and secrecy to meet
the Communist threat.
But the defeat in Vietnam and the humiliation
of Watergate shattered this consensus. In Congress and the mainstream
media, the boundaries of debate suddenly expanded. Elite opinion
leaders were willing to question institutions that had never been
challenged before. Nowhere was the resulting excitement, conflict,
and confusion more evident than in the intelligence investigations.
These inquiries provoked a monumental clash between the legislative
and executive branches, raising fears that a system stabilized
after Nixon's resignation might now collapse. They also prompted
a battle within the media, as journalists were forced to reassess
their coverage of national security issues for the past three
The stakes during the "year of intelligence,"
as the New York Times came to call it, were high. The congressional
investigators, by exposing the past abuses of the secret government
and assessing the risks and benefits of covert action, were challenging
the foreign policy of the Cold War. The executive branch, in response,
worked frantically to restore the powers of the presidency and
to limit the scope of the investigations. Members of the media,
for all their enthusiasm about the opportunities to publish prize-winning
investigative stories, hesitated to break their long tradition
of deference in national security coverage. The public, shocked
by the inquiries' revelations, soon became disillusioned with
the secret agencies and with the investigators.
The investigations raised basic questions
about the nature of power in the post-World War II United States.
Had Watergate exposed a systemic problem requiring structural
solutions, or was it the unfortunate product of an "outlaw"
president and his unethical advisers? After Vietnam and Watergate,
should the media and Congress be more skeptical when presidents
defended secrecy in the name of national security? Should congressional
committees and individual journalists ignore presidential pleas
for secrecy? Did the Cold War make it necessary for the government
to pursue an amoral, clandestine foreign policy? If so, how could
that policy be reconciled with America's view of itself as an
open, ethical democracy? After years of accepting governmental
secrecy and presidential supremacy in foreign policy, many Americans
began asking these questions for the first time in 1975.
Because they confronted these issues,
the intelligence investigations can help us understand how members
of Congress, the press, and the public interpreted and responded
to this moment of crisis for the American system. Despite the
transformations caused by Watergate, the inquiries show that American
political culture of the 1970S was characterized more by continuity
than by change. This resistance to change is shown in three important
First, Congress hesitated throughout the
1970s to assume responsibility for the nation's secret agencies.
Immediately after Nixon's resignation, it appeared that members
of Congress would reclaim the prerogatives they had conceded to
the executive branch after World War II. Many observers have concluded
that they were successful in that effort, at least until the advent
of the Reagan administration in 1981. Scholars have written of
a "resurgence" of Congress during this period, which
resulted in a "tethered presidency" or even an "imperiled
presidency.'' As Louis Koenig wrote in 1981, "The question
is not whether there is an imperial presidency but whether there
still is a presidency as that office has traditionally been known.''
But the reports of the demise of the presidency
were exaggerated ... The post-Watergate Congress may have been
more assertive in many areas, but it was ultimately unwilling
to shoulder its responsibilities for overseeing the intelligence
community. On this issue, at least, there were distinct limits
to the "congressional revolution."
Second, the media proved reluctant during
the investigations to confront the national security state. Beginning
in the early 1970s, many scholars, policymakers, and journalists
concluded that Watergate and Vietnam had transformed the media.
After these two epochal events, the argument went, the press became
an assertive, independent institution, a full-fledged fourth branch
of government determined to serve as an extra check on executive
authority. While some people celebrated this development, others
were terrified by its implications. Political scientist Samuel
P. Huntington was one of the earliest proponents of what Daniel
Hallin has termed the "oppositional media thesis.'' Huntington
and his successors claimed that the "imperial media"
began in the late 1960s and early 1970s to oppose and to question
all political authority. Even in the early 1990S, books by Suzanne
Garment and Larry Sabato continued to warn of an irresponsible
press that pursued political scandals without discrimination.
The journalistic investigations of the
intelligence community fit nicely into this paradigm of an aggressive,
adversarial press. To many observers, the media's "anti-CIA
crusade" of 1975 proved that reporters had a liberal bias
and were determined to tear down the nation's defense establishment.
The press, in short, had become an arrogant, irresponsible practitioner
of "advocacy journalism.''
This study, however, demonstrates that
there were definite limits to the "adversarial" nature
of post-Watergate journalism. The image of the fearless press,
determined to oppose political authority and expose incompetence
and corruption in government whatever the consequences, is, as
Michael Schudson has noted, largely a myth. Like many myths, it
has an element of truth. Some Washington journalists were indeed
eager to question the government departments that were open to
public scrutiny. And a few reporters, like Hersh and Schorr, tried
to remove the veil of secrecy from the national security state.
But many others were uneasy about the media's post-Watergate power.
In the end, when they wrote about the secret government, most
members of the press showed great restraint-and they severely
criticized their colleagues who did not.
Finally, the American people, acculturated
for years to view their country and their leaders as moral and
democratic, were reluctant to acknowledge unpleasant truths about
their secret agencies. During the Cold War, the United States
had used authoritarian tactics to meet the threat of an authoritarian
adversary. But, as William W. Keller has explained in The Liberals
and J. Edgar Hoover, the liberal state did not like r- to admit
that it had violated its ideology in this way. Therefore, the
extensive powers of its clandestine agencies were kept secret.
This secrecy enabled Americans to assume that the nation's foreign
policy goals were compatible with traditional American ideals.
But the intelligence investigations brought these secret powers
into the open; they forced Americans to acknowledge that their
country had tried to kill foreign leaders, had spied on civil
rights leaders, and had tested drugs on innocent people. Because
this knowledge was very painful, many Americans, including members
of Congress, refused to accept it. Secrecy, as journalist Taylor
Branch has said, "protects the American people from grisly
facts at variance with their self-image.'' The investigations
failed in part because Americans, insulated from painful knowledge
about their country's activities during the Cold War, did not
want to face those facts.
"No major act of the American Congress, no foreign adventure,
no act of diplomacy, no great social reform can succeed in the
United States unless the press prepares the public mind.
Theodore White, The Making of the President,
At the time that the New York Times published the, [CIA-Watergate]
domestic spying expose, most Americans had only begun to learn
about the secret government agency known as the CIA. The agency
had been established with minimal public debate at the dawn of
the Cold War era and had taken on unanticipated duties in relative
secrecy over the subsequent years. Congress held hearings on the
section of the National Security Act of 1947 that created the
C A. But according to historian Harry Howe Ransom, nothing in
the published hearings "suggests that Congress intended to
create, or knew it was creating, an agency for paramilitary operations."
The hearings also never discussed covert operations or,. psychological
warfare. The congressmen believed they were simply creating an
agency to gather and evaluate foreign intelligence.
As the Cold War continued, however, presidents
secretly began directing the CIA to take on new functions. The
CIA's evolving Cold War ethos was best articulated in a secret
I954 report on its covert operations. President Dwight Eisenhower
established the Doolittle committee to avoid a planned public
examination of the CIA's most secret directorate. The committee,
headed by World War II hero General James Doolittle, endorsed
an activist role for the agency and advocated methods previously
It is now clear that we are facing an
implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by
whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such
a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.
If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts
of "fair play" must be reconsidered. We must develop
effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn
to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more
sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against
us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted
with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.
The president, however, decided not to
acquaint the American people with the committee's conclusions.
The public was not told that the CIA had begun to intervene covertly
in foreign countries and that it might need to abandon "long-standing
American concepts of 'fair play'" in the process. By keeping
the Doolittle report secret, Eisenhower avoided messy domestic
debates about these "fundamentally repugnant" actions
and ensured that they would continue. Only a handful of congressmen
were informed of the details of the CIA's new duties. From time
to time, some congressmen would demand more oversight of the agency,
but CIA supporters easily managed to defeat these attempts.
Agency officials appreciated this absence
of oversight and accountability. Complete secrecy helped to protect
their sources and methods. Moreover, the cloak of national security
allowed CIA officials to escape public debate over their actions.
But at the same time, this secrecy posed a potentially serious
public relations problem. Democratic America's spy agency faced
a conundrum: How could it generate public support for its activities
when most of the public was not told-and did not understand-what
Initially, what historians have called
the "Cold War consensus" in American political culture-the
almost universal support for anticommunism-helped the CIA to solve
this problem. Because of the CIA's unwillingness to publicize
its activities, Americans before the investigations drew most
of their knowledge about the agency from popular culture. Throughout
the 1950S and the early 1960S, during the height of Cold War culture,
the CIA enjoyed a romanticized, heroic image in novels and films.
Inspired by author Ian Fleming's success in glamorizing the British
secret service, many American imitators portrayed America's secret
warriors as unblemished heroes fighting the international menace
of communism. The CIA promoted this Cold War tradition of spy
fiction by encouraging favored thriller authors, even allowing
them access to secret files. The movies and television shows of
the 1950S and 1960s-such as Mission: Impossible and The Man from
U.N.C.L.E.-also celebrated America's spies. Popular culture, in
short, helped to legitimize the agency.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
was another government intelligence agency that enjoyed a glamorous
image in popular culture, but FBI officials took a much more active
role in creating and shaping this image. Beginning in 1933, bureau
boss J. Edgar Hoover turned the FBI into what one scholar has
called "one of the greatest publicity-generating machines
the country had ever seen.'' The FBI's responsibilities included
law enforcement as well as domestic intelligence and counterintelligence.
In contrast to the secretive and anonymous CIA officials, FBI
publicists readily shared the bureau's accomplishments in all
of these areas with the press. They also tried to damage the public
image of bureau targets, like New Leftists or civil rights leaders,
by leaking derogatory information about them to reporters. Some
friendly journalists even served as FBI informants.
Hoover's public relations unit eventually
became one of the most influential divisions within the FBI, helping
reporters, film and television producers, and writers over the
years to sculpt the popular image of the virtuous "G-man."
Hoover decided that publicity, instead of hurting the bureau by
exposing its "secrets," actually helped to build public
support and to prevent attacks by liberals in Congress.
The American press has always viewed itself as performing an essential
role in maintaining American democracy. By training its "artillery"
on the powerful (as Thomas Jefferson had urged), the press tries
to keep the government honest and responsive. In theory, the press
serves as a "fourth branch of government," an extra
check and balance in the constitutional system.
Journalists have carried out this duty
in different ways over time. Up until the early twentieth century,
the nation's journalistic "watchdogs" did not hesitate
to inject opinion into their stories. Even when the partisan press
began to give way to a more "fact-minded" style of reporting
in the late nineteenth century, sociologist Michael Schudson has
written, reporters still interpreted the news in their own way.
After World War I, journalists started
to develop a new system of work ethics: the modern journalistic
ideal of objectivity. Because the brutality of the war raised
doubts about the reliability of human reason, journalists began
to see the need for certain formulas-a credo of "objectivity"-
that would enable them to put their biases aside. According to
Schudson, the rise of the public relations industry and the persuasive
force of wartime propaganda also made journalists "suspicious
of the facts and ready to doubt the naive empiricism of the 1890s.''
This devotion to objectivity would govern the profession for the
next fifty years.
While they embraced objectivity, however,
twentieth-century American journalists retained their traditional
belief in the importance of the "watchdog" role of the
press. Modern journalists were not supposed to interpret the news,
but they were still expected to curb potential abuses by those
in power. Even if they were limited to reporting "the facts,"
they could continue to strike fear into the hearts of the powerful.
As New York Times editor and columnist James Reston wrote in 1967,
American reporters would never shrink from exposing and criticizing
government policies "because, somehow, the tradition of reporting
the facts, no matter how much they hurt, is stronger than any
In practice, however, American journalists'
dual roles as objective observers and watchdogs were not always
compatible. Because objective journalists dedicated themselves
to presenting all sides of an issue without passing judgment on
which side was "the truth," they faithfully reported
all statements from top administration officials, whether or not
they were accurate. As Tom Wicker has commented, "If the
president says, 'Black is white,' you write, 'The president said
black is white.' " In renouncing their right to partisan
reporting, according to political scientist Daniel Hallin, journalists
in turn were granted "a regular right of access to the inner
counsels of government, a right they had never enjoyed in the
era of partisan journalism." The result of the new doctrine
of objectivity was not to free the news of political influence,
Hallin states, "but to open wide the channel through which
official influence flowed." Objectivity was never the transparent
window it claimed to be but rather a means for those in power
to dominate the public discussion.
Of course, if Washington power brokers
disagreed on an issue, objective journalists were obligated to
inform their readers of both sides of the debate. By the end of
the 1940s ... no ... debate occurred among political elites on
foreign policy. The anticommunist consensus dominated American
politics-and the U.S. media [are] trained to disseminate the statements
of policymakers without question, reflected this consensus
From the 1940s to the 1960s, journalists
and politicians alike shared common assumptions about the Communist
threat and the need to protect the operations of America's clandestine
soldiers in the Cold War. Just as American popular culture echoed
and reinforced the Cold War consensus, so the American press eagerly
joined the united front against communism. Washington Post publisher
Phil Graham summed up these views in 1954 when he criticized his
editorial writers for recommending a thaw in the Cold War. "A
year or so ago it was clear to all of us that the Soviet system
was one of total evil-one with which nothing but 'self-enforcing'
agreement could be made," Graham wrote in an internal memo.
"That, in my opinion, has not changed."
A few individual journalists did challenge
Cold War assumptions throughout the 1950s, but they did not work
for mainstream publications. Carey McWilliams and his colleagues
at The Nation analyzed the secret government for their 45,000
readers, publishing special issues on the FBI in 1958 and the
CIA in 1962. I. F. Stone, who found himself unemployable during
the McCarthy era, wrote biting commentary on Cold War politics
and policy in his newsletter. But comparatively few Americans
read these publications, and the general press tended to dismiss
them as cranky and irrelevant.
At the height of the Cold War, some journalists not only shared
common assumptions with the CIA but also worked actively to further
its objectives around the world. The number of journalists and
news organizations that helped the CIA is hotly contested, partly
because of the secrecy of the records and partly because of definitional
battles over what it meant to "work" for the agency.
Some media organizations provided "cover" for CIA personnel
overseas by allowing CIA officers to pose as reporters, while
others used stringers or freelancers who also worked part-time
for the CIA. Other journalists received occasional gifts or reimbursements
from the CIA in exchange for information. According to the Church
committee's final report, approximately fifty U.S. journalists
had covert relationships with the CIA, about half of which involved
money. Watergate investigative reporter Carl Bernstein charged
that the total number of U.S. journalists who worked for the CIA
was actually much higher. In a controversial article in Rolling
Stone, Bernstein claimed that more than 400 American journalists
secretly carried out assignments for the CIA from the early 19505
to the mid-1970s. The New York Times alone, Bernstein insisted,
provided cover for ten CIA officers from 1950 to 1966. Later investigations
by Times reporters failed to locate the formal agreement that
Bernstein claimed existed between the newspaper and the CIA. But
the investigations did reveal that some Times stringers and staff
members had also been paid workers for the agency.
Even when a newspaper or network did not
have a formal relationship with the CIA, the agency could still
have close ties and mutual interests with its reporters and editors.
The early CIA was renowned for recruiting from Ivy League schools.
Top agency officials often had attended Princeton or Yale with
the publishers or editors of eastern newspapers-and with their
reporters as well. Prominent journalists were sometimes friends
with CIA officials. For example, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee's
brother-in-law was covert operations chief Cord Meyer; Post publisher
Phil Graham was a close friend of another covert operations chief,
Frank Wisner; and the New York Times publishing family, the Sulzbergers,
socialized with CIA directors Allen Dulles, John McCone, and Richard
In short, the news media of the 1950s
and 1960s had close links with the CIA as an institution and with
the Ivy League alumni who ran it. They went to the same colleges,
attended the same dinner parties, joined the same country clubs,
and shared the same assumptions about the CIA's role in the world.
They did not question the existence of the Communist threat or
the need for absolute secrecy for the warriors who were fighting
that threat. They were not necessarily conscious advocates of
the Cold War national security consensus; but, as Kennett Love
later remarked, "it was the ambient element you lived and
worked in. Is a fish aware of water?"
These journalists accepted the statement
Richard Helms had made in a speech to newspaper editors that "the
nation must, to a degree, take it on faith that we . . . are honorable
men devoted to her service." Under these circumstances, the
media were not likely to undertake an aggressive investigation
of the CIA. They were even less likely to endorse an inquiry that
could lead to the exposure of past CIA practices-practices such
as the agency's use of the American press.
The cozy relationship between the press
and the CIA might have continued indefinitely if not for the Vietnam
War. In Vietnam, some American journalists first began to question
the truthfulness of their government. They were shocked and disillusioned
by the wide chasm between the government's official statements
on the war and the daily reality they saw around them. "They
could see what was really going on, and they refused, in their
reporting, to fake it," wrote one of those correspondents,
The reporters initially found it hard
to persuade their editors and producers back home that the government's
spokesmen were lying. One such editor was Abe Rosenthal of the
New York Times, a patriotic son of immigrants who had been expelled
from Poland after World War II for his fiercely anticommunist
reporting. In Rosenthal's view, one of his Vietnam correspondents
wrote, "Communism in Poland and Communism in Indochina were
the same." Rosenthal was not alone: other media barons at
Time, Newsweek, CBS, the Washington Post, and the Times strongly
supported the war for several years. The Post's editorialists,
for example, were such powerful advocates of the war that they
often did "a better job of explaining President Johnson's
Far Eastern policies than the president himself," Time commented
But even the more conservative editors
were influenced by the Tet offensive of 1968. The frightening
scenes of the Viet Cong besieging the U.S. embassy in Saigon convinced
many journalists that the war, if not wrong, was at least unwinnable.
As Daniel Hallin's content analysis of television coverage of
the Vietnam War has shown editorial comments by television journalists
were 4 to 1 in favor of White House policy before Tet; after March
1968, the ratio was 2 to 1 against the government. Walter Cronkite's
own pessimistic assessment after his tour of the Tet fighting
showed that the mainstream press had turned against the president.
It was not so much the actual fighting that distressed Cronkite
as the government's lies.
The press's new eagerness to challenge
the government was further encouraged by the relaxation of tensions
among the superpowers. While the U.S. government was proving itself
less deserving of trust, the Communists at the same time seemed
less of a threat. Nixon traveled to China in 1972, the United
States and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Limitations
Treaty that same year, and "detente" became part of
the 1970s vocabulary. Journalists found a new freedom to question
the national security state and to demand that the curtain be
lifted on the secret government.
That new freedom was first demonstrated
in the Pentagon Papers case. When the New York Times and later
the Washington Post decided to print the top secret study of the
war commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and leaked
to them by Daniel Ellsberg, they crossed a "Rubicon"
into a new world of aggressive journalism, according to Times
reporter Harrison Salisbury. By refusing to accept the government's
definition of "secrecy," the newspapers signaled their
commitment to a new, independent, and more powerful role for the
Even as Vietnam and Watergate continued to transform American
journalism, however, many prominent journalists viewed the changes
with uncertainty and trepidation. The traditions of the recent
past-deference, trust in official sources, a reluctance to challenge
the national security mystique-retained their hold over many reporters
and their bosses.
Attacks on the press served a political purpose for policymakers
and intellectuals on the right. By discrediting the men and women
who had exposed the lies and scandals of the nation's governmental
establishment, they hoped to rehabilitate the establishment itself.
But many ordinary Americans also seemed uneasy about the media's
role in bringing down a president. In June 1973, one-third of
the American people agreed with Vice President Spiro Agnew's charges
that the liberal press was out to get the president. Shortly after
Nixon's resignation, one angry reader, typical of many Americans
who believed that the press had grown too powerful and adversarial,
asked the editor of the Washington Post: "Now that the Post
has dispatched Richard Nixon with one-sided journalism, what new
crusade will the Post undertake?" Many Americans believed
that the media had become "wholly unaccountable for their
actions," the letter concluded.
Some editors and publishers shared these
concerns and truly believed that the profession needed to reform
itself. Others worried more about the public's perception of their
lack of accountability. Journalists were so concerned by the anti-press
backlash after Watergate, Time magazine declared in 1974, that
"many are torn between self-congratulation and self-doubt."
As Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham said in a post-Watergate
letter, "A lot of the administration mud and deliberate attacks
on the press has stuck-people do think we are unfair and too powerful
and that someone should control or at least judge us."
Many publishers also had personal and
ideological reasons for restraining their more aggressive reporters
after Watergate. Adversarial reporters can offend advertisers,
provoke costly libel suits, and anger news sources. They can also
irritate the publishers' friends. As Tom Wicker has written, the
press, as a member of the establishment, does not want to risk
the establishment's disapproval. Elite journalists fear "not
just government denunciation but a general attitude among 'responsible'
people and groups, even other journalists, that to 'go too far'
or 'get too / involved' is bad for the country, not team play,
not good form, not t_ responsible."
Because of these deeply held beliefs,
many editors and publishers grew apprehensive about the "advocacy
journalism" of the 19705. Echoing the concerns of policymakers
and conservative intellectuals, some powerful journalists began
to express doubts about the new trends.
Among the most prominent to voice this
anxiety about the changes in journalism was a woman who had done
much to bring them about: Katharine Graham. Woodward and Bernstein's
boss caused a mild sensation in the fall of 1974 when she cautioned
reporters against becoming too skeptical of officials and "too
much a party to events, too much an actor in the drama."
In an address before the Magazine Publishers Association, Graham
warned the media that excessive distrust of the government could
be dangerous: "To see conspiracy and cover-up in everything
is as myopic as to believe that no conspiracies and cover-ups
In the same month, the editors of the
Columbia Journalism Review expressed a similar concern that the
press might "overreach" itself after Watergate. The
magazine, published by the prestigious graduate school of journalism
at Columbia University, noted that the press had been cast, by
default, in the role of the political opposition during Vietnam
and Watergate. As a result, politicians and judges might retaliate
against the press, the editors wrote. They warned that the media
could become too intoxicated with power-a hubris that could lead
to a precipitous fall.
Many members of the "fourth branch
of government," in short, were afraid of appearing too adversarial
and irresponsible. CBS reporter Daniel Schorr first noticed this
on the night of Nixon's resignation. Early in the evening, CBS
refused to air Schorr's "political obituary" on Nixon.
He then overheard producers discussing the need to emphasize "nation-healing"
stories. The network, relieved that Nixon had not launched a last-minute
attack on his media enemies, decided to begin a "mission
of conciliation" that night. Schorr, the CBS reporter most
identified with the Watergate story, was not allowed to participate
in the panel discussions of the resignation. His bosses apparently
feared that he might seem too vindictive.
Ben Bradlee, now retired from his job
as editor of the Washington Post, has come to believe that the
press in general and the Post in particular pulled back after
Watergate. "I think the press was appalled at what had happened
as a result of the Watergate investigation," he says. The
Post and its competitors "never had
the slightest clue it would end with impeachment." Before
Nixon's resignation, the press had not known the extent of its
power-and after his resignation, it was not certain that it wanted
that power. Subconsciously, editors began to limit the scope of
their reporters' investigations. "Editors said, 'Let's watch
out for reporters who try to act like Woodward and Bernstein,'"
As one of the primary architects of Nixon's
downfall, the Washington Post in particular wanted to appear responsible.
William Greider, a former reporter for the Post, has written in
a 1992 book that the Post took itself much more seriously after
Nixon's resignation. "Watergate . . . ironically, became
the high-water mark for Bradlee's provocative form of newspapering-the
beginning of the Post's retreat to a safer tradition," he
Other news organizations were also beginning
to retreat to this safer tradition after Watergate. Many journalists
did not want to treat their former friends in government like
adversaries, Greider wrote in a 1975 magazine article. "There
is a strong wish all over town, a palpable feeling that it would
be nice if somehow this genie could be put back in the bottle.
It is a nostalgic longing for the easy consensual atmosphere which
once existed among the contending elements of Washington."
As a result, Greider states, "the press especially tugs back
and forth at itself, alternately pursuing the adrenal instincts
unleashed by Watergate, the rabid distrust bred by a decade of
out-front official lies, then abruptly playing the cozy lapdog."
the Secret Government