For the 105th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, researcher Jon Marshall explores the role of the press in covering the scandal and the eventual downfall of the Nixon administration in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Watergate arrests.
Jon Marshall is an associate professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. He is the author of Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse (Northwestern University Press, 2011) and Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis (Potomac Books, 2022).
Jon Marshall: Senators and congressmen and judges are reading these stories and they start to think, “Well, maybe we’re not getting the truth from the Nixon Administration despite all of its denials.”
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science and integrity of stories.
They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
Watergate left an indelible mark on American politics. I mean, it was so impactful that, to this day, the word “Watergate” alone is enough to evoke not just the events that transpired at the Watergate itself but the downfall of the Nixon Administration.
And of course, American culture struggles to last six months without a pending the suffix “gate” to something. There’s actually an entire Wikipedia Page of these: from Gamer Gate to Deflate Gate to something called Gate Gate. I’m not making that up. But it wasn’t just American politics that were forever changed by Watergate. American journalism was as well. And so, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Watergate on June 17, 2022, we turn our attention in this episode to the role of journalism in the Watergate scandal.
And helping us with this task is Jon Marshall, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and IMC. Marshall is the author of two books that interrogate the Watergate scandal: first, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse; and a new book, Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis.
Jon, welcome to the show. Now, our focus is on Watergate, and we’ll get to your extensive research into Watergate and the press in a few minutes. But your new book, Clash, shows you’re interested in much more than just the Nixon Administration. So can you say a little about where that interest comes from?
Jon Marshall: Sure, Ken. And first of all, thank you for having me on the show. I’m a big – I’m a big fan of it, and I’m honored to be part of it. I actually first became interested in presidents at age 5 when I had the chance to meet Richard Nixon. My family was on a vacation in San Diego, and he was staying at a hotel down the beach right after he won the Republican nomination in 1968, and my dad thought it would be a great idea if my brother and I went over to meet him.
So we walked what seemed like miles to me at the time at age 5 – it was probably less than a mile. But we stood outside the hotel and Nixon walked by, and my dad shouted, “Hello.” And Nixon came over and I shook his hand. And I’ve been interested in presidents ever since. Now, when Nixon started to have his struggles with Watergate, my mom always had these Senate Watergate hearings on TV, and I would watch and started to follow it in the newspapers, and my fascination with presidents has increased since then.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. Well, and – and you’ve written about administrations – as your book shows – from John Adams right up through Trump. So lead us in here. What made Nixon’s relationship with the press so different from all those other presidents? What was unique about his administration and the press?
Jon Marshall: Well, I think Nixon did three things that were important in terms of his relationship with the press.
First of all, he was the first president to really cast the press journalist as an enemy of the American public. Now, every president before that had at least grumbled how they were treated by the press and sometimes skirmished with them, sometimes even tried to restrict or manipulate them and – or even try censorship.
But Nixon was the first to come up with the strategy – the words of his staff, H.R. Haldeman, to make the press a useful enemy, an institution that they could rail against like they would in a similar way against crime or communism. The press was this institution that they cast as being dangerous to the American public. And we certainly have seen the fruits of that since then with other politicians, particularly Donald Trump.
The second thing I think that was significant about Nixon’s relationship with the press is that his administration made a concerted effort to use the machinery of the federal government to really attack journalists: to use the IRS to audit their tax returns as a way to try to intimidate them; to have the FBI do checks on journalists; and in the homophobic atmosphere of that era, they tried to see if they could catch reporters having gay or lesbian relationships so they could use that for blackmail purposes.
They had the Federal Communications Commission try to intimidate the networks. So it was an effort to use all the levers that were available to them – available to them in the federal government as an assault on journalism. Uh, then finally the Nixon administration was the first to put together a White House communications office.
There had been press secretaries for decades before that who would work with reporters, answer questions sometimes, try to limit what information reporters got. But the Nixon administration was the first to really have a comprehensive communication strategy with H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff, came from an advertising agency. Uh, so he had – he had the conception of the media as – as something that you could use really for effective promotional purposes.
Uh, and they had a strategy of trying to – as much as possible – avoid the White House press corps – the reporters who were day-to-day trying to cover the White House and might have the – the toughest questions for the president and instead tried to use smaller local TV stations, smaller local newspapers as avenues for interviews where the questions were less likely to be threatening. Uh, and when Nixon went out in public to make sure he was doing so in front of handpicked audiences who were guaranteed to ask him soft questions rather than the mixed kind of audience that previous politicians would’ve tried to – to campaign with.
Ken Ward: I see. So, you know, we want to turn to Watergate. But before we go, Nixon has a – a history with the press going long before Watergate, like decades, right? Does – does he ever get along with the media? Like, what is – what is the Nixon press origin story here?
Jon Marshall: Yeah. His – his story with the press is – is fascinating. Because on the whole for most of his career, he actually got pretty good press coverage. When he first ran for Congress in 1946, the local newspaper editor was also an official of the local Republican Party, and Nixon was running on the Republican ticket.
Uh, so the local newspaper was a big backer of him. The Los Angeles Times – which was the dominant newspaper in southern California where he was running – was a big backer of him. And when Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962, the LA Times even let Nixon have a regular column in the newspaper to promote his viewpoints.
When Nixon became a national figure as a congressman and then a senator and – and vice president, Time Magazine – which was the leading news magazine – usually gave him favorable coverage. So did Reader’s Digest, which was through most of those years the most widely read magazine in the country. And when he first became president, he got generally favorable reviews from most of the press. When he ran for re-election in 1972, more than 70 percent of newspapers endorsed him. Only 5 percent endorsed his opponent, George McGovern, and then the rest remained neutral in the race.
So most of the time, Nixon got at least neutral or often good coverage from most of the outlets of the news media. But The New York Times, Washington Post and a few others were consistently tough on him and that’s – that’s what he remembered. Uh, that’s what stuck in his craw, and that’s what made him feel particularly vengeful towards the press.
Ken Ward: Well, so – so June 17, 2022, is the fiftieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in and that’s our focus here. But I don’t want to assume that all of our listeners are familiar with Watergate. It’s been 50 years. So let’s not dwell on the details, but could you give us a rundown of what led up to the incident at the Watergate 50 years previously, and what was it that transpired there?
Jon Marshall: Sure. Nixon was very upset about information leaks from his White House. There had been the Pentagon Papers case a year ago when the New York Times, then the Washington Post and then more than a dozen other newspapers printed a – a secret history of the Vietnam War that Nixon resisted having published. Uh, he was very angry about that. He was very angry with the New York Times when it revealed that the United States was secretly and illegally bombing the country of Cambodia.
So he wanted to stop leaks at all cost. And he had his aides create a unit in the White House that became known as the Plumbers for stopping leaks. And they became a really criminal [laughs] element within the White House. Uh, they burglarized offices. They talked about assassinating syndicated columnist Jack Anderson.
They talked about firebombing the Brookings Institute – which was a Washington think tank – and they did, uh…in more than a dozen instances they illegally wiretapped journalists and people who worked in the White House to try to figure out where the leaks were coming from. Out of the Plumbers came a man by the name of G. Gordon Liddy, who was a – a very interesting [laughs] character to say the least.
Um, he bragged about having once bit the – the head off a – of a rat and bragged about once holding its hand over a candle until it burned to show how tough he was. He would – he had been a federal prosecutor who – who shot a gun out – off in the middle of a courtroom once.
So he was like this wild character who was associated with the Plumbers and became a counsel for Nixon’s re-election campaign. Liddy came up with a plan before the 1972 Democratic convention as – as Nixon was preparing for his re-election to do whatever he could to sabotage the Democratic efforts. This included blackmail; it included kidnapping people; it included using prostitutes to try to ensnare Democratic VIP’s so they could be blackmailed; it included spying on – on – on Democrats.
And he talked about this plan with the attorney general of the United States, John Mitchell, who then went on to run Nixon’s re-election campaign in Nixon’s – the White House counsel, John Dean. So top lawyers in the country talking about this totally illegal plan. Uh, and instead of stopping it, they just told them to come back with a – a more modest plan which Liddy did.
And that plan was to try to eavesdrop on the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and office complex. So Liddy and others of the Plumbers got together a – a crew of people – including James McCord, who was the security director from Nixon’s re-election campaign – uh, to break into the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate. They actually failed once. They accidentally locked themselves into a banquet room instead of getting into the Democratic headquarters.
Uh, they got in – they got in the second time and planted eavesdropping devices and – and copied some papers, but when they – when they got out, they realized that the wiretaps they placed did not work very well, was not getting good information. Either they couldn’t – the sound quality was bad or they were mostly picking up office gossip.
So they were ordered to go back in another time, and that time they got caught. And this was the early morning of June 17. So Watergate is – was literally the break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office complex in which the five burglars were arrested. And then eventually, Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt – which was another of the Plumbers – and, uh…were also arrested along the way, but the Watergate came to symbolize the whole White House crime spree which John Mitchell – the attorney general– called the White House horrors,
which included things like the illegal wiretapping, the break-ins, illegal campaign contributions, trying to sabotage the campaigns of the Democratic campaigns. And as we discussed, using the machinery of the federal government to go after Nixon’s political opponents. So that’s – that’s Watergate in a nutshell.
Ken Ward: Sure. No, that – [laughs] – and it’s – it’s a really complex event. So after – after Watergate occurred, how did reporters initially handle that story? Did they understand what they had or did – did they make that connection with the – the White House immediately? I mean, I would think that would take time, right?
Jon Marshall: That’s right. There was a flurry of stories right after the break-in. You know, it – it was an interesting story and it made headlines for – for a couple of days for – for many news outlets. It was on the evening news, but most people didn’t know what to make of it. “Uh, why – why would anyone really be breaking into the opposition’s campaign headquarters?”
And the idea that somehow the White House or the president’s re-election campaign could be connected to it just seemed completely far-fetched. And a lot of the news articles referred to it as – as a caper, as if it were part – part of some kind of comedy movie or something like that. So within a few days, most of the news media attention to Watergate began to dwindle. Uh, and – and that was true for about a month or so.
And then the New York Times actually had a – had a key article that traced the money that had ended up in one of the burglar’s bank account to a – a mysterious lawyer in Mexico City who had deposited large sums of money into his bank account. Uh, and then Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post followed that up and found that that money actually came specifically from Nixon’s re-election campaign.
And that started them on a whole string of stories that began to unravel the – the Watergate mystery.
Ken Ward: Well, so I definitely want to talk more about Woodward and Bernstein. They’re – they’re such an important part of the story. But, you know, what – what was it that drove reporters to continue pursuing the story after that interest dwindled? I mean, does that – does it speak – it seems to me like it might speak toward the relationship between Nixon and the press, that they were looking for – they didn’t let it go. Right? But I guess they wouldn’t necessarily have had that connection to Nixon in the first place. Was it animus toward Nixon by the press that pushed them to keep pushing on the story or – or why not let it go after a month?
Jon Marshall: Well, most of – it’s important to remember most of the White House press corps did not push the story; did not – did not follow it. They were – they accepted the denials of Nixon and his aides that they had nothing to do with it and they moved onto other stories and – and were accepting of – of the official version of things.
So it was very few reporters who actually pursued it. Walter Rugaber of the New York Times was one. Sandy Smith of Time Magazine had – had some – had some scoops. But they tended to be somewhat buried in Time. Time didn’t play them up. Jack Nelson and – and Ron Ostrow of the LA Times had an important story, but most – most reporters weren’t pursuing it.
But there were all these tantalizing leads. Like, why did Howard Hunt – who was one of the people arrested…why did he have White House – a White House office? Uh, and where did – you know, why did these burglars have $100 dollars in – in bills stuffed in their pockets? It wasn’t a usual kind of burglary. There are all these strange things about it. Uh, so there were a few reporters who – who kept digging a little bit.
And then once the connection was – the – the money connection was made with the Nixon campaign, that’s really when Woodward and Bernstein became the – the prime reporters who – who followed this story. And – and it’s important to note they weren’t political reporters. They were local city reporters. So they weren’t the ones hearing the official denials from the White House. They were treating it as if it were a crime story, which it was. And that’s why they – they were more successful at it.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s so interesting that…yeah. So it’s not that political corps that’s – that’s focused on this. How – how did they impact coverage of the scandal in the end? If they’re coming at it from that city perspective, what – where do they take the story then, and what – what – how do they follow these clues toward – toward the White House?
Jon Marshall: They showed – in addition to that initial story showing that it was Nixon campaign cash who paid the burglars, they eventually showed that John Mitchell – who I mentioned earlier, the former attorney general and then at that point the head of Nixon’s re-election campaign – he had had personal control over that campaign money.
Um, and eventually they found that Bob Haldeman, the chief of staff, also was one of the people who had control over that – that secret campaign slush fund. Uh, so they were able to take the Watergate story from these sort of fringe characters in Nixon’s orbit to people who were right at the very center of Nixon’s orbit.
They and – and some of the other reporters revealed also the extent of Nixon’s sabotage campaign against other Democratic candidates. Nixon was particularly concerned about Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, who was considered the Democratic frontrunner at one point, and they did several things to try to sabotage Muskie’s campaign, which they did effectively.
Uh, including before the crucial New Hampshire primary where – where Muskie had been leading in the polls they published a fake letter that said that Muskie had insulted French – people of French-Canadian descent, which there are a lot of in New Hampshire.
And that – that fake letter that – that Muskie had made a slur against French Canadians hurt him in the New Hampshire primary as did some of the other sabotage efforts, which in the end helped George McGovern become the Democratic candidate, which was exactly what Nixon wanted because he correctly thought that McGovern would be a weaker person to run against in the 1972 general election
Ken Ward: Interesting. So, you know, in – in the – the wake of Watergate, the Nixon administration doesn’t immediately crumble in the face of this reporting by Woodward or Bernstein and others. But the scandal does eventually devolve into a crisis for Nixon. So what is the press’s role in the eventual collapse of the Nixon White House?
Jon Marshall: Well, as the Washington Post and others are publishing these stories and CBS News in October of 1972 devoted about 2/3 of one of its evening newscasts to the Watergate story, it – it put it on the agenda of official Washington. Senators and congressmen and –and judges are reading these stories. Uh, and they start to think, “Well, maybe we’re not getting the truth from the Nixon administration despite all of its denials.”
And there are a couple of key moments that happened in early – late-winter, early-spring of 1973. One was that Nixon’s interim FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, went up to the Senate to testify in order to be – Nixon had nominated him to be the permanent FBI director. So he had to go through a hearing for his nomination. And one of the first questions that – that Sam Ervin, who was chairing that committee, asked him about referred to some Washington Post stories about Watergate.
And Gray, for – for reasons we’re still not quite sure of, began to spill some of the beans about the Nixon cover-up of Watergate and destruction of documents and that Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, was – was getting all the reports from the FBI and effectively trying to cover up some of the crime.
So that – so Patrick Gray starting to spill the beans was the key moment. And then in the courtroom of John Sirica, who was at the trial, overseeing the trial of the original seven Watergate defendants…the five burglars plus Gordon Liddy and – and Howard Hunt – said he – he didn’t think he was getting the truth at that trial.
And – and Seymour Hersh of the New York Times published a key story that the Nixon people were paying hush money to the five burglars to commit perjury and – and not to connect their burglary to – to anyone else in the Nixon administration or the Nixon campaign. So Sirica was seeing these articles and – and he was ready to impose some very tough penalties when these people were convicted.
And then one of them – James McCord who I mentioned earlier, who had been head of Nixon’s re-election security and was one of the people caught at the Watergate – wrote a letter to Sirica saying, “You know what? You know, they’re right. Um, we have – there’s been great pressure on us to commit perjury and there were people higher up who were connected to this.”
And that really opened the door to the idea that Nixon had not been telling the truth, his aides had not been telling the truth. And the rest of the Water – the Washington press corps really began to jump on the story at that point … and that led to the Senate Watergate hearings later that spring.
Ken Ward: Sure. So you – you write in Clash that Nixon – Nixon’s war on the press outlived him. So I want to ask you how is that so? Like, what’s the legacy of all this? And specifically, what about the legacy of Watergate?
Jon Marshall: Well, Nixon – as I mentioned earlier – was really the first president to publicly portray the press as – as an enemy. And he was actually – his administration was the first to start referring to the press as the media; the media, which sounds more like a big institution, less – less personal and sounds – sounds more intimidating. And disparaging the media has now become a cottage industry among – among some politicians and certainly Donald Trump made that a centerpiece of his presidency.
So I think in that – to that extent, Watergate is still having an impact. And then, I think presidents since Nixon have become much more effective on the whole to knowing how to not let their personal animus towards the press translate into illegal acts; at least as far as we know. Uh, they’ve been a lot more careful about what they did to make sure that they weren’t – weren’t caught in – in doing things, like using the IRS to go after journalists as – as Nixon had been.
Ken Ward: So we – we have one last question. And we ask it to all of our guests, and I’m really interested to hear what your answer might be. In your opinion, why does journalism history matter?
Jon Marshall: Ken, I love this question. I think it matters tremendously. Because if we think about it, what people know about the world around them beyond their own personal observations or their own personal conversations … comes from media including journalism.
It’s – it’s how we know things about what’s going on about government and politics to our entertainment and culture and – and sports and any other kind of information that we get; whether it’s from TV or radio or social media or – or – or the Web or magazines or newspapers.
We’re getting a lot of our information about what we know about the world from the media. And so, if we’re going to understand how the media is shaping our perceptions of reality both through information and sometimes increasingly through misinformation now, we – we need to understand how we got here, how it became this way. What – what were the forces that – that – that shaped the media world that we got to today?
And I firmly believe if we’re going to clearly navigate the way that the media presents itself today, we need to study media history to give us an effective map for how we got here to – to increase that understanding. And then, I would add just the study of journalism history is just also a lot of fun [laughs]. There’s a lot of great stories. It’s – it’s fascinating that – that interplay of reporters and – and – and the world around them, and you get a lot of great characters as there were with the Watergate story. So in addition to being important, I just think it’s really interesting and fun.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Jon, thank you so much for being on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Jon Marshall: Thank you, Ken, for the opportunity. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, too.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Again, Jon’s new book is Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis. It’s a great read. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “good night and good luck.”