Could structural changes to American journalism — like increased federal support for public media — help prevent future political scandals?
That was one of the big questions posed last week during “The Lessons of Watergate,” a Washington, D.C., conference organized by the liberal advocacy group Common Cause. Held four decades after President Richard Nixon defiantly declared, “I am not a crook,” the two-day event at the National Press Club featured a series of speeches and panel discussions with journalists and government reform activists.
Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration who now teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, gave the opening keynote, “Democracy in Crisis — Then and Now,” on the first day, March 13.
The second day, March 14, ended with a keynote address by The Nation's Washington correspondent, John Nichols, who spoke approvingly of President Lyndon Johnson's strong support for public media.
“This country doesn't work unless our media informs all the people all the time,” he said, paraphrasing Johnson. “We need to create an American BBC. We need to create the equivalent of the British Broadcasting Corporation in the United States. We don't need to have a little piddly public broadcasting system funded at a level 1/17th of Slovenia's.”
Nichols said a more robust public media system might have prevented Watergate and subsequent political scandals. He also said journalists must do a better job of covering controversies like Watergate as they develop, not simply once they become impossible to ignore.
“You're a bad doctor if you only treat people that are sick,” he said. “You're a good doctor if you look ahead and help them to avoid getting sick. The United States needs a good doctor right now.”
Several other conference participants agreed that a stronger system of public media might be a healthy prescription for what ails journalism. In fact, Michael Winship, a senior writer for public television's “Moyers & Company,” said public media is increasingly indispensable when it comes to fulfilling certain civic responsibilities.
“We find ourselves, in this age of media consolidation, as one of the few remaining bastions of independence and localism,” he said.
Winship described recent polling that suggests Americans see public broadcasting as the most trustworthy form of media — findings public media advocates have been quick to tout as they campaign against federal funding reductions. Still, the very necessity of these kind of defensive campaigns suggests that growing America's public media sector may prove politically challenging, at least in the short term.
Other speakers at "The Lessons of Watergate" included: Liz Holtzman and William Cohen, both members of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate; Jill Wine Banks, assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate Task Force; and Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who worked on the top-secret study of Vietnam, known as the Pentagon Papers, which he later gave to The New York Times, The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers.
Charles Lewis, executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and founder of the Center for Public Integrity, moderated a panel on investigative journalism and the media's role during Watergate. The panel featured Scott Armstrong, a member of the Senate Watergate Committee and founder of the National Security Archive; Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times; and Brooks Jackson, an investigative journalist and founder of FactCheck.org.