At the stroke of 9 p.m., several of us gathered to monitor an unusual program on WQXR radio. "Front page, tomorrow's New York Times," it began. "What will it look like? Here is Bill Blair, broadcast correspondent of The Times to tell you..."
How quaint, really. This fellow Blair would describe the layout and content of the front page, right down to the size and style of the headlines. That was a clue as to how significant the editors thought their latest Watergate revelations were: one column, two, maybe three?
An hour or so later a delivery man would rush in with copies of the City Edition of The Times––so fresh that the ink was moist. A rudimentary version of a fax machine would print out a fuzzy image of the next morning's Washington Post front page, sent by our colleagues in D.C.
No one used the term "fake news" to discredit media in those days, but the Nixon administration was relentless in trying to quiet The Post, Times and the three TV networks. The White House threatened to retaliate against advertisers and even made not-so-veiled threats that broadcast licenses could be in jeopardy if Watergate reporting wasn't dialed back.
Finally, Nixon himself blew up at the press. "I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life," he said. "Don't get the impression that you arouse my anger," he told reporters. "One can only be angry at those he respects."
The Watergate story actually dragged on for over two years––from the initial burglary in June, 1972, until Nixon's resignation in August of 1974. Many reporters contributed to the story, but none so dramatically and effectively as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Post, who became superstars of journalism.
And now here we are, over four decades later, with a president who is under fire. His newly-formed staff is engaged in back-stabbing, and leaks are the order of almost every day. A few Democrats are already speaking of impeachment; some reporters are making comparisons to Watergate.
Well, hold on. This isn't that, at least not yet.
Dan Rather, who covered Nixon for CBS, said the other day that "Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now."
Rather, whom I've known and respected, is probably having his own flashbacks about bells on teletype machines and scoundrels in the White House. I fear he might be getting ahead of himself––and the story.
It is instructive, however, to hear Carl Bernstein on CNN each night, trying to put the problems of the Trump administration in perspective. Trump's "crimes" might not equal Nixon's, but his contempt for journalists is unparalleled.
No matter what happens to Trump's presidency, he has already done a great service to journalists and news outlets by daring them to persevere. He's reminded us of a time when reporters proved they could not be silenced.
Like Nixon during Watergate, Trump is making America's journalism great again.
(c) Peter Funt. Distributed by Cagle syndicate.