BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thirty-one summers ago, what the Nixon White House called "a third rate burglary" occurred at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office Building. Thirty summers ago the demolition of his administration was being aired live on television for millions to see. Through it all there was exhaustive coverage of the Watergate scandal. It was a story that made heroes of reporters and a monkey of the commander in chief. After the revelations of Watergate, they were openly contemptuous of each other.
DAN RATHER: Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather of CBS News. [APPLAUSE]
RICHARD NIXON: Are you running for something? [LAUGHTER]
DAN RATHER: No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?
RICHARD NIXON: No. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Dole, GOP chairman in the election year of 1972 called the Watergate story "a brazen attempt by the Washington Post to bolster the campaign of Nixon challenger George McGovern." Dole said the mud-slinging was the work of "an old Kennedy coat-holder," Ben Bradlee, Post editor. But even though the post was often alone in pursuit of the story, Bradlee says the paper is not responsible for what followed.
BEN BRADLEE: We didn't bring down Nixon. He brought himself down. You couldn't exaggerate our role. We had a wonderful villain in this matter!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:For most people, the story of Watergate did not emerge from the pages of the Post but from images on the small screen -- the televised congressional hearings chaired by Senator Sam Ervin.
SAM ERVIN: We are beginning these hearings today in an atmosphere of utmost gravity. The questions that have been raised in the wake of the June 17 break-in strike at the very undergirding of our demo--democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The language of Watergate became part of our national lexicon.
JOHN DEAN:I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.
HOWARD BAKER: I'm trying to focus on the president -- what did the president know and when did he know it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Senator Howard Baker asked that last question, and it's resounded in the mouths of reporters about presidents ever since.
HELEN THOMAS: Afterwards our skepticism, cynicism really prevailed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Helen Thomas has covered the White House since the Kennedy administration. She says that official lies told by two administrations --first about Vietnam and then about Watergate -- made the White House press corps determined not to be burned again.
HELEN THOMAS: The White House press room became an arena, really. It was very, very hard to cut through that. There was a lot of ill feeling and passion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By "arena" do you mean like the gladiators were sent into?
HELEN THOMAS: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Tom Rosenstiel, who heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the highly charged atmosphere became the catalyst for a new kind of coverage.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: You could call it the personalization of scandal, and it's partly caused by the perception that Watergate was foreseeable if we had probed the inner character of Richard Nixon more carefully before the elections, and it allowed us to expand what was okay for us to look at.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Ben Bradlee says that Washington reporters should begin with the assumption that officials are not telling the truth. Rosenstiel believes that assumptions leads reporters to overlook what the public really wants to know -- the substance of a policy --not the political maneuvering behind it.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: And we've gotten to the point today where there is a presumption that the politician doesn't believe in this policy he's talking about -- he's selling something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Rosenstiel says that President Clinton, perceived as perhaps too "nimble" when it comes to political principle, sent cynicism soaring -- so much so that his was one of the most strained relationships with the press since Nixon.
REPORTER: Your apparent focus on Judge Breyer…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was strain when a reporter queried President Clinton over his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg--
REPORTER: ...of a certain zigzag quality in the decision-making process here. I wonder, sir, if you could kind of walk us through it and perhaps disabuse us of any notion we might have along those lines. Thank you.
BILL CLINTON: I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you of turning any substantive decision in anything but political process. How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:For 30 years the president and the press have feuded like an unhappy couple, but under the administration of George W. Bush, rage has turned to resignation, crushed under the combined weight of 9/11, wartime patriotism and the president's poll numbers. Nobody expects this president to answer tough questions. Case in point, his second prime time press conference held shortly before invading Iraq. The once fire-breathing press corps was seen to be rolling over and playing dead. Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank.
DANA MILBANK: You can imagine that if somebody said look, Mr. President, this is a charade; you haven't answered the question -- that would produce an incredible public backlash.
BOB DEANS: There were probably 60 reporters in the room. No one did it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Deans, Cox newspaper reporters and president of the White House Correspondents Association.
BOB DEANS: This is a president who has put a premium on a certain amount of protocol and respect. This is a guy who, if you holler out a question to him during a pool setting, you will get a glare and you, you can be sure he will not call on you. He will not recognize your question. He won't answer it. And so our behavior to a certain extent reflects those realities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The president doesn't like the press. He is not the first to feel that way and certainly not the last.
REPORTER: Mr. President, you've lambasted the television networks pretty well--
RICHARD NIXON: Oh--
REPORTER: -- could I ask you-- [LAUGHTER] what is it about the television coverage of you in these past weeks and months that has so aroused your anger?
RICHARD NIXON: Don't get the impression that you arouse my anger. One can only be angry with those he respects. [OH'S AND OTHER STARTLED REACTIONS FROM PRESS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As Watergate diminished the president, it elevated the journalist with a considerable boost from Hollywood. The two reporters who broke most of the Watergate story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, wrote a book called All the President's Men in 1974, but they were immortalized in the movie of the same name released two years later.
MAN: You got more than one source--
MAN: Yes, sir-- [...?...]--
MAN: Well our source--
MAN: Sloan and who else?
MAN: And there's another guy at Justice who so far won't confirm the names of the other two who control the fund, but we're working on it.
MAN: [What about] Deep Throat?
MAN: He's not a source on this.
MAN: Look, do any of 'em have an axe?
MAN: Personal? Political? Sexual? Is there anything at all on Mitchell?
MAN: Then can we use the names?
MAN: [SHOUTING] God dammit! When is somebody going to on the record in this story?!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The lesson drawn by a generation of new reporters was: question authority, which fit in with the spirit of the time. But because of the movie stars, many of them saw the glamour of the business and missed the grind.
CARL BERNSTEIN: If you look at All the President's Men, the movie; you read the book All the President's Men, you see that there is nothing very exotic about what, what we did--
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Carl Bernstein says the lesson of Watergate for reporters is to work hard. He acknowledges that in many cases that lesson didn't take.
CARL BERNSTEIN: Knocking on a lot of doors, wearing out shoe leather, being respectful of the people you're talking to and interviewing -- we used common sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben Bradlee says the lesson of Watergate for politicians is to stop lying. That didn't take either.
BEN BRADLEE: America doesn't keep its lessons learned. I mean I think we - whatever we learned about Watergate is beginning to-- disappear!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Meanwhile, respect for politicians and reporters slides over the decades in tandem, each, critics suggest, dragging the other down. Journalist Helen Thomas.
HELEN THOMAS:We never tried to win a popularity contest. We know we're not loved -- even liked. That doesn't matter. The whole attitude toward us has been so cyclical. After President Nixon and Spiro Agnew started the anti-press, anti-media campaign, people would come up -- well, spit on you, literally. They, they would say "Why don't you write the truth?" and so forth, and we would really be in the dog house. After Watergate, people came to me, and not meaning me, per se, but the press and say "You saved the country." [MUSIC]