In its reporting on Watergate, the Washington Post made Barry Sussman its special editor on the scandal. We asked him about the current scandal roiling Washington -- the firing of the "Gonzales Eight." Sussman says the press faces a similar problem now as it did then: how to keep the public interested.
Thirty-five years after the fact, there is once again a little bit of Watergate in the air - a "my way or the highway" administration, official lies, possible violations of law, lots of stonewalling and a salivating Democratic Congress.
Could the scandal over fired U.S. attorneys, the ever-unfolding Gonzalesgate, lead to Watergate-level drama? For this we go to Barry Sussman, who, more than three decades ago, was the special Watergate editor for Woodward and Bernstein at The Washington Post. Barry, welcome to On the Media. BARRY SUSSMAN: Thanks, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Is this in any way a fair comparison, the firings of some fairly low-level employees with Watergate itself? BARRY SUSSMAN: I think it's very similar to what went on in Watergate. It's totally political, isn't it? That's what the Watergate scandal was, was a totally political scandal also, the administration trying to get an edge over its opponents or perceived opponents. BOB GARFIELD: As far as you can tell, are news organizations approaching this story in approximately the way they approached Watergate? Are they doing something different? Are they doing not enough?
BARRY SUSSMAN: There's a myth that Watergate was a victory for the press. It wasn't. There were only five news organizations that paid much attention to Watergate as the story was breaking. It was The Washington Post, The New York Times, the now-defunct Washington Star, Time Magazine and The Los Angeles Times.
Television did zero. There was no television coverage of Watergate. And nobody else in the press had much original reporting until about eight months after the story broke, when the scandal had become so big the press came in, in grand style and everybody got into the story.
The coverage of the U.S. attorney scandal is following a similar pattern. There's not a lot of original reporting going on. This time what's really striking is that the first real reporting on it was done by a website and not by the traditional news media at all. BOB GARFIELD: You're referring online to Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo? BARRY SUSSMAN: Yes, that's what I'm talking about. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned that back in '72, and for some time thereafter, the networks essentially ignored Watergate until the story had attained so much critical mass that they could ignore it no more. We're in a very different [LAUGHING] situation 35 years later. Twenty-four hour cable news mentions Attorney General Gonzales and the scandal certainly every day, probably every hour.
Is the result that the public is more engaged and more interested in getting a resolution? Or is the opposite,that citizens' eyes just begin to glaze over? BARRY SUSSMAN: You know, I think both things are happening at the same time. On the one hand, I think people are stunned at the boldness of some of the statements made by Gonzales and also by the White House. Gonzales, having said he's not involved in anything, has been revealed to have been involved in almost everything.
The White House continues to make an offer to have its people testify with no transcript of what they have to say. On the one hand, the offenses seem blatant and the story is obviously pretty good. On the second hand, it's kind of obfuscated and muddled. And part of the muddle comes, I must say, from some of the news organizations.
I think if you watch, for example, Fox News, you have a totally different idea of what this story is than if you watch any other news organization. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there have been a number of very sharply-written editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post and so forth, and the kind of left-wing blogosphere has been all over this story, and the President and the Attorney General and Karl Rove are all tried and convicted of various crimes and misdemeanors.
But I certainly don't sense any kind of widespread outrage, maybe some eye-rolling, but no real determination by the American public to get to the bottom of this, come what may.
At what point in the Watergate investigation did the public get on board and begin to see that this was not just some inside-the-Beltway arcana? BARRY SUSSMAN: You may remember that Richard Nixon won the election in 1972, in November, not many months after the break-in in June, with one of the biggest majorities in the history of American politics. So you would have to say that not all people were on board then.
In my judgment, what happened in Watergate was that no matter how bad the scandal got, it was deflected, until it was discovered that Nixon was cheating on his income taxes. And that, people understood very simply and very clearly.
Nixon, it was revealed, had for two years paid almost no money on his income taxes. People can understand this and say, this guy's just too crooked for us; there's no reason to believe anything he said.
And that, I think, is what, as much as anything else and more than almost everything else, brought the roof down on Richard Nixon. BOB GARFIELD: Hm, so until there's a kind of "gotcha" moment that all Americans can relate to on a personal level, the tide of public opinion may never turn on this story? BARRY SUSSMAN: Well [LAUGHS], it's possible it can run out the clock. I think what you're dealing with is people who pay a lot of attention to the news and everybody else, and the “everybody else” is in the great majority. I think they've turned away from George Bush, and this is just one more reason for them not to pay much attention to him or take him seriously. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Barry. I appreciate you joining me. BARRY SUSSMAN: Thank you so much, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Barry Sussman is editor of The Watchdog Project at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and author of The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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