Watergate heroes and the fading Bill of Rights

Like an aging rock band, they take the stage and grin. Cheering fans crush forward to take photos. Cameras flash. Cell phones jut over our heads. Some stand on chairs to get a better shot of journalistic superstar reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, their former editor Ben Bradlee and Dan Schorr, the former CBS news guy, now in his 90s, who ended up on Richard Nixon’s shit list.

Bob Schieffer announces that never before has such a prestigious Watergate panel been assembled.

The lights dim and an old TV interview with Woodstein plays. The young reporters talk between scenes from All The Presidents Men, the 1976 film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Paroxysms of nostalgia. My stomach churns. Investigative reporters as heroes! Journalism that Makes A Difference!

The nostalgia passes. “What happened?” I scratch on my notepad. “This administration is at least as corrupt—more. Who’s committed to ‘truth’ now?”

I am in D.C. for the Society of Professional Journalist’s national convention. Fawning reporters and journalism students from around the nation pack the Ticonderoga room at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

Many are thinking what I’m thinking. Why did investigative reporting help bring a corrupt presidential administration to account in the 1970s?

Woodward credits his editor, offering an anecdote about how actor Jason Robards didn’t want the role of Washington Post editor Bradlee in the film. “All he does is run around and say, ‘Where the fuck’s the story?’ “ Robards complained.

“That’s what an executive editor does,” he was told. “That’s his fucking job. You have to find 15 different ways to say, ‘Where’s the fucking story?'”

Bernstein addressed the question directly. “The system worked,” he says. “The press did its job. The Senate did its job. The House Judiciary [Committee] did its job.”

When the facts of Watergate became public—the administration’s burglary, campaign fraud, political espionage and sabotage, illegal break-ins and wiretapping on a massive scale—outraged even Republicans . President Richard Nixon was forced to resign or be removed for his crimes.

Today, feds are free to wiretap, sneak, peek, track cell phone calls, look at library records. Campaign fraud? Lighten up. Lying to the public about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s al Qaeda connections, resulting in the deaths and injuries of tens of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians?

Is anyone paying attention?

The press does its job, Bernstein says. But the system is broken.

“Look what we know about this president,” he says. “But there’s no oversight.”

Nine UNR journalism students and I flew to D.C. for this conference. Students met with Sens. Ensign and Reid—and were stood up by Rep. Dean Heller. We toured the White House and the National Archives where the Declaration of Indepen-dence and the Constitution reside.

The fading ink on the Bill of Rights stung me. Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures"? Gone. Sixth Amendment’s “right to a speedy and public trial"? RIP. Eighth Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual punishments"? Oh sure, we don’t torture.

Would Watergate reporting happen today? Comparing the two eras is impossible, Bernstein says.

“We’ve had 25 to 30 years of ideological warfare,” he says. “We live in a very different atmosphere.”

It might be hard convincing the world, nowadays, that Nixon was a criminal.

Though newsrooms have changed dramatically, if the mainstream press “stumbled onto a good story,” Bernstein thinks they’d report it.

And now bloggers, YouTubers and other “citizen” journalists can latch on to stories missed by Big Media.

That’s good. And not so good.

“There’s so much garbage out there.”