A Tangled Web
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) When I taught journalism at universities, I would always put All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward on the reading list. For other courses I
taught in which journalism was touched upon, if not the primary focus, I would often assign the movie version of that book (Dir. Alan J. Pakula, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) as outside viewing. The book and movie are wonderful examples of dogged investigative journalism at its best and serve as templates for how the fourth estate can act as a critical part of any democratic system of government, and be in the US at least, as important as the legislative, the judicial, and the executive, the three constitutionally mandated branches.
I have always been astonished at the complexity of the cast of characters and roles they played in the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up; even more impressive is the way Woodward and Bernstein put it all together and sorted it all out into a comprehensible narrative. When the last domino fell, even those among us who weren’t obsessive US politics junkies were able to follow the story and make sense of what happened in the most multifaceted and intricate criminal conspiracy in US political history. And without the work of a free press, dedicated journalists, and courageous publishers, the “cancer on the presidency”[i] would never have been exposed and excised.
The concern that I and many fellow journalists share is that, in today’s political zeitgeist, there is neither the will nor the skill to expose an even more serious cancer on a different presidency. The scandals that will ultimately bring President Donald Trump down are by orders of magnitude farther-reaching, more tangled, and more damaging to the country than anything Richard Nixon did or approved of. There are literally dozens of confirmed and suspected criminal acts attributable to the president and his men (and one or two women), ranging from soliciting bribes and influence peddling to espionage and treason; in between are money laundering, abuses of power, and obstruction of justice. The whole mishegas is so vast that it is unlikely that it will ever be encapsulated in a single book, movie, or impeachment hearing. When Donald Trump goes down, it will be because some investigation has focused exclusively on a single or small number of related criminal acts and decided that these would be the easiest to prove. But what won’t happen in today’s world is the daily exposure of the President’s crimes in a clearly explicated, step by methodical step exposure and explanation by the Fourth Estate.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that journalism no longer resembles the respected, admirable, nearly sacred calling it was during Watergate and its aftermath. I and every other budding journalist I know of in those days saw our profession as a vital and valued component of a democratic society. We sought out the truth; our loyalty was to facts. We saw ourselves as watchdogs who kept politics honest and protected the people from unscrupulous or corrupt leaders. But something happened; journalism became entertainment. Ratings became more important than honest, fact-based reporting. Sensationalism, not truth was what reporters tracked down. And at the same time, with the advent of Fox News, objectivity and balanced reporting began to disappear from the airwaves and never made a strong appearance on the Internet. Fox was a de facto propaganda arm of the Republican Party and showcased the rantings of assorted right wing and evangelical Christian nutjobs. Conspiracy theories proliferated on the ‘Net and with Trump, the last vestiges of old school fact-based reporting were labelled “Fake News”. All news is now suspect unless it is a partisan claim that happens to reinforce an already held belief. It is hard to imagine who could write a genuinely objective summary of the entire Trump presidency when all the dust has settled. (My money would be on Rachel Maddow and her team, but even though she is scrupulous and thorough in her reporting, she will be dismissed as partisan. She’s right, but that won’t matter in today’s world of binary politics).
The second reason is the scale of the malfeasance this time around. The Watergate dust-up seemed byzantine at the time. It all started with a bungled break-in at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington. It turned out that the burglars were paid out of an illegal slush fund traced back to the Committee to Re-elect the President (identified by one of the all-time greatest acronyms: CREEP). Ultimately it turned out that the president and his closest advisors were aware of the fund and the criminal activities it financed; the trail led right to the top. But, as we all know, the cover-up is what ultimately undid President Nixon.
This time around the crimes that are being investigated are nothing like the vaguely comical bungled break-in organised by the cartoon figure, G. Gordon Liddy. Today’s crimes make Watergate look like a particularly puerile frat boy’s prank gone wrong. Here we have international espionage and treason. We actually have the certain knowledge that the president was helped along in his campaign by Russian dirty tricks. It is virtually certain that his people have coordinated with the Russians to swing the election away from his opponent. And we have a Republican Party that acknowledges all that but doesn’t believe it’s important enough to appoint a special commission, let alone a special prosecutor. Bear in mind that this is the same party that spent years and millions of dollars on an investigation, prosecution, impeachment, and failed attempt to convict a Democratic president over an illicit blowjob.
Entangled in this mess is the possibility, even the likelihood that the president is compromised because the Russians have videos of his aberrant sexual acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. We know for certain that his national security advisor was a Russian agent; we know for certain that the president was aware of that. We also know that his campaign manager was a foreign agent. His new Attorney General, who helped run his campaign, is in charge of the agency tasked with investigating espionage in the country. And none of this even touches on Trump’s paying off favours to industrialists by letting them mine and otherwise lay waste to national parks. Or using his office to pimp his daughter’s line of apparel. Or his family selling visas at inflated rates to Chinese businessmen.
The web is so vast and so tangled that today’s ineffective and defanged press will not hold anyone’s feet to the fire. There will continue to be hysterical shouts from clickbait producers and accusations of snowflakery in response, but this time we need to see if the system still works. Only the political system as defined by the US Constitution will be able to bring this despicable and hateful regime down and take its leaders to task. So far it has failed. If the nation’s last hope, Congress that is dominated by political hacks who always, always, put party before country, the great experiment in democracy will have failed in a spectacularly obvious way. And that is happening in front of our eyes in real time. I have very faint hope indeed that the United States of America will survive their national idiocy in having elected Donald J. Trump.