June 17th 1972, saw a break-in at the National Democratic Committee headquarters at the Watergate building, a sprawling office and apartment complex in Washington D.C. Over the next two years a number of journalists in New York, Los Angeles and Washington worked to reveal this event as part of a ruthless programme of political spying, sabotage and intimidation, directed by President Richard Nixon and his top White House aides. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post would be central to the press investigation. All The President’s Men is an account of their work during the Watergate period.
A number of things struck me about the book. First there were the similarities with political events of the 21st century. A ruthless cabal, interested in power for its own sake, elbows its way into government and then sets about portraying institutions that might hold it to account as arrogant “elites”. Departments of government and justice, are politicised, with the ruling group attempting to put their own people in charge, while systemically attacking anyone who gets in their way.
So far so similar. But the differences were also striking. Back in 1972, the investigation of conspiracy was very different. The media, as described in All The President’s Men, had tight control of editorial standards. We read a fascinating account of Woodward and Bernstein working day and night to make sure their reporting is accurate, gathering information from multiple, cross-checked sources. It is true that sometimes we see our reporter heroes bending the rules – trying to talk to members of a grand jury, for example. But the rules they bend are noticeably rigid. Washington Post editor Ben Crowninshield Bradlee is a formidable presence who will not accept sloppy reporting.
Today, by contrast, conspiracies flourish in a media environment that is a chaotic free for all. Watergate was a proper, no messing around, government conspiracy. It was exposed by diligent journalistic effort. But what do we get in the 2020s? We get conspiracies like Q-anon, mind control through vaccination or aircraft contrails, and a belief that the Earth is flat. Amateur Woodward and Bernsteins of social media generate misinformation rather than exposing it. Modern conspiracies are difficult to investigate rationally because their unreality pushes them into the realm of cult belief. The pesky ethic of accuracy no longer applies. Deception can be mass produced by disaffected individuals looking for a sense of importance. This gives the current equivalent of Nixon governments a chance to jump in and hide real corruption behind the prevailing barrage of nonsense. For example, consider the attempt to hide a staggeringly cack-handed conspiracy to manipulate the 2021 U.S. election, behind the fantasy that the Democrats were organising a sophisticated conspiracy to manipulate the election.
Reading All The President’s Men in the 2020s is a compelling and thought-provoking experience. The disciplined, conscientious writing process it describes is a salutary lesson for the world five decades later. The only reason I am able to share this review with you is because of new media freedoms. The contrast with the world of 1972, makes it clear that these freedoms have come at a price.