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Would you use the adjective 'heroic' to describe the American news media?

COMMENTARY | February 28, 2005

Anthony Lewis on broadcasters who sound like a cheering section, a government that would charge $372,799 for an FOIA request, and a press that, overall, isn’t exactly heroic. This talk, posted with Lewis’s permission, is from a University of Texas symposium Feb. 4, 2005, on the legacy of Watergate.

By Anthony Lewis



Watergate had many lessons, for the press and for the country. Among the most important, I thought then and I think now, was the danger of concentrated power in the hands of the President. Richard Nixon set out to break free of the Constitution’s checks and balances on executive power. He failed. But it was, as the Duke of Wellington said after Waterloo, “a damned close-run thing.”


Today Richard Nixon looks like an amateur when it comes to aggrandizing power in the White House. George W. Bush took us unilaterally into a war in Iraq on the assertion that it had weapons of mass destruction. He gave a medal to the CIA chief who told him that the fact of those weapons’ existence was a “slam dunk.” He never apologized for the non-existence of the weapons. He unilaterally broke this country’s commitment, in the Geneva Conventions, to treat prisoners of war humanely. He rewarded the counsel who advised him that Geneva provisions were obsolete by making him Attorney General.


Another of Bush’s lawyers advised him that the Constitution so exalted his office that he could ignore not only treaties but domestic criminal law against torturing prisoners. That’s the exact opposite of what we thought Watergate meant – that the law applies to the high as to the low. He rewarded that lawyer by making him a Court of Appeals judge.


Bush has stripped from his Cabinet anyone who dissented even a little. He is surrounded now by yes men and women. Even the CIA, whose high officials included some who warned against policies that alienated the Arab world, has been stripped of those officials by a political appointee.


Bush is the most secretive President in our lifetimes. He has cut back on the Freedom of Information Act, restricted access to past Presidential records, vastly increased the number of classified documents. His people have lately said that someone wanting to know how many aliens had been secretly detained after 9/11 would have to pay fees of $372,799 to get the facts under the Freedom of Information Act.


The Framers of our Constitution, James Madison and the rest, set up competing centers of power so that if one political institution overreached, others would counter it. But where are those competing centers today? The House of Representatives has been so gerrymandered that it has hardly any meaningful election races. The courts? They still say no to such things as holding Americans in solitary confinement without trial on suspicion of terrorist connections. But Bush is determined to pack the courts with rubber stamps.


That leaves the institution on which, in the end, Madison relied: the press. Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. Thirty some years after Watergate made the press a hero, how many of you would use the adjective heroic to describe what the American press, print and broadcast, has done to alert the public to the concentration of abuse and power in the White House? I could not use that adjective.


Broadcasters, and not only Fox, sound more often like a cheering section than a watchdog. The New York Times and The Washington Post have apologized for their timid performance in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Or think about the torture of prisoners. Surely there, you may think, the press has done a lot. Yes it has. CBS and Sy Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib story. Reporters on the Post and Times, especially, have given us many more disgusting details on the treatment of prisoners. But I would guess that most Americans accept Donald Rumsfeld’s explanation that only a few “rotten apples” were responsible, an explanation equivalent to Ron Ziegler’s statement that Watergate was “a third-rate burglary." A press as committed as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were would be pressing to uncover the role of civilian higher-ups, perhaps through an independent counsel.


The other day a conservative columnist on The Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby, describing himself as “a war hawk,” deplored the failure of conservatives to speak out against the policies and political leaders that brought us to torture. “Something is very wrong,” he wrote, “when the Justice Department advises the president’s legal adviser that a wartime president is not bound by the International Convention Against Torture or the U.S. laws incorporating it.” Yes, something is wrong. Our political leaders have failed to say so loudly and clearly. So has the press.


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