One of the great takeaways of the Watergate era was that journalism got a big boost. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters who broke open the scandal, made digging out the truth look patriotic and, let’s face it, cool. Lots of students went into journalism.
June 17 was the 50th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, a break-in that led to a cover-up and the famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
That president was, of course, Richard Nixon, and the Senate hearings that looked into the cover-up, with its cast of seedy characters and hush money, riveted the nation as investigators tried to learn how far up in the White House the cover-up went.
Millions of Americans watched as the hearings blanketed television channels and screamed at us from banner headlines in the daily newspapers to which we all still subscribed.
By the time Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974, I was on my way as a Jesuit volunteer to a little village in interior Alaska with no television access and definitely no morning newspaper. I was out of the loop. But Watergate had made a big impression.
And it’s been impacting all of us ever since, whether you were born during Watergate or not.
Now we are once again embroiled in hearings, this time a House Select Committee, investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in which rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol, resulting in several deaths and disrupting a joint session of Congress that would certify the presidential election. Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders were threatened with violence.
The question this time isn’t what did the president know, but how much of this did the president cause, and is he criminally liable for a proposed coup attempting to overthrow a legitimate election?
These are weighty questions, more serious than those faced by Richard Nixon.
In the Watergate hearings, no Capitol police officer testified to slipping in blood as she tried to defend access to this symbol of our democracy. No one was beaten, no mock gallows were erected.
Today’s hearings come to a country divided.
A friend sent me a video of a homilist discussing Jesus’ prayer, the one in John where he addresses God and asks “that they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us.”
The homilist goes on to say that if Jesus’ great prayer was for unity, then the evil one’s wish is for division.
It strikes me, in the midst of so much anger and discord in our country and even in our church, that the truth makes us free and leads to unity. Unity isn’t necessarily some feel-good, “kumbaya” agreement on all issues.
We can disagree — liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican, but still be united on common principles and truths. We don’t have to hate each other.
We need basic agreement on the facts — there aren’t “alternative facts.”
This is why good journalism is so important. Objective, well-researched, hard-scrabble journalism. We all probably have our favorite news outlets, but we should all have several of them. We should reject conspiracy theories and sites that provide no sources and do not detail their research.
The days of the morning paper, the reliance on print journalism, are waning. But that doesn’t mean good journalism is gone.
The Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said it best: “Faith has need of the whole truth.”
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