The veteran journalists who first uncovered the Watergate scandal have spoken out against Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, warning the US President against undermining the country’s free press.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s investigations led to the indictments of a number of White House officials and, eventually, the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Speaking at length at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the duo talked about the growing tension between the White House and the media, with Bernstein emphasising the importance of strong reporting “especially now”.
Donald Trump was not present to hear the comments, instead holding a rally of his supporters. It was the first time a President has not attended the first White House Correspondent’s Dinner of their tenure since 1981. Then, Ronald Reagan was recovering from an assassination attempt – but he still managed to make some comments over the phone.
Carl Bernstein opened with remarks about President Nixon’s demonisation of the media in what had been an attempt to take attention away from his and many of his administrations’ misconduct.
“Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press more the issue in Watergate instead of the conduct of the President and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the reporting speak.”
He continued by talking about the Nixon administration’s record of lying. “Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. When lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good road map in front of us”.
In the course of their speeches, they largely refrained from making direct parallels with the Trump administration. Nonetheless their comments struck a chord with the audience, who applauded rigorously.
Bernstein commented on the nature of the Watergate sources. “Almost all of our sources in Watergate were people who had, at one time or another, been committed to Richard Nixon and his presidency”.
Mr Trump’s fledgling presidency has also been stalked by leaks from the White House, the result of which meant that “unflattering” private conversations and meetings were brought to public attention. Press Secretary Sean Spicer reportedly ordered that all staff hand in their phones to be checked in an effort to plug the leaks.
Bob Woodward challenged the President’s continued accusations that the media propagate “fake news”, and said: “The effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith”.
“Mr President, the media is not fake news. Let’s take that off the table going forward”.