When I was in graduate school in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon’s administration was entangled in the vast web of deceit that we have long known as Watergate.
In 1973 and 1974, I worked part-time at the Kansas City Star’s Washington bureau, less than a block from the White House.
This was a great place from which to watch the press briefings by Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, and the various committees on Capitol Hill as they probed the White House-directed break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate, and the White House-directed cover-up.
Watergate and its near-constitutional crisis caused by Nixon’s overreach of executive power and cynical disregard for the Constitution was as good a lesson in investigative journalism as one could get.
And it was an inspiration for generations of journalists of all kinds.
Today, with the election of President Donald Trump and the many issues his election and his administration have raised, it’s obvious we are entering another golden age of American journalism.
There are so many issues and events and relationships that should be — must be — investigated and explained to the American people if we are to keep our constitutional system of government in sound shape.
At a recent panel on “fake news,” Wayne Fields, an emeritus Washington University professor who has studied presidents and American culture, said journalists he meets when he goes to the nation’s capital are excited by all the work they have to do.
“The journalists I speak to seem reinvigorated by both the charges made against them and the unique professional challenges they face in covering this administration and its minions,” Fields wrote in a follow-up email.
“Their commitment to responsible reporting and the amazing variety of stories — Russian election interference, Trump administration conflicts of interest, family appointments, etc., etc. — provide no end of material requiring a wide range of research and analytic skills. Journalists, thanks to outrageous attacks and a high level of public interest, are center stage right now.”
Journalists all across the profession and the various platforms — print, broadcast and cable TV, radio and social media — are responding to this call to reinforce the value of the First Amendment and to rebuild public trust in the valuable role they play in this democracy.
As Thomas B. Edsall wrote recently in The New York Times, “The FBI, the Treasury Department and two congressional committees are probing whether Trump’s campaign aides and advisers – including Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn – were complicit in alleged Russian interference.”
Then Edsall turned to drastic budget cuts proposed by the White House:
“Trump proposed these cuts in spite of what Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, described in an essay titled ‘The World Without America’ as threats to ‘the domestic foundations of American Power,’ including ‘crumbling infrastructure, second-rate primary and secondary schools, outdated immigration system, and slow economic growth.’
“In addition, Trump has antagonized the leaders of allied countries like Mexico, Australia and Germany, and he has repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary lack of knowledge about foreign affairs.”
Even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently commented favorably on the way the Trump administration, in its first few weeks in office, has provoked the revival of the states’ role in the federal system in the lawsuits challenging executive orders regarding immigrants entering the United States.
If the public is not well informed on this vast array of important issues, whose fault is that?
If fake news has found traction with a public that doesn’t seem to want to know difference between facts and fiction, what can be done to counter its insidious, cynical purpose?
In a time when Trump tweets that the media is the enemy of the people, what are serious journalists to do but knuckle down and prove every day that they have a most valuable role to play in covering government at all levels, from the White House to the county court house?
Perhaps the Trump administration has done nothing wrong.
Perhaps it has not violated federal ethics laws with its apparent conflicts of interest, its appointments of compromised men like Flynn to be the national security adviser and its impulsive, disruptive gestures in foreign policy, like Trump’s tweets that confound longstanding foreign policy and trade goals over both Republican and Democratic administrations.
As my parents would have said, if you have nothing to hide …
Trade journals such as Nieman Reports from Harvard, Quill of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Columbia Journalism Review are full of articles about how reporters and editors should take up the many challenges thrown down by the administration since the Nov. 8 election.
A Google search for investigative journalism turns up many references to teams of reporters and editors who have geared up to thoroughly check out an assortment of Trump administration issues raised since the election and inauguration. CNN has its team. The New York Times and the Washington Post are paying close attention.
At The Wall Street Journal, a source of straight reporting that so far has done a sound job of covering the administration, reporters and sub-editors have petitioned management for a more aggressive approach to the White House.
Internet-only reporting teams from ProPublica and Politico, to mention two, regularly break stories on the administration.
“There is at the moment (probably always so) a conflict over essential national narratives,” Fields wrote in his email. “Responsible journalists have an advantage in this conflict precisely because they are responsible, they deal with complication.”
Now is the time for journalists to reclaim their calling and strengthen the First Amendment, as they did more than 40 years ago.