“…an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971)
In 1963 the Weekly Reader that arrived in my 8th grade classroom was filled with articles about the dangers and the evils of the Soviet Union and communism. The Russians were to be feared because they wanted to take over the world and turn us all into communists. We read stories that decried the government control of news organizations, how the Soviet government controlled what information was published. There was no “free press” in the Soviet Union. The people were fed propaganda from the Soviet government.
Far from being horrified by these reports from the Weekly Reader, I was curious. So I raised my hand and asked: “How do we know that our government is not doing the same thing?”
Instead of an answer, I got another trip to the principal’s office, and my mother was called to come in and hear the principal’s lecture about how these were the best years of my life and I was lucky to live in a country where we had a free press. I agreed with the part about being lucky to live in a country with a free press. I just thought that our US freedoms extended to my right to ask questions. Didn’t my question fall under the category of free speech? As for the junior high years being the best of my life, I said that if I believed that I would slit my throat.
My mother gasped. The principal pursed her lips. Remembering that day, I’m surprised that I was not hauled into counseling (was that even possible in Shelby, NC, at that time?) or immediately tossed into a padded cell. I did spend weeks trying to convince my hovering mother that I was just fine. I believed that there were better years in store for me. All I really wanted to do was graduate from high school and leave Shelby with a one-way ticket to college.
I learned a couple of lessons from that incident: 1) questioning authority is not appreciated – but I intended to do it anyway; 2) subtly is not my strong suit. I’m still trying to learn the art of diplomacy. Maybe that’s one reason I turned to poetry.
It seems now, from this vantage point, that the incident was the beginning of my interest in journalism and politics. Ten years later, in 1973, as the Watergate Hearings began, I already knew just how insidious and dangerous the lies the US government told can be to our democracy – and how essential a free press is in preserving that democracy.
In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg had turned over what became known as “The Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times, which began publishing stories about how the US had misled the public about the extent of the US involvement in Vietnam. After the third article, the U.S. Department of justice got a restraining order against further publication, arguing that it was detrimental to U.S. national security. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. The Times and The Washington Post (which had also begun publishing the report) had joined forces to fight for the right to publish.
In a landmark 6-3 ruling, the high court affirmed that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was justified under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press. Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry—in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.”
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Nixon administration had Ellsberg and an alleged accomplice, Anthony Russo, indicted on criminal charges including conspiracy, espionage and stealing government property. The Nixon administration also ordered a secret team (“the plumbers” named for their orders to plug leaks in the administration) to burglarize Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office hoping to find files that would discredit Ellsberg.
The following year, 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected president although questions had already begun to surfaced about the extent of his involvement in the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex in DC. As we know now, Nixon and his staff lied when they denied that the White House had any link to the operation.
I had worked for Nixon’s Democrat opponent, George McGovern, and had actively protested the Vietnam war while also supporting friends who were drafted or volunteered to go to Vietnam. It was Nixon’s policies and the lies and deceit that led our country into war that I found unacceptable. I remained unconvinced that communism was the biggest threat to our democracy.
Thanks to the tenacious reporting by two Washington Post journalists, the White House denials began to unravel, so that in May 1973, The Senate Watergate Committee began its nationally televised hearings. A month later, the case against Ellsberg was dismissed after “the plumbers” actions were revealed. I stayed glued to the Watergate hearings and marveled that so many people were now saying that they never voted for Nixon. The standing joke among my friends was that if everyone who was now denying that they voted for Nixon was telling the truth, McGovern would have won.
I was painting my living room walls, stripes that went from the corner across the bay window sill, and listening to the radio that day, August 8, 1974, when Nixon resigned. When I heard the news, I put down my paint brush and turned my full attention to what comes next.
It’s been almost 50 years since two of our nations most respected newspapers proved how essential a free press is to our democracy. A lot has happened in those five decades. We now have instant news 24/7, a proliferation of publications printed on newsprint that are nothing more than propaganda, internet sites that spew lies masquerading as truth. Fox News network is a Republican media channel whose allegiance is not to facts, but to Donald Trump, the former president whose lies about the 2020 election continue to draw supporters.
The importance of a free press – one with high ethical standards and commitment to follow the facts wherever they lead – has never been more critical to the preservation of our democracy. The hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol have produced a chilling set of facts that lead directly to the former president Donald Trump’s illegal schemes to retain power by any means necessary, even violating the constitution, the rule of law and instigating an insurrection. There have been numerous comparisons drawn between the Watergate Hearings and the January 6 Hearings. For me, one of the most striking similarities is the somber civility of the January 6 hearings. The committee members and witnesses conduct themselves with the dignity, with respect for each other, and for the facts and the rule of law. They remind us that their allegiance is to the Constitution and the truth, not to any political party or person.
Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), vice chair of the Select Committee, opened the first televised hearing with words reminiscent of the 1954 Army-McCarthy Senate hearings: “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
A pivotal moment in the 1954 McCarthy hearings came when Army Chief Consul Joseph N. Welch said to Sen. Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you no decency?” Those televised hearings to investigate conflicting accusations between the US Army and Sen. McCarthy, gave the public a look at McCarthy’s bullying, blustering scare tactics as he accused the Army of being “soft on communism.”
McCarthy’s chief counsel was Roy Cohn who two decades later would represent a young Donald Trump. Cohn is also credited with introducing Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who gave us Fox News cable channel.
Fox News chose not to broadcast the first televised hearing, opting instead to broadcast the hearing on the much less watched Fox Business channel. However, Fox News reversed course and carried the second January 6 Hearing live.
One important lesson from The Washington Post reporting on Watergate: follow the money. The January 6 Committee is doing just that.
As the hearings continue, my hope is that the facts presented will penetrate the consciousness of all Americans, that we will begin to understand and accept what led to the January 6 insurrection and attack on the Capital and begin to take steps to ensure that it will never happen again.
On the Freedom of the Press
By Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790
While free from Force the Press remains,
Virtue and Freedom chear our Plains,
And Learning Largesses bestows,
And keeps unlicens’d open House.
We to the Nation’s publick Mart
Our Works of Wit, and Schemes of Art,
And philosophic Goods, this Way,
Like Water carriage, cheap convey.
This Tree which Knowledge so affords,
Inquisitors with flaming Swords
From Lay-Approach with Zeal defend,
Lest their own Paradise should end.
The Press from her fecundous Womb
Brought forth the Arts of Greece and Rome;
Her Offspring, skill’d in Logic War,
Truth’s Banner wav’d in open Air;
The Monster Superstition fled,
And hid in Shades her Gorgon Head;
And lawless Pow’r, the long kept Field,
By Reason quell’d, was forc’d to yield.
This Nurse of Arts, and Freedom’s Fence,
To chain, is Treason against Sense:
And Liberty, thy thousand Tongues
None silence who design no Wrongs;
For those that use the Gag’s Restraint,
First rob, before they stop Complaint.