When Watergate Was Appointment TV

The media coverage of Watergate gave us much of today’s concussive, ballistic jargon of scandal. There were “bombshells.” There were “smoking guns.” Ever since, we have measured controversies as if on a decibel meter, judging them by their “fireworks” and “explosive” drama.

But the most striking thing for a viewer in 2019, watching the gavel-to-gavel public-TV coverage of the first Senate hearings that began on May 17, 1973, is the quiet.

There are no flashy opening graphics, just a stately timpani over the text of a Senate resolution. There are no yammering newsroom panels, no countdown clocks, no hashtags. There’s just testimony in a hushed hearing room and two soft-spoken anchors at humdrum desks, trying to figure out what the president knew, when he knew it and whether democracy still worked.

You can stream all of public TV’s 1973 coverage — 51 days of it, up to six hours a night — at the American Archive for Public Broadcasting. (Helpfully, the site links to key highlights, like John Dean’s description of “a cancer growing on the presidency.”)

It’s a spoiler-proof rabbit hole, captivating even with the knowledge of how the finale ended. And with our own impeachment serial airing its pilot Wednesday, it’s a kind of time travel, a way to experience how different in tone and tenor our media and politics were nearly five decades ago.

For 15 weeks in 1973, the National Public Affairs Center for Television aired full, unedited tape of the hearings in prime time. In the words of Jim Lehrer, anchoring with Robert MacNeil, public TV ran the experiment “because we think it is important that you get a chance to see the whole thing and make your own judgments. Some nights we may be in competition with the late, late movie.”

The movie would wait. Night after night, an audience followed twists and watched political celebrities and antiheroes be born. They took it in slowly, rather than bailing on it like a disappointing Netflix show because nothing earth-shattering happened in the first five hours. They showered PBS with donations, cards and letters. Wrote one viewer, “I arrive red-eyed and sleepy to work now and don’t care.”

As wrenching as Watergate was, the hearings themselves now appear almost genteel. Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., the Democrat heading the committee, reads his opening statement in a sauntering drawl. At one point he mangles the word “incredulity” in such an elaborate way that, if it happened today, would be the immediate subject of viral memes, discussions about “optics” and maybe a presidential tweet about how “Stumblin’ Sam can’t even read his script straight! WITCH HUNT!!!”

As anchors, MacNeil and Lehrer are measured but blunt. They focus not on “perceptions” or “how this will play with Nixon’s base” but on the actual developments and charges: in MacNeil’s words, “the wide range of illegal, unethical or improper activities, established or still merely alleged, surrounding the re-election of President Nixon last year.”

Their idea of being honest brokers, in other words, does not mean applying a “both sides” equivalence to any controversy. It means being clear that there is an issue here — using dirty tricks to try to win an election — that goes beyond the interests of “sides,” or should.

The way Lehrer describes one day’s subject — “How Nixon campaign fund-raisers put the arm on American business last year, and also how and why corporation executives did what they were told, even if it meant violating the law” — is striking in its clarity. It’s not snarky or grandstanding. But it’s plain English, no hedging or sweetener. Anyone covering the coming hearings should watch and learn.

It is, in a way, the voice of a more homogeneous era. (In more ways than one. The 1973 proceedings were strikingly white and male on all sides of the camera; Senator Ervin had been a defender of segregation.) There was no Fox News, CNN or even C-SPAN; no YouTube, no TiVo, no Facebook. People accepted a shared baseline of information from the same (relatively) trusted sources.

Those sources felt responsibility and authority to announce when the warning lights were blinking on our institutional dashboards. And a wide cross-section of people were willing to listen.

Today, people will get their impeachment news from Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson, from late-night shows and podcasts, from social-media feeds already shaped to their personal ideological contours like a memory-foam mattress.

All this has changed the language of politics. “Comity” has become a nostalgic weasel word, but you can’t help but be struck by it in the 1973 proceedings. I don’t mean it in the garden-party sense of Republicans and Democrats playing nice, but rather in the implicit sense that they feel an obligation to speak to the entire country, not their own loyalist camps.

The Republican senator Howard Baker, for instance, emphasized that the only way his party could be “mortally wounded” by Watergate would be “for the public to think that we Republicans don’t have the courage, the stamina and the determination to clean our own house.”

Imagine any Republican saying the same thing today! Sean Hannity and MAGA Twitter would excommunicate them by sundown. (Don’t take my word for it; ask Justin Amash.)

The Watergate debate had its own partisans, of course, and persuadable Americans still exist today. But the closer analogue for today’s hearings — even though the charges were very different — might be the 1998-99 Bill Clinton impeachment, where the political and media arguments ultimately became less about what happened than whether to care.

This past week, the public-TV veteran Bill Moyers and his collaborator Michael Winship urged PBS to air the impeachment hearings in prime time again. The network, citing today’s plethora of options, will instead stream the hearings and replay them at night on its digital channel World.

Would a prime-time replay be useful to anyone today? Sure: people who don’t have access to cable or internet, or those who prefer their nightly news unedited — at vast, multi-hour stretches — rather than sliced, diced and premasticated on cable.

In a way, though, arguing for a Watergate-style replay of the hearings, while commendable, is also a way of wishing that it could be 1973 again: that we could have that shared focus and trust.

That’s not to say that this year’s hearings will have no effect or change no minds. But they won’t be a collective experience. They’ll be a multimedia production, cacophonous, instantly spun and taken in by separate audiences as if they were watching entirely different programs.

This was not the case back in November 1973, when Jim Lehrer signed off the last megacast by addressing viewers as if they were the loyal fan base of a long-running water-cooler serial. The committee, he said, might be back after Thanksgiving for one more batch of testimony. “That’s the current plan, at least,” he said. “But as all regular Watergate watchers know, everything is subject to change.” That’s as true of the media as it is of politics.

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