Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Watergate's relative insignificance

Paul Street raises a point about the revived Watergate interest that I wanted to make, but forgot to mention.

Referring to a central claim Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky made in Manufacturing Consent, Street writes that Watergate

was a relatively small sin compared to other crimes more professionally committed by the Nixon administration. Those other transgressions included the “secret bombing” of Cambodia, which killed possibly 200,000 people and terribly damaged a poor peasant nation, and the undertaking of a massive F.B.I. operation to undermine basic democratic freedoms at home.

The Nixon administration was involved in the flat out Nazi-style assassination of a leading Black Panther (Fred Hampton), the sparking of racial disturbances to discredit the black power movement; numerous murderous attacks on the American Indian Movement, and numerous acts of infiltration, burglary, and illegal espionage against radical organizations like the Weather Underground and the Socialist Workers Party.
So, Street asks, "Why all the attention to the Watergate break-in compared to that 'other' stuff?"
By Chomsky and Herman’s analysis in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, 1988), "powerful groups" like the Democratic Party "are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by [American corporate] media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether" (p. 300).

For Chomsky and Herman, the disparity between the media’s obsession with Watergate and its relative disinterest in, say, the carpet bombing of Cambodia or the destruction of domestic opposition groups was a textbook study in the corporate media’s servility to state power. Truly "heroic" revelations and media coverage would have attended to the infinitely greater crimes committed against Cambodia, AIM, Chile, and the Black Panthers.
Street then proceeds to cite a recent Greg Palast piece lamenting that in today's media, a similar-styled Watergate investigation is nary impossible and "unnamed sources are OK if they defend Bush, unacceptable if they expose the Administration’s mendacity or evil."

True enough, but Street adds that we need to "go deeper than Palast to the Chomsky and Herman level."
It’s not just that Watergate is more than three decades old and that dominant media no longer practices the sort of tough investigative journalism that helped produce the Watergate story. The problem is also that Watergate wasn’t even close to the worst thing done by the Nixon administration and that the servile press is still patted on the back for "unseating a government" with revelations about a clumsy break-in that was conducted with unclear motive and apparent direct presidential non-involvement (Nixon’s illegalities had to do with his efforts to cover up the subsequent investigation) against the other leading US business party. That administration should have been unseated as a result of revelations about much worse criminal activity directed at less powerful others at home and abroad.
Anyone with a head on their shoulders should be able to draw analogies to today. Various sideshows of malfeasance are still given center stage in the media circus, while the most egregious abuses of the current administration -- done usually with the opposition's tacit approval -- are shushed away as either partisan bickering or unsubstantiated charges. All along, the media shows an unwillingess to probe past the initial denials from centers of power in Washington or, as in most cases, just tell the brutal truth.