Entry from June 11, 2012

A more-than-usually silly article in The Washington Post’s Style section this morning attempts to make it matter for regret that, since Watergate (whose 40th anniversary we are meant to be celebrating), every political scandal has had to have the -gate suffix attached to it. “Until the ever-loving end of time,” writes Monica Hesse, “we, the people, will be destined to pluck random nouns from the news, stick ‘-gate’ on the end, wait for it to catch on and then smugly glance around like first-graders who have just told a doody joke.” What’s that she says? “We, the people”? I don’t think so. Rather, it’s “we the media.” It wouldn’t occur to ordinary people to go around talking of this-gate and that-gate but only to Ms Hesse and her kind, people inclined to think that the gate-ification of scandal is (or at least was) “cute, borderline clever.” If they have now decided that it’s not and that they don’t like it anymore, why don’t they just stop doing it?

The answer, I think, has to do with the role of Watergate in media mythology as the ur-scandal, the ultimate vindication of the media’s self-awarded entitlement to publish information the government (or anyone else) would prefer to keep secret. The great irony of Watergate was that the media in general and, of course, The Washington Post in particular justified the arrogation to themselves from legally constituted authorities of the right to manage information on the grounds that no one should be above the law — and so set themselves up as being above the law. Now all “the frauds and felonies and loose-zippered failures” in the public domain come with their obligatory –gate attached because Ms Hesse — whose sourness about it may be owing to the gate-ification of her own given name during the Clinton era — and her confreres need constantly to remind us of the reason why they suppose themselves entitled to publish such stuff.

Thus, Leonard Downie Jr., also in the Post, takes the occasion of the anniversary to lament that “the future of investigative reporting is at risk in the chaotic digital reconstruction of journalism in the United States.” The horror! If the public keeps deserting the established media, maybe they won’t be around to bring down the next president who (they think) needs deposing. On yet another page of the Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — like Simon and Garfunkle appearing together again! — assure us that “Nixon was far worse than we thought.” Well, to begin with, he couldn’t have been far worse than “we” thought if by “we” they mean the progressive consensus for which Woodward and Bernstein have long since been taken as spokesmen. George McGovern during the 1972 campaign, before any of the subsequent scandalous revelations came out, was already comparing Nixon to Hitler. How much worse could he get?

But the more important point of this quite redundant insistence by Woodstein that even they didn’t know how right they were to do as they did and publish a lot of self-interested and mendacious tittle-tattle by the disgruntled G-man Mark Felt is to blow smoke in the faces of Watergate revisionists like Max Holland, author of Leak (not mentioned in the article), who by calling into question the relevance and truth of their investigations is also calling into question the otherwise unchallenged right of the media to decide what the world shall know. And, of course, although they are too modest to mention it, these naughty new historians also pose a threat to the place in the media’s Pantheon of those now-legendary heroes, Woodward and Bernstein.

One of the five reasons (or, in journalese, the five Nixonian “wars”) cited by these now-aging sleuths to explain why they have reunited to drive home the point that our 37th president was even worse than they (or we) had supposed him to be is said to be his “war on history” — by which the authors mean not any evil that can necessarily be attributed to the late President Nixon himself but rather the efforts by “some former aides and historical revisionists” to see the whole matter of Watergate in otherwise than the stark black-and-white terms that they and the media understandably prefer. In this case, and partly owing to the efforts of Max Holland, I hope that more people than they would like to think are beginning to understand who is waging the real “war on history.”

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