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Ben Tullis: Watergate taught us that a free press is still vital to America

Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post May 7, 1973.
Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post May 7, 1973.
Associated Press

The legacy of Watergate shows that a free and independent press is vital to America, and the recent attacks on journalists throughout the world are attacks on one of the most basic freedoms a country can offer its people.

Forty-five years ago tomorrow, five men were arrested in the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex.

What started out as a “third-rate burglary,” to quote Richard Nixon’s press secretary, would eventually lead to the resignation of a president and the indictment of dozens of his closest aides and advisors.

None of this would have happened were it not for a free press, led by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who helped expose the lies and criminal acts happening in the Nixon administration.

The Watergate scandal should not be viewed as a one-off event. Indeed, Bob Woodward has warned that "secret government" is at the heart of many of the problems facing America today.

One of the main jobs of journalists is to expose the secrets of government that the public deserves — indeed, has a right — to know.

Yes, certain events that happened during President Barack Obama’s terms of office, including the Fast and Furious scandal and the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, deserved more investigating and coverage from the media.

The media now seems to be picking up the pace during the Trump administration, but this has led to conservatives, perhaps justifiably, feeling that the media is biased against Republicans while giving Democrats preferential treatment.

But all government officials deserve scrutiny, no matter what party they belong to. Trump and his administration deserve the scrutiny just as much as the Obama administration did.

This scrutiny is one of the main reasons attacks and other actions, including tapping phones of the press, have increased. The government aggression toward journalists should be disturbing to anyone who values freedom and government by the people.

The Obama administration under the direction of Attorney General Eric Holder tapped the phones of Associated Press reporters and accused a Fox News reporter of being a “criminal co-conspirator” along with one of his sources for a news article. Donald Trump has threatened the press, both as president and during his presidential campaign. And last month, Greg Gianforte, a Republican candidate for Congress in Montana, physically attacked a reporter who was asking him a question.

Every one of these actions was unjustifiable and should not have happened.

The nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists produces an annual list of “Attacks on the Press.” Last year, according to its records, 48 journalists throughout the world were killed as a direct result of their work. Two hundred and fifty-nine were imprisoned because of their work, with 71 percent of them arrested on anti-state charges. This does not count the journalists who were arrested years before.

And, for the first time, the report warned American journalists “about their own safety and the viability of the free press in their own country,” noting “an escalation of attacks on the media across the globe, including in the United States, long considered a bastion of press freedom.”

This is a scary trend. America must remain a "bastion of press freedom" because potential Watergates are still out there. There are still government lies that need to be exposed. There are still sources, anonymous or otherwise, who have secrets they feel the American people deserve to hear. The press, with all its imperfections, is still the most important avenue to bring these secrets out into the open for the American people to discover. And that may be the most important lesson to take away from the Watergate scandal.