Chuck Colson dies and the free press is ailing…

April 22, 2012

Well first this week it was Dick Clark of American Bandstand fame, and now Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame is dead. Two totally different stories of course.

But just as Dick Clark was a seminal part of my growing up, so was Colson. Well not really Colson himself, but the Watergate scandal he was involved in. Actually I was grown up when it occurred. But I was just out of the Army and beginning my so-called career in journalism. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story about Watergate that eventually brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

That was back in the days when there was something called journalism, not just “media”, and when students still majored in “journalism“, not “communication”  or whatever name they have given it now (there used to be something called “publicity”, which reporters got into to make more money, kind of like prostitution).

Their efforts were made famous in the book and movie “All the President’s Men”. Of course reporters from the New York Times and other outfits did a lot (even more, perhaps) to tell the whole sordid story of Watergate too. It was about a presidency and re-election campaign gone way out of control, with Nixon using the power of his office and the government to stifle or intimidate political opponents or anyone who he or his staff thought might threaten his power.

I did not decide on journalism because of Woodward and Bernstein, though. Actually I thought it might be easier than work at the wood products mill and more suited to my talents or abilities. But that summer of the Watergate hearings, the summer before I entered into the actual workaday field of journalism, I was working in sugar beet and bean fields moving irrigation pipe — I had left the mill job. But every chance I got I listened with rapt attention the live broadcasts of the Watergate hearings. And I knew that something had gone terribly wrong with our democracy but the power of the press had been used in a good way and had set in motion the wheels of government oversight to set things right. And after I had become a newspaper reporter, I recall watching what I considered one of the most historic things I had ever seen — the President of the United States announcing his resignation of nationwide TV. I actually took a picture of the TV tube (I think at a 30th of a second shutter speed), just for my own remembrance (don’t know if I still have it).

Colson did prison time and then found God — that’s the nice thing about sinning, you can always later find God, or at least claim you did — I’m not sure how falsely claiming it will work at the pearly gates, though. Colson may have really been repentant or he may have just been sorry he got caught. I don’t know. Never paid much attention to him.

Nixon was able to regain some of his stature and reputation after time, not all of it. Ironically, I think he was an extremely able politician and leader, but he had a major character flaw (to say the least). And if he had just owned up to Watergate in the beginning I feel certain he would have gotten away with it, but covering up bad activity is sometimes as bad or worse than the actual bad activity and increases exposure to jail time — just ask Martha Stewart.

But anyway, when I watched the movie, “All the Presidents’ Men”, there they were, Woodward and Bernstein (well of course Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing them) hunting and pecking away at their manual typewriters. I never hunted and pecked. I at least used a my modified touch typing method, based on that taught in school, but I used manual typewriters for years. I thought it great that at the little paper where I worked at the time we were no further behind in that score than the Washington Post (my time frame is a little messed up in that the actual Watergate scandal pre-dated my entry into journalism a little bit, I think, but I saw the movie after going to work at a paper).

I often note (to anyone who might care) that newspaper newsrooms moved from manual typewriters to computers, while other offices had already been at least using electric typewriters for years or decades. Once when I was covering the local county board of supervisors meeting during a yearly budget session, the sheriff requested an electric typewriter for jail bookings. When asked by one of the supervisors why they could not just keep using the manual one since it would only be used by deputies not clerical personnel, the sheriff said he did not want to make his deputies labor at those manual typewriters — and you can just picture a deputy or jailer booking someone, hunting and pecking away, like on the old Barney Miller TV Show. I was nearly incredulous. I mean I knew I was headed back to my office to type out my story and many others on an old Royal manual typewriter. But hey, you know, they’re county workers, they get better pensions too.

And back to Chuck Colson and Watergate. Politics is dirty. Always has been. Always will be. And where there are elections (and even where there are not) there is politics — you just can’t take the politics out of politics. Colson and the others probably for the most part did little worse than had been done before and is still being done — except, I think in Watergate President Nixon and his henchmen did cross the line, using the power of government, such as through IRS harassment, and even the disruption of free elections, to thwart our democracy. They thought that because they felt they were supporting the right cause the ends justified the means. That thinking still often prevails today. Actually, it’s really scary. We even have people implying that we ought to do away (and I’m using a euphemism) with our current president (and you can’t get me to believe there isn’t some racism there). Colson is dead. Dirty politics will never die.


Watergate made me feel good about the role of the free press in a free society. I was not too surprised to learn that in the small time newspaper owners were not so keen on investigative reporting, especially if it involved advertisers. But I have been saddened that with the advance of technology and competition in news reporting from the internet and the decline of newspaper advertising, the bean counters have taken over much of the larger segment of the free press. There is not as much money or enthusiasm to do real reporting — it’s more like who can be first with the tweet with the most banal comments. On the other hand, with the ability to instantly disseminate information worldwide and the pervasiveness of texting and You Tube and so on, it’s hard for anyone to get away with anything.