50 years ago this week, June 17, 1972, five men broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and touched off one of the greatest scandal in American politics: Watergate.
In terms of sheer magnitude, no scandal before or after touched so many lives and brought to ruin so many political and public figures.
And no scandal before or after has showed the power, potential … and promise… of the media.
To be sure, the scandal made household names of two relatively unknown reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
And it certainly put the Washington Post into the ranks of the great papers in America. But more importantly, it showed the benefit of a free press.
Watergate was not just about buggings, laundered money and political dirty tricks. It was also about a President who tried to manipulate public opinion by lies and deceit on an unprecedented scale.
Sure every president since Watergate has tried to cover up bad news, but Watergate was orders of magnitude different.
And this was perhaps the first scandal that struck at the very way the government in this country works. It struck at the very foundation of the republic itself.
And we can thank the media for uncovering the coverup.
But have we learned anything over the past 50 years?
Sometimes, with all the hue and cry about the media, I wonder if we really want the press to be the watchdog it is supposed to be.
More and more, I suspect, we expect reporters to be lap dogs, and just take what a particular partisan side gives out.
Well, that’s not what the founding fathers intended, and that’s certainly not what the media are supposed to be doing.
A strong, fearless and independent news media is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy.
So perhaps as we build so-called bridges to the future, we need to maintain some of those bridges to the past as well.
….I’m Larry Burriss.
Larry Burriss, professor of journalism, teaches introductory and media law courses. At the graduate level he teaches quantitative research methods and media law. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (B.A. in broadcast journalism, M.A. in journalism), the University of Oklahoma (M.A. in human relations), Ohio University (Ph.D. in journalism) and Concord Law School (J.D.). He has worked in print and broadcast news and public relations, and has published extensively in both academic and popular publications. He has won first place in the Tennessee Associated Press Radio Contest nine times. Dr. Burriss’ publications and presentations include studies of presidential press conferences, NASA photography, radio news, legal issues related to adolescent use of social networking sites, legal research, and Middle Earth.
Dr. Burriss has served as director of the School of Journalism, dean of the College of Mass Communication and president of the MTSU Faculty Senate. He was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents. He was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and served on active duty in Mali, Somalia, Bosnia, Central America, Europe and the Pentagon.