A 1974 issue of Time reported that applications to journalism schools were at an all-time high, a big part of the reason being the media’s substantial role in the Watergate scandal. Without the investigative journalism of the Post‘s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with other journalists from the Washington Daily News and Time itself, the scandal may have remained a successful coverup. News coverage of the developing story may have even progressed the story; the public—and henceforth, public opinion—had eagerly stepped through the open door, adding a new level of pressure on the Supreme Court to arrive at the truth. After all, one can never underestimate the heat of public scrutiny, especially if one serves as a public official.
Journalism has never been perfect, despite oftentimes acting on righteousness. Nowadays (and perhaps even back then, though it is difficult for me to claim having not been born yet) the largest and most powerful purveyors of so-called investigative journalism exhibit such an abuse of power that their harmfulness is oftentimes laughed at and mocked. Trust has now become a big issue, which is alarming considering the fact that, at least in the so-called modern or technological era, the public has trusted the news to show and tell them things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see nor hear.
In a few cases, not seeing extends to both the side of the audience and the side of the spectacle, and sometimes it falls on the journalist to reach out, grab both the hands that are grasping for one another, and say, loudly and clearly, ‘There.’
Two cases in modern American history come to mind, where it took the very same journalist to grab our hands and make us see just how much not seeing happens to be occurring on the other side. Mary McCarthy covered both the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal as they were happening, providing insightful reports of a unique ‘writerly’ eye for readers of The New York Review of Books as well as, in the case of the Watergate coverage, The Observer in London. Reading these reports now, close to fifty years after the publication of Vietnam and forty years after The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits, sheds a different kind of light on the stages of two closely-watched global events.
The concept of not seeing isn’t as straightforward as it seems, most especially in these two cases. For one, the spotlights have been burning through the floors since the two events began, yet somehow we’ve missed the holes—even the big ones—as if they were trap doors we weren’t meant to see.
I suppose, given the government’s track record even pre-Vietnam War, that it wasn’t difficult to anticipate a level of negligence, ranging from incompetence at best and corruption at worst. McCarthy knew this and thus knew what she was looking for, at least in the general sense, but to what level she’d encounter would surprise even her, and it surprised everyone who read her reports. The first line of her ongoing reportage states:
I confess that when I went to Vietnam early last February I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it, though often by accident or in the process of being briefed by an official.
Even government and military distrust of the media couldn’t stop a few details to hit McCarthy in the ear. Oftentimes, in attempts to sway McCarthy’s questioning one way, briefing officers would accidentally reveal something McCarthy hadn’t even been fishing for.
Marine and army officers are proud to show the schoolhouses their men are building or rebuilding for the hamlets they are patrolling, rifle on shoulder. […] A young Vietnamese social worker said sadly that he wished the Americans would stop building schools. ‘They don’t realize—we have no teachers for them.’
And so it was not only the American public who weren’t seeing everything. The difference, however, probably lied with the fact that the public could only see what they were shown. What excuse did the military have?
What is most surprising to a new arrival in Saigon is the general unawareness, almost innocence, of how what ‘we’ are doing could look to an outsider. […] For many of the soldiers in the field and especially the younger officers, the Viet Cong is the only Vietnamese worthy of notice.
When the focus shifts back to the home front several years later with the bizarre developments of the Watergate scandal, our discerning lens shifts with it. And once again, McCarthy points out several visual obstructions. The Mask of State almost reads like the blocking script of a courtroom stage play. McCarthy emphasises physical characteristics, from nose sizes to varying degrees in posture. She has even defined some of the major players into roles: ‘In these hearings, Senator [Sam] Ervin represents the humble, “low” reality principle and has clearly chosen to do so.’
In fact, the entire thing is theatre; there is an almost rabid fascination for the spectacle. It has all the makings: corruption, lying, coverups, high-powered officials. Even the classic moral play isn’t enough for the stakes we’re dealing with. ‘A French friend,’ writes McCarthy, ‘in town for a picture story on the hearing, says he thinks that the Americans are using Watergate to cleanse themselves of guilt for Vietnam.’ McCarthy agrees, pointing out that if the government’s morals weren’t already under scrutiny, the scandal would’ve boiled over like all the other scandals we’ve forgotten or hadn’t heard about.
The public is already at a disadvantage from the start; they’ve already been lied to. All McCarthy can do is tell them that and orchestrate from there. ‘Nixon is a television creation, a sort of gesturing phantom, uncomfortable in the old-fashioned world of printer’s type, where assertions can be checked and verified.’
The plot thickens, McCarthy keeps writing, and we keep reading until it is over. Even now, it is touchy for some people to admit the direction our government has gone along the moral ladder since Watergate. For now, the scandals keep surfacing, the journalists keep writing, and we’ll keep reading. Mary McCarthy said it best: ‘The yearning to hear the tale, not to be left out, overwhelms the critical faculty.’