There are several correlations currently being made between the current move by the US Congress to impeach Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors and a similar action that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon as a result of the Watergate scandal. However, there is a major difference between then and now: The Internet and the dissonant cacophony of polemics from non-journalists whose sole goal is to muddy the informational waters with far-out conspiracy theories and libelous prose.
During the Watergate scandal, newspaper, radio, magazine, and newspaper journalists all relied on the same tried and true standards to report from Congress, the White House, and federal courts on the scandal and its aftermath. The reportage included who, what, when, where, why, and how. Opinions were relegated to the editorial pages and television and radio news segments that were clearly identified as commentary, not hard news. The media has not always done a very good job of policing itself. The “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst that led the US into a needless war with Spain in 1898. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has assumed the Hearst role with regard to covering Trump.
There were scandalous newspapers, newsletters, and flyers published during the Watergate era. These included the “National Review,” “Human Events,” and “American Opinion,” which delved into whacky “left-wing” and “Communist” conspiracies about those who were responsible for investigating Nixon, but these publications and their diatribes were well known as being untethered to reality. Although “Human Events” was read widely by conservative Republican circles in and around Washington, DC, it had little circulation outside the capital. It was these publications that primarily circulated conspiracy theories about Watergate. Moreover, the flyers distributed by the far-right John Birch Society, co-founded by Fred Koch – the father of Trump billionaire political financiers Charles and David Koch – made outlandish claims about Nixon’s opponents. Along with declaring that Nixon was being targeted by a “Jewish Communist” conspiracy, the favorite bogeyman for right-wingers, the John Birch Society made wild claims about laetrile curing cancer, fluoridation of the public water supply, and “international bankers,” the latter a thinly veiled codeword for Jews.
Today, the new purveyors of right-wing conspiracies include a bevy of websites, including 4Chan and Gab. Some far-right conspiracy platforms, including “The Gateway Pundit,” Salem Radio, “The Federalist,” and “Human Events,” have possessed White House press credentials. Credentialing those who engage in libelous activity was a purposeful decision by Trump. It was intended to give them the same or greater degree of credibility than recognized media outlets, many with several decades of acting as the recognized scribes and chroniclers of American and world history.
In July of this year, Trump held a White House summit meeting of the leading “alternative news” websites, including those who promote such outrageous theories as there being “staged” mass shootings with no actual victims, Adolf Hitler being a “Communist” and not a Nazi, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg being dead, that former First Lady Michelle Obama is a man, and that South Africa’s government is behind the mass murder of white farmers. Some of these sites go even further, suggesting that the Apollo moon landings were all fakes and that the Earth is actually flat. One common thread among these various websites is that the Holocaust never occurred. Astoundingly, these theories, including the one about Hitler being a Communist, have adherents like Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, “The Federalist” write Paul Jossey, and Republican US Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama.
Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have tried to limit such vitriolic and hateful content. Some recent mass shooters have been inspired by racial and religious polemics they have read on such websites. Some associated with far-right websites defended by Trump marched in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, an event where neo-Nazis and white supremacists committed acts of violence on counter-protesters, resulting in one counter-protester’s death and injuries of several others.
Trump has attacked Twitter and Facebook for violating the US Constitutional First Amendment rights of free speech and the free press. Trump told his alternative media summit, “To me free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposefully write bad. To me that’s very dangerous speech and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.” Trump’s lack of understanding of the Constitution, to which he took an oath to uphold, has been on full display. The Second Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The framers of the Constitution included no provisions governing the private sector’s right to limit content of a libelous and untrue nature. Editors and publishers in 1789 were just as cognizant of the need to separate themselves from the conspiracy-laden flyers and gossip of their day as legitimate media is today.
The effect of confabulation of news events has served to discredit legitimate investigative journalism that delves into mostly Republican-led criminal conspiracies. These include the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Nixon’s dalliance with South and North Vietnam to ensure the defeat of Hubert Humphrey, his 1968 Democratic opponent; Watergate; the 1980 “October Surprise” that sealed President Jimmy Carter’s chances for a second term; the Iran-Contra affair; and 9/11, which boosted George W. Bush’s chances for a second term. The same strategy is now at work for the 2020 presidential election by Trump and the Republicans.
Trump is fond of attacking “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post.” While these newspapers have made their fair share of errors, there has been a mechanism to public corrections in errata segments. This does not occur with regard to the far-right media. They are in the very business of disseminating false information. Trump, whose knowledge of history is shallow to the degree of a millimeter, does not likely know that the co-founder of “The New York Times,” Henry J. Raymond, is considered the “godfather of the Republican Party.” Frank Hatton, the editor and second co-owner of “The Washington Post,” was a leading Republican figure during the late 1800s. The Post’s more recent 20th century owner was Eugene Meyer, also a Republican.
Several far-right websites are fond of hurling around accusations that certain targeted individuals are pedophiles. This is seen in the on-line rants of nebulous groups like “QAnon,” whose members are among Trump’s most ardent supporters. While there is absolutely no basis for their attacks, there is ample factual material that suggests Mr. Trump has had provable connections to pedophiles, including the late financial investor Jeffrey Epstein, who Trump, for several years, considered his “good friend.” It was the father of Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, who played a part in hiring Epstein, who possessed no college degree, as a teacher of youngsters at Manhattan’s exclusive Dalton School.
More recently, Richard Ciccarella, a US Army staff sergeant with the White House Communications Agency and attached to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, was convicted of uploading improper images of children to the Internet. Ciccarella’s sentencing memo contained astounding information about his responsibilities. In operating the White House switchboard in Washington, Ciccarella was “responsible for making and placing calls for the President, Vice President and senior White House Staff,” in addition to being “responsible for setup and maintained all of the communications for the President at Mar-a-Lago.” Epstein had once been a frequent Mar-a-Lago guest and he recruited at least one of his underage female “sex slaves” from the health spa at Mar-a-Lago.
George Nader, a Trump transition team adviser on the Middle East and a previously convicted pedophile, was charged on January 17, 2018 with “transporting visual depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct” after arriving at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on his way to Mar-a-Lago, where Trump was present.
Actual journalists rely on court filings, trial and deposition transcripts, interviews, and discovery documents to report factual news. It is a far cry from the far right-alternate media, which, although highly prized by Mr. Trump and his associates, obtains its delusional information from thin air.