Could the Watergate Investigation Have Happened Today?

Question: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from Watergate about investigative journalism?

Carl Bernstein: Let me say one thing about investigative journalism.  I’m not one who really believes that there’s a pseudoscience called investigative journalism that’s different from all the rest of journalism.  I think all good reporting is the same thing—the best attainable version of the truth.  How do you do that?  What is the methodology?  Whether you’re covering the Congress, whether you’re covering something like Watergate, whether you’re covering sports, or City Hall, the methodology is to go to as many sources as you possibly can, not get pressured to go into print too fast.  

If you read "All the President’s Men," you’ll see that we chafed at Ben Bradley and some of the other editors saying, “Hey guys, haven’t got it yet.”  We had the advantage of a great, great management and a courageous publisher.  When the Nixon White House and the Nixon Administration tried to fight us by trying to take away the economic lifeblood of The Washington Post Company by revoking... trying to revoke the television licenses owned by The Washington Post Company, she said, "No."  And when we got subpoenas for our notes from the committee to reelect the President of the United States, the Nixon Reelection Committee on a kind of bogus lawsuit they filed to try to get at our notes, she took possession of my notes and said, you want the notes, you’re going to have to take me to jail.  And so this was a remarkable woman.  And Bradley was a remarkable editor.  

And there was a – that newsroom and the standards that governed it, particularly during Watergate, are to me the real lessons of Watergate.  About being responsible, about having more than one source, about... you know, we had a two-source rule.  That because the stakes of what we were doing was so high, we had to have the information from two sources before we would put it in the paper.  Should you have that rule every day?  Not necessarily.  But it’s a pretty good thing to keep in the back of your head.  

I was lucky enough to... I’ve now been in the business 50 years.  I went to work just about 50 years ago, probably the week that we're recording this, at The Washington Star, a great afternoon newspaper, in 1960, as a copyboy.  And I went to work with people a good deal older than I, I was 16-years-old, as I say.  And these were great reporters as well as some great hard-drinking characters... who had this idea that the function of a newspaper is the best obtainable version of the truth.  And they... and even more than The Washington Post in those days, The Star made sure that that was the mission, the reportorial mission of the newspaper. This separation between the editorial policies of the paper—it was a conservative newspaper—its editorial policy was anathema to the Kennedy Administration which came in the next year.  Nonetheless, its coverage was absolutely, spectacularly deep and committed to the truth.

Question: Given the current state of the media, do you think that something as big as the Watergate investigation could happen today?

Carl Bernstein:  I think... I think hypothetical questions are very difficult to answer, especially "if" history questions.  But do I think that there are news organizations that if they had the same kind of information that Bob Woodward and I had in Watergate would go ahead and print the stories?  Absolutely, I do.  

I think what is really a bigger question is, how would readers respond?  How would the political system respond?  The great thing about Watergate is, is that the system worked.  The American system worked.  The press did its job.  We did what we were supposed to do.  

Then you had a great judge, the judiciary worked. The great judge pried some secret information out of the defendants in his courtroom and helped break open the conspiracy based partly his actions on what he had read in our stories.  Then you had, even though the prosecution was overwhelmed by its closeness to the Nixon White House and by nefariousness in the Justice Department. You then had a great congressional investigation, the Senate investigation into Watergate.  Could you have that today in the partisan atmosphere that exists on Capital Hill?  Could you have a real bipartisan investigation that would take the facts wherever they went?  I’m not all sure.  

The Congress is a dysfunctional institution, it’s broken.  One of our three branches of government is broken.  Perhaps irrevocably, it is... we’re paying a terrible price for its mendacity and its inability to deal with the problems of America. The Congress of the United States, the mediocre quality of so many of its members as well as the ideological divides and many other factors that make the Congress so dysfunctional.  You then add in Watergate—a special prosecutor who, when the President of the United States claimed that he had the privilege to withhold his tapes from the investigation, it went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the President was not above the law and that he had to turn over his tapes.  And that was with the President of the United States expecting the Chief Justice that he had appointed to support him.  Would that happen today?  

And then you had a vote by the House Judiciary Committee to impeach the President of the United States, several articles of impeachment.  Would that happen today with the same information and the partisan environment?  It was Republicans that really held Nixon accountable and said, "Look, he might be a Republican, but he is a criminal President."  He has, you know, bent the Constitution, violated his oath of office.  Would that happen today in our political system?  I’m not at all sure.  I’m not nearly as worried about the press as I am about the political system.

Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

There are news organizations that, "if they had the same kind of information that Bob Woodward and I had in Watergate would go ahead and print the stories." But today the political system might not respond.

Videos
  • Climate change is no longer a financial problem, just a political one.
  • Mitigating climate change by decarbonizing our economy would add trillions of dollars in new investments.
  • Public attitudes toward climate change have shifted steadily in favor of action. Now it's up to elected leaders.


Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
Keep reading Show less