“Gavel-to-Gavel”: The Watergate Scandal and Public Television

Watergate and Public Broadcasting

The Watergate coverage is significant, not only insofar as the hearings themselves are significant, but also as a great moment in public television history. In the years preceding the coverage, pressure from the Nixon Administration had put in question whether public television should carry public affairs programs at all. The Watergate coverage answered that question with a definitive ‘yes’. In the years before C-SPAN, no network had ever broadcast full hearings “gavel-to-gavel” in prime time before. This format, which allowed viewers to draw their own conclusions from the evidence, expanded public television’s viewership by orders of magnitude. For a summer, viewers were glued to their screens, often past midnight, watching such personalities as Sam Ervin, Howard Baker, John Dean, and John Ehrlichman discuss what increasingly became a constitutional crisis.

The broadcasts were so successful that public broadcasting continued to use the format for future political events, including the House impeachment inquiry a few months later. They also launched the partnership of anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer who would go on to host the program that today is called the PBS NewsHour. To learn more about the substantial impact Watergate had on the history of public broadcasting, please see the following essay. To jump past the background to a discussion of the coverage itself, click “Gavel-to-Gavel”: The Senate Hearings Open on Public Television in the “jump to” section.

Jump to:

Background: The Carnegie Commission, CPB, and PBS
The Office of Telecommunication Policy (OTP) and the Problem of Funding
“Us” versus “Them”: Antagonism Grows
“Gavel-to-Gavel”: The Senate Hearings Open on Public Television
“Watergate Junkies”: The Appeal of NPACT’s Coverage
Not with a Bang but a Whimper: the Senate Watergate Committee Signs Off
Aftermath: Public Television Secures Its Place

The people of the United States were caught up in all this to a degree that might seem unlikely to anyone who didn’t experience it. Day after day, week after week, we watched the drama play out in one disclosure after another. It was all on television and through television the people became a part of the process of judgment in the summer of 1973. --Charles McDowell, Summer of Judgment (1983 WETA Documentary)

The Nixon administration and public television began at virtually the same turbulent moment in our history. Their relationship proved mutually disadvantageous at almost every turn. Richard Nixon was not good for public television. His administration very nearly succeeded in strangling it at birth. And public television, ironically, was not good for Richard Nixon, either….The broadcasts [of the Senate Watergate Hearings] undoubtedly helped bring about his downfall.1 --David M. Stone, Nixon and the Politics of Public Television


There is a mythic story often told about the Nixon Administration and public broadcasting. Contemporary observers and historians alike have used phrases like “poetic symmetry,” “pure delicious” justice, and slightly more modestly, “the situation is not without irony,” to describe the tale.2 In its most stripped down form, the story has an endearing David and Goliath quality. A fledgling team of public broadcasters with federal funding for production provided only since 1967, quaked before the power of the hostile Nixon administration. Then James Karayn, president of the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT) found his slingshot: the Senate Watergate hearings. “Nixon vetoed the [CPB] funding bill,” Karayn commented, “Now he’s given us our best programming.” Over seven months in 1973, NPACT’s “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the hearings revealed in prime time the crimes that would lead to Nixon’s resignation.3

This story, like most historical fables, becomes more complex under examination. What remains clear is that NPACT’s coverage of the hearings was an unmitigated success for public broadcasting. Letters, phone calls, personal checks, and newspaper clippings from around the country flooded national and local offices praising the coverage. Men and women who had barely heard of public television before 1973 devoted evening after evening to hours in front of their TVs. The hearings solidified public television’s place in news programming, laying the groundwork for The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, later the PBS NewsHour. Some have claimed that the coverage saved public television altogether.4 Others have seen the Watergate affair as a “Pyrrhic victory” that left the fundamental problems in public broadcasting unresolved.5 The following essay will tell the story of the Nixon Administration and public broadcasting and examine the impact of the Senate Watergate and the House impeachment hearings on public television.

Background: The Carnegie Commission, CPB, and PBS

Public broadcasting in its contemporary form began with the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, established in 1965. The Commission, which inspired the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, sought to organize the scattered, independent, and largely ignored constellation of educational broadcasters into a national system sustained over the long term by a reliable source of federal funding. Its goals were utopian; to create a public forum for idealized democratic discourse and culture.6 To this end, the act created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB is a non-profit, independent entity designed to collect and distribute money to stations, serving as a “heat shield” against partisan interference.7 The act also tasked CPB with arranging for interconnection services to carry programs to local stations, but required that it outsource the task as a shield against creating a “fourth network.” National Educational Television (NET), established in 1952 to provide national programming to local educational stations, did have experience performing interconnection, but had often found its mission at odds with that of local station managers. By the mid-1960s, NET wanted to be a “fourth network,” one that would operate like ABC, CBS, and NBC, but “would program controversial and compelling shows that commercial television shied away from.”8 Many local stations opposed empowering NET because they found the organization “unresponsive to their needs” and too progressive in its politics.9

In November 1969, CPB created the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to perform interconnection services and to schedule national programming.10 PBS also served to create a “more geographically and ideologically balanced” public system by removing power from the New York-based NET. PBS would be a representative organization of local station managers to serve the idea that “stations must arise out of a sense of need within a community, must have roots in the community, and must be under community control.”11 Later that month, in a further attempt to decentralize, CPB began developing plans to diminish NET and replace it with a Washington-based public affairs programmer. The result was NPACT, which chose James Karayn, the former executive producer of NET’s Washington bureau, as its president in July 1971.12

Although the topic of delineating specific responsibilities was a frequent agenda item, during PBS’s first three years of existence CPB and PBS had no formal contract. As a result, the partnership began informally, without any delineation of their respective spheres.13 The lack a clear chain of command generated an internal battle, both ideological and political, between PBS and CPB for control of a number of issues, but most importantly for “program control.” This initial network of competing interests, CPB, PBS, NPACT, the local stations, Congress, the White House, and the nebulous idea of the “public good,” set up tensions that would render public television a house, as it were, divided.14

The Office of Telecommunication Policy (OTP) and the Problem of Funding

One recommendation of the Carnegie Commission not included in the Public Broadcasting Act was a long term funding plan. While the Commission had suggested an excise tax on TV sets that would provide permanent, insulated funding for public broadcasting, the act first passed with only short term federal appropriations. Observers in all camps agreed that annual funding left public television vulnerable to partisan manipulation, but late in his final term, Lyndon Johnson left the problem of long term funding to the next administration. Public television, according to David M. Stone, “could hardly have been given to a less willing benefactor than the Nixon White House.”15 Richard Nixon believed that since 1948, when he had challenged Alger Hiss in his role on the House Un-American Activities Committee, the media had been against him.16 Since then, Nixon increasingly distrusted and antagonized the press, which he believed distrusted and antagonized him.17 This hostility, which permeated his entire administration, became explicit when Vice President Spiro Agnew gave a widely televised speech in November 1969, in which he charged television with being an “Eastern liberal” boondoggle orchestrated by “a closed fraternity of privileged men.”18 So when, on June 27, 1973, former White House counsel John Dean revealed the existence of Nixon’s “enemies list,” it was no surprise that it contained a number of well-known journalists, broadcasters, and newsmen. The goal of the enemies list, which encapsulated the mentality of the White House, was, in the words of Dean, to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”19

Unfortunately for public broadcasting, there was simply more federal machinery available to the White House. Nixon was not at first, or theoretically, opposed to public broadcasting, provided it stayed committed to the doctrine of localism as dictated by the Carnegie Commission, but a few offending public affairs programs sent him scrambling to tell his staff to get them off the air.20 Although public broadcasting maintained “a miniscule impact on public opinion” relative to commercial media outlets, Nixon had the power to tame the “freewheeling” system by holding its federal subsidy as bait.21

The man in charge of Nixon’s policy on public broadcasting was a young MIT PhD by the name of Clay T. Whitehead. Whitehead joined the Administration as a general assistant to the president, but soon became the expert on communications policy—“Nixon’s would-be TV czar,” as one journalist dubbed him. The Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) was created in 1970 for Whitehead to lead, but for a man more interested in the possible future of cable television, the problems of public broadcasting created by the last administration became an unrelenting headache.22 Whitehead was a free-marketeer who neither believed in the goals of public broadcasting, nor felt that it would be politically possible to eliminate it.23 He compromised by taking up the task of developing a plan that would put power in the hands of local stations rather than with the “preachy” Eastern establishment. Mid-range funding would sate public broadcasting until the arrival of cable television and true free market competition, at which point public television would no longer be necessary to break the monopoly of the three networks.24

Throughout Nixon’s Presidency, Whitehead became the nemesis of many in the public broadcasting world. One commentator complained, “It's kind of too bad Clay Whitehead wasn't implicated in the Watergate scandal.”25 However, he never sought to eliminate public television. Others in the White House were not so politic. While many like Whitehead pursued a theoretical debate about the right balance between local and national funding, between insulation from politics and accountability to the taxpayers, there was also “the [Charles] Colson — [H. R.] Haldeman antagonism that saw the CPB programming as politically active and hostile.”26 On the more extreme end, Pat Buchanan could be counted on to say, “Wrong thing for the government to fund. We’ve got to zero it out, and that’s that.”27 It became Whitehead’s task to find a solution to the Administration’s unchosen obligation of public broadcasting, without appearing to be motivated by partisan interests.

“Us” versus “Them”: Antagonism Grows

On November 4, 1969, Whitehead wrote in a memo

Since the Nixon Administration will set the tone and pace…for the future growth of public broadcasting, we should give some real attention to how we want it to develop and how much money we are willing to spend. This is potentially a high visibility area where we can reflect considerable credit on the President at relatively low expenditures.28

This early recommendation from Whitehead suggests optimism that the Administration could easily earn a feather in its cap for supporting public broadcasting. Whitehead’s grand plan was to withhold long-range funding until the system reordered itself with empowered local stations in a loose federal structure. Whitehead’s 1970 proposal allocated half of public broadcasting’s funding to the Corporation and half to the local stations.29 In the meantime, John Ehrlichman, the president’s advisor on domestic affairs, suggested that Nixon stack the CPB Board with politically friendly appointees.30 In December 1970, when an ex-White House aide was scheduled to criticize Nixon’s policy of minimum income on The Advocates, a debate-style program produced by WGBH, White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman asked Whitehead to look into whether they could do anything about it.31 Whitehead responded in a memo that CPB was established “to insulate programming decisions from direct government control.” However, he continued, “the Corporation does have a clear responsibility to see that balanced presentations of viewpoints are made.” He hoped that the Nixon appointments to the Board would overcome the “rather unsubtle liberal bias” of public television leaders by steering programming away from public affairs and towards cultural and educational shows.32

With this plan to create a favorable board, the Nixon Administration began to directly influence the public broadcasting system. On June 18, 1971, Whitehead and Antonin Scalia, then a legal consultant to OTP, began a “Memorandum for the President” suggesting that the Administration focus on establishing “structures and counterbalances” that would restrain the tendency of the Corporation to support liberal causes and that would “be difficult for other administrations to alter.” They suggested replacing CPB President John W. Macy, Jr. with an “apolitical” leader, giving more money to local stations, and putting further pressure on the CPB to shrink NET.33 On September 23, 1971, the same day that Whitehead, Scalia, and their team completed their memo, NPACT announced the hiring of Robert MacNeil and Sander Vanocur to do a weekly political program. According to Jon M. Huntsman, Staff Secretary to President Nixon, the announcement “greatly disturbed the President who considered this the last straw. It was requested that all funds for Public Broadcasting be cut immediately.”34 Nixon considered Vanocur to be a “well-known Kennedy sympathizer” who had contributed to his loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960.35 Whitehead and his team rushed to warn their higher ups of the dangers of interference in a purportedly independent system. One of Haldeman’s aides wrote in a memo discouraging the cessation of funding for public broadcasting, “Believe me, I do not enjoy watching these left-wingers any more than you do, but I think it is essential that we know the maximum that can be done and do it rather than spinning our wheels proposing the impossible.”36 Whitehead advised that any substantial action would “raise a loud Liberal howl,” but if Nixon was willing to risk the controversy, he would “open the attack” in his address to an upcoming convention of local station representatives.37 Nixon’s staff opted for action.

On October 20, 1971, Whitehead spoke at the annual convention of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) in Miami. Whitehead cited political bias in public affairs coverage and the influence of the Ford Foundation as the two largest problems in public broadcasting.38 He argued for a restructuring of the system that would give power back to the local stations and weaken CPB, PBS, and NET.39 Many of the local station leaders who had qualms about overreach and liberal leanings from New York and Washington were receptive to Whitehead’s speech.40 Executives from larger stations, however, understood the speech as a threat. James Day of NET later called the speech “the opening salvo in the Administration’s divide-and-subdue strategy” to pit local stations against the national organizations.41 NPACT President Jim Karayn wrote to Whitehead on November 4, 1971, explaining that “NPACT programming is not dictated by one person or a small group of individuals with a particular philosophical viewpoint or journalistic background.”42 Both the president of PBS, Hartford Gunn, and of CPB, John Macy, sought to appease the administration by requesting “new guidelines permitting PBS to review programs on behalf of the stations.”43 The leadership’s willingness to adopt whatever restraints the White House (or their appointments on the Board) demanded rather than rock the boat set the pattern for the following two years.44

One of the ugliest episodes was, in Day’s words, “The Great Salary Dustup of 1972.”45 In late fall, OTP “began to encourage speculation” about the NPACT anchors’ salaries. Whitehead wrote to Haldeman in a November 24 memo,

We plan to do two things in the next few weeks to continue to call attention to balance on public television, especially NPACT. We will quietly solicit critical articles regarding Vanocur’s salary coming from public funds (larger than that of the Vice President, the Chief Justice, and the Cabinet) and his obvious bias. We will quietly encourage station managers throughout the country to put pressure on NPACT and CPB to put balance in their programming or risk the possibility of the local stations not carrying their programs.46

The trick had its desired effect and the resulting pressure put NPACT on its heels, with programs erring on the side of blandness out of fear for what controversy might bring.47

Herbert Block. “I’ll Tell You Everything You Need to Know.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-hlb-08002. A 1972 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation.
Herbert Block. “I’ll Tell You Everything You Need to Know.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-hlb-08002. A 1972 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation.

In early 1972, the CPB board, now with a majority of Nixon appointees, decided to limit funding to public affairs programs. As a result of the cuts, NPACT had to scrap grand plans to cover the 1972 election.48 On February 20, 1972, the ACLU released a report that accused the Administration of trying to “intimidate” and “starve” public broadcasting.49 In an implicit rebuttal, Whitehead sent a letter to Congressman Robert Michel on April 28 indicating that the Administration would support a $45 million bill, a modest increase in funding from $35 million in the previous year. He stated that OTP would not add more until public broadcasting restructured itself and the overall budget looked more favorable.

Meanwhile, unwilling to wait for the White House to act, Congressman Torbert Macdonald put forward a public broadcasting bill that would provide $65 million in the first year and $90 million in the second.50 The bill passed in the House by a vote of 254 to 69 and in the Senate by 82 to 1.51 Whitehead strongly recommended that Nixon veto the act since “while the goal of insulating CPB from governmental pressures is sound,” public media “has not yet demonstrated the responsibility of maturity to justify such funding.”52 Nixon followed Whitehead’s advice, rejecting the bill on June 30. In the veto, despite the wide margins on the congressional vote, Nixon cited “the serious and widespread concern expressed in Congress and within public broadcasting itself, that an organization, originally intended only to serve the local stations, is becoming instead the center of power and the focal point of control for the entire public broadcasting system.”53 Congress, not certain that it had the votes to override and caught off guard by the veto, decided to accept the Administration’s proffered one year funding bill.54

Nixon’s veto left CPB President John Macy so dispirited that he resigned, leaving the opening the Administration had long awaited. Their chosen replacement shows the Administration’s increasing boldness as they realized how much they could get away with. The new president, former director of the Voice of America, Henry Loomis, was elected unanimously after a hasty board meeting.55 He boasted of never having seen public television and that he had never heard of CPB, the organization he now headed.56 Now that the White House had gained control through the board, Nixon no longer needed the divide and conquer strategy Whitehead had proposed. Change could be affected more directly. In October, Whitehead emphasized that when the President met with Loomis he should impress on him “the necessity of dumping NPACT and withdrawing CPB support for news and public affairs programs.”57 The CPB Board met on January 10, 1973, and carried out a purge of public affairs shows including Bill Moyers’ Journal, Elizabeth Drew’s Thirty Minutes With…, Washington Week in Review, World Press Review, and even William F. Buckley’s Firing Line.58

Herbert Block. Violence on Television. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-hlb-08205. A 1973 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation.
'Herbert Block. Violence on Television. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-hlb-08205. A 1973 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation.

If Whitehead’s speech to NAEB had alarmed public broadcasters and the veto had made the small viewership scratch their heads, the purge of public TV’s most popular programming brought the attack on public media to popular attention. In the words of David Stone, “The first six months of 1973 saw the administration’s battle against public television turn into something of a wintertime Russian campaign for Richard Nixon, on his way to Waterloo.”59 Newspapers picked up the story, linking the partisan board appointments and the purge with the growing narrative of Nixon’s “assault on the media.”60 Editorials struck out against the cuts as thinly veiled attempts to silence political enemies.61 Ron Powers of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The Nixon Administration's continuing efforts at lobotomizing this country's broadcast media—to say nothing of the print media—constitute a horror story without end.”62 Robert MacNeil, himself a victim of the cuts, denied bias as legitimate grounds for censoring public broadcasting in a January 1973 speech asserting, “Bias in their minds is apparently any attitude which does not indicate permanent genuflection before the wisdom and purity of Richard Milhous Nixon.”63

Once the purge of public affairs shows put a spotlight on White House actions, their justifications began to cave under scrutiny. The veto had effectively defanged PBS, but had kept programming decision-making power with CPB rather than the local stations. Therefore, it appeared that Nixon preached localism while legislating centralization.64 Bill Moyers, whose own show had been cut, commented, “What is emerging is not public television but government television shaped by politically conscious appointees whose desire to avoid controversy could turn CPB into the Corporation for Public Blandness.”65 Henry Goldberg, OTP’s own attorney, pointed out that their current path of relying on the boards of PBS and CPB to enact White House initiatives “involves an inherent inconsistency, in that it seeks centralization as the first step in achieving decentralization.” He warned that since the tension was so obvious, “our motives become suspect and the continued restatement of the localism goal is discounted as simply not being credible.”66 The public agreed. That February, vocal and financial support came out of the woodwork, perhaps for the first time, for a public television system on the ropes.67

As the Nixon Administration struggled to maintain an image of non-partisan involvement with public television, presidential speech writer Patrick Buchanan laid out the Administration’s true goals. On a March 28, 1973, appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Buchanan listed all the shows and people he considered to be anti-Administration that had been cut for that reason: Sander Vanocur, Robert MacNeil, Elizabeth Drew, Washington Week in Review, Black Journal, “and then for a fig leaf, they throw in William F. Buckley’s program.”68 He then directly implicated Nixon by claiming that after the bill passed 82-1 in the Senate, many thought Nixon “couldn't possibly have the courage to veto something like that. And Mr. Nixon, I'm delighted to say, hit the ball about 450 feet down the rightfield foul line, right into the stands; and now you've got a different situation in public television.”69 Buchanan’s comments ended Whitehead’s credibility with the subcommittee working on the next short-term funding bill and left him wanting “to go hide somewhere.”70 Buchanan did not say anything many in the White House would not have agreed with, but, Whitehead commented later, “he was not the kind of guy you would choose to articulate a policy position that requires a lot of nuance.”71 As Henry Goldberg summarized the Administration’s aims by March 1973, “They didn’t care about structure, didn’t care about localism, didn’t care about decentralization or insulated feeling. They cared about ‘them’ and ‘us.’”72 This us versus them attitude, which pushed the Nixon Administration to attempt to control public broadcasting’s news shows could be seen in other arenas as well, not least in the Democratic National Committee headquarters break-in at the Watergate.73

“Gavel-to-Gavel”: The Senate Hearings Open on Public Television

In the months before the Watergate affair became a major scandal, Jim Karayn saw an opportunity for public television to improve its reputation for bland content and subservience to the government. Congressional hearings had been covered on television before, including the 1948 HUAC investigations, the 1950 Kefauver Committee hearings investigating organized crime, and the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, the last of which helped raise ratings for a struggling ABC.74 Karayn visited PBS president Hartford Gunn “twelve weeks in a row, every single day, five days a week” to persuade him to announce that PBS would cover the Senate Watergate hearings.75 Karayn commented, “I kept saying, ‘Hartford, this is our issue. This is our real moment to make the whole world realize that we are not the government network.’”76 If the hearings did not take place, the network could improve their reputation. If they did, the content could liven up ratings. Gunn initially rejected the plan, but was emboldened after in-fighting between PBS and CPB eased.77 In April, PBS conducted a poll of its 237 member stations on whether NPACT should broadcast the hearings.78 The vote passed at 52%, with all far from convinced of the wisdom of the plan. One station chief told Karayn, “You’ve decided to commit professional hara-kiri.”79

Karayn was convinced that the coverage of the hearings should have goals beyond “trying to drive one more nail into the ghost of Richard Nixon.”80 In an April 18 press release he stated his vision of the pedagogical value of public affairs programming:

This is precisely the kind of event which public television should put before the American viewer. By providing complete coverage of these hearings, millions will be able to see that the hearings have a significance far beyond alleged wrongdoings by a political party. They should provide insight into the basic workings of American government by dealing with such issues as congressional procedure, the investigative process, and executive privilege.81

Karayn entrusted this message to his anchor team of Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the latter of whom NPACT had hired six months earlier from Dallas’s KERA-TV station to replace Sander Vanocur.82 While Karayn would have preferred to have NPACT researchers prepare the anchors to deliver expert commentary, the Center had neither the funds nor the staff capacity. Instead, NPACT decided to put together an “impressive list of people” as a “brain trust” who could add perspective at the end of each broadcast.83

Throughout April and May, public television laid plans for the upcoming hearings. The networks, on the other hand, did not even decide to air the hearings until the week before. During this time, the member stations voted on whether they would prefer live or delayed coverage. The result of the poll set the start time at 8 p.m. Eastern time.85 On May 10, PBS was persuaded to offer a “live feed” during the day to the 46-station Eastern Educational Network at additional cost.86 Funding was a constant issue for NPACT.87 Even after it started airing the shows, Karayn did not have the capital to air more than 15 episodes.88 After the end of June, NPACT would be spending funds earmarked for productions in the fall. It proceeded with the confidence that the money would come from somewhere, hopefully grants from CPB.89

Herbert Block. Late Returns. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-hlb-08225. A 1973 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation.
Herbert Block. Late Returns. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-hlb-08225. A 1973 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation.

On May 17, 1973, the Watergate hearings began. The broadcast, as on subsequent nights, opened with Robert MacNeil reading the Committee’s resolution:

In the Senate of the United States, a Resolution: To establish a select committee of the Senate to conduct an investigation and study of the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper, or unethical activities were engaged in by any persons, acting individually or in combination with others, in the presidential elections of 1972, or any campaign, canvas, or other activity related to it.

Line up from July 25, 1973

MacNeil and Lehrer provided around five minutes of commentary before giving a “line up” of the day’s hearings and switching to the caucus room. The anchors only interrupted the broadcast during natural breaks in the hearings for “station identification” that local managers could use to promote upcoming programming.90 During these breaks, the anchormen also invited viewers to voice their opinions on the gavel-to-gavel coverage. In the second broadcast, MacNeil explained, “We’re doing this as a kind of experiment to find out how you the viewers like this, so if you have any observations we hope you’ll write to us.” At the end of the first day’s hearings, MacNeil and Lehrer closed with ten minutes of commentary and an orienting statement from Lehrer:

We are running it all each day because we think these hearings are important and because we think it is important that you get a chance to see the whole thing and make your own judgments. Some nights, we may be in competition with a late, late movie. We are doing this as an experiment, temporarily abandoning our ability to edit, to give you the whole story, however many hours it may take.

One imagines that MacNeil and Lehrer signed off that night not knowing whether anyone at all had watched. As it turned out, they needn’t have worried.

Pile of Letters Received by NPACT Letter from a Viewer

By the sixth broadcast, NPACT had received over 70,000 letters from citizens watching the shows. Of these, 70,023 were “favorable and laudatory” while only 573 were “negative evaluations.”91 MacNeil shared some of these comments on the June 5 broadcast:

James Wilmeth, Ft. Worth, Texas: “I am sick of press and TV reporters’ opinions on Watergate. You are the one station that gives it to us as it is and allows us to form our own opinions.”

Mrs. June Wilson, Atlanta, Georgia: “Since the Watergate gavel-to-gavel rebroadcast began, I have not sewed on a button, taken up a hem, or put the yogurt on to make, since I work during the day I would be hard pressed to keep up with the testimony and the nuances which undeniably show themselves in such a hearing. Thus I arrive red-eyed and sleepy to work now and don’t care.”

Even the participants themselves responded positively to the presence of TV cameras in the hearing room.92 Senator Joseph Montoya wrote to NPACT that the results helped “restore my faith in the public’s concern in their government.” And, he noted, “I too find myself watching the evening telecasts for it helps refresh my memory on certain points raised in the day’s hearings.”93 Viewers sent money, as well. After the first night of hearings, New York’s station received $9,000, Miami’s $8,500, San Francisco’s $6,600, and Dallas’s $5,700.94

The overwhelming support of public television’s coverage of the hearings contrasted sharply with the response received by the commercial stations. After the first two weeks, the three Boston network affiliates received 724 negative responses and 380 positive responses in total. In New York, the condemnation was even stronger with 1,652 complaints and only 181 compliments.95 Those who protested network coverage were mostly housewives who were upset that the hearings displaced daytime soap operas.96

The public television viewership spanned the country geographically, challenging the existing stereotype. Karayn commented that the letters

destroy some myths about typical public television audiences. They come from the Midwest, from blue collar workers, and from the aged as well as from the educators and the Eastern intellectuals usually associated with public TV. In televising the Watergate hearing, public television has had a unique opportunity to expand viewership.97

A study conducted in Cleveland found that viewers of the Watergate hearings on public television were more likely to be white, female, college educated, Democrats, and to have voted for McGovern.98 However, authors of a study of four regions in Florida—Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa/St. Petersburg, and Tallahassee—found that the viewership skewed differently. Men tended to watch more than women, and black citizens made up a high proportion of viewers.99 Whatever the exact sex, race, and class makeup of Watergate audiences, what is certain is that the notion that only Washington and New York audiences would be interested was shattered. Newspapers from locales as far ranging as Everett, Washington; Clearwater, Florida; and Galveston, Texas all praised the hearings. Cities close to the border received substantial positive support from Canadian viewers.100 The captivating content alone was enough to please station managers, but the money streaming into stations also gave them the capital to produce local programming.101

“Watergate Junkies”: The Appeal of NPACT’s Coverage102

What made the hearings so appealing to such a wide viewership, many of whom had never seen a program on public television before?103 Top reasons include an enthralling cast of characters, the chance to interact with politics in an unmediated fashion, and the dramatic developments for the future of their country.

Joseph Papin. Constitution of we? 1973. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ppmsca-53336.
Joseph Papin. Constitution of we? 1973. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ppmsca-53336.

The senators on the Committee, selected for their relative obscurity, lack of political ambition, and non-partisan reputation turned out to be a cast made for television. Chairman Sam Ervin, a conservative Democrat and self-described “country lawyer,” was known previously by his colleagues as “a non-partisan authority on the Constitution and the Bible and as wily an old country boy as ever came out of North Carolina.” By the end of the hearings, Ervin’s charming countenance, homespun idioms, and aggressive questioning full of righteous anger had made him “nearly everybody’s new folk-hero.”104 The ranking minority member, Howard Baker, gained fame as the handsome Republican from Tennessee who many hoped would run for president someday. Baker provided the coverage with perhaps its most quotable line, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” The other senators, as well as the counselors for the Committee became “very important parts of our daily lives,” Lehrer commented, as audience members picked, “personal favorites, villains, and dunces.”105

Joseph Papin. [Witness (Reisner?) testifies], 1973. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ppmsca-53339.
Joseph Papin. [Witness (Reisner?) testifies], 1973. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ppmsca-53339.

In addition to the senators, who provided a set of familiar faces and personalities, the hearings delivered daily variation with a parade of aides, burglars, agents, and politicians testifying before the Committee. Some, like Jeb Magruder, the former deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), and White House plumber E. Howard Hunt confessed their crimes in contrition. Others, like John Mitchell, the former Attorney General, and John Ehrlichman, former advisor on domestic affairs, obstinately did battle with the Committee, fiercely maintaining their own innocence and the innocence of Richard Nixon. Witnesses like former NYPD cop Anthony Ulasewicz brought welcome levity to the proceedings, leading Senator Baker to ask “Who thought you up?”

The proceedings revealed capers that were, as MacNeil and Lehrer were fond of pointing out, the “stuff of spy novels.” On May 22, burglar James McCord demonstrated how to bug a telephone, while on September 25, Hunt showed how to photographically steal documents. The audience could track an ever expanding list of code names, including Gemstone, Ruby, Crystal, Sedan Chair II, and Fat Jack. They heard stories of secret midnight phone calls from mysterious men, cash payments in laundry bags, and any number of “dirty tricks” and “White House horrors.” These stories only continued to expand and multiply as the Committee uncovered the depth and perplexing diversity of the Administration’s crimes.

Throughout these proceedings, the NPACT team provided steady, earnest commentary on the day’s events. That MacNeil and Lehrer became close friends over the course of covering the hearings is clear and endearing. Avid fans will note that Lehrer began calling MacNeil by his more personal name, Robin, as the weeks went on. Viewers appreciated that NPACT aired the hearings in full and withheld personal commentary, allowing viewers to “draw their own conclusions.”

Perhaps equally important to the dramatic cast and the mysterious story of Watergate was the ability to watch the uncertain future of the country unfold from the comfort of one’s living room. As Charles McDowell noted in the 1983 WETA documentary on Watergate, Summer of Judgment, “Never had a nation participated so intimately in an investigation of its government.” On June 6, MacNeil commented

It reminds one of the finals scenes of one of those Shakespearean histories. The forces hostile to the king are rising on all sides. Messenger after messenger rushes in with bad news. But the decisive battle is still some scenes away and we don’t yet know if this is a tragedy we are witnessing.

Pure shocks came when on June 25, John Dean accused the President of guilt in the Watergate cover-up and on July 16 when former White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon had taped every conversation in the Oval Office. Viewers saw the start to a constitutional crisis when on July 23, the Committee voted unanimously to subpoena Nixon, the first time Congress had served a sitting president, opening the question of whether any man is above the law.107 The hearings were, in MacNeil’s words, “a kind of extended morality play,” in which Americans saw democracy at its worst and at its best and all in prime time.

Not with a Bang but a Whimper: The Senate Watergate Committee Signs Off

The hearings opened in May with a tentative schedule that continued to extend, putting a strain on congressional breaks and television schedules alike. As early as July 23, a Los Angeles Times columnist called Watergate “a boon that may become a bust” for public television.108 As September approached, local stations managers had to face the question of whether they would displace their scheduled fall seasons to accommodate the ever expanding Watergate scandal.109 On September 16, PBS announced that it would continue to show the full hearings.110 However, after MacNeil departed in August to return to the BBC and the Committee lost its centrality in the unfolding constitutional crisis as it entered the “dirty tricks” phase of its investigation, viewership declined precipitously. When the Committee extended the hearings yet again, the stations “voted overwhelmingly to discontinue unabridged 8 PM daily coverage.”111 After Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox on October 20, 1973 in the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre,” however, a PBS spokesman announced, “I think the whole public reaction simply indicates that if we can possibly do it, we are obligated to provide the coverage.”112 As a result of the vote by the stations, NPACT did not cover the hearings on October 31 and November 1, but following this brief interruption of coverage, NPACT continued to show the Senate hearings until the bitter end. The coverage finally concluded on November 15, after 246.8 hours over 51 days of hearings.113

Aftermath: Public Television Secures Its Place

Bill Moyers, Essay on Watergate

So after 51 days, what did public television have to show for its efforts? One immediate result was the revitalization of WNET’s Bill Moyers Journal, which had been cut in January 1973 before being refunded in the spring to return in October. Moyers’ first show back, titled “An Essay on Watergate,” collected highlights from the summer hearings, as well as commentary from notables and Moyers himself.114

Jim Lehrer

The coverage became a model that public television continued to use, a model subsequently adopted by C-SPAN in 1979.115 On May 28, 1974, NPACT announced in a press release that it would run live and taped prime time coverage of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry.116 Jim Lehrer teamed up with future Washington Week in Review moderator Paul Duke and correspondent Carolyn Lewis to anchor gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings in the format built for the Senate hearings. By the end of the year, NPACT board Chairman Sidney L. James wrote to the PBS Programming Committee that “the most significant and important margin of real difference between Public and Commercial television inevitably lies in the area of public affairs programming.”117 The following spring, NPACT won a 1974 Peabody award for its coverage of the two sets of hearings.118

Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer so impressed the nation with their balanced news reporting that the two later would work together again on a more permanent basis. The first show of The Robert MacNeil Report aired on WNET on October 20, 1975. Within six months, the program was picked up by PBS for national distribution as The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, when Lehrer, who had been the program’s Washington correspondent, partnered with his good friend. “It is an absolute certainty,” Lehrer later commented, that without Watergate, “there would have been no anything called MacNeil/Lehrer.”119 In 1983, the show changed names again to The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour when it expanded to a longer broadcast, making it the first hour-long news program in America.120 Although Nixon had criticized MacNeil and Lehrer’s journalism as biased, the NewsHour became known as one of the most “articulate, focused, and balanced” programs on television.121

Perhaps more importantly, the sprawling Watergate affair distracted the Administration from its attempts to control or end public broadcasting. “Had Watergate never come to light,” David Stone went so far as to argue, “the Nixon White House would likely have succeeded in muzzling public television as it might have succeeded in muzzling all its opponents.”122 Instead, the White House was put on the defensive. Clay Whitehead had not intended to stay in Washington long and felt that he had sacrificed his reputation to a tangled mess he had not wanted in the first place.123 But, he had started this job, and he intended to finish it. On July 27, Whitehead advised the President to sign the two year, $175 million Public Broadcasting Financing Act of 1973.124 The Administration simply did not have the political credibility to continue to oppose a bill so widely supported in Congress.125 In October, Whitehead advised the President to allow him to craft a long range funding plan for 1975 onward that would insulate the changes they succeeded in making from interference from future administrations. Pat Buchanan suggested otherwise:

My view is that we should not quit; we should hold their feet to the fire; the President has the power to veto, and we should not hesitate to employ it on public broadcasting if that institution continues to provide cozy sinecures for our less competent journalistic adversaries. If they are going to have public broadcasting, and they are going to overload it against us, why should we approve of any public funding at all. In that event, I would bite the bullet, and keep the present level of funding ad infinitum.126

Nixon agreed, but the already thin ice below him had started to crack.127

In the end, the problem came down to the fundamental tension that had emerged when Nixon’s Administration took on the problem of public television in the first place: the White House was internally divided, each camp attempting to use other units within the Administration to its own advantage. In Stone’s view, “The Office of Telecommunications Policy had a consistent view favoring decentralization and the deregulation of the communications industry,” based on the imminent arrival of cable television.128 “But the lawyers, economists, and technocrats,” on the other hand, “did not operate in a non-partisan political vacuum. The plain fact was that Nixon hated the press. Many of his closest advisors hated the press. They were willing to use virtually any means available to them to stamp on or stamp out their enemies in the media.”129 Stone concluded, “it appeared as though OTP was just providing the philosophical pretext for breaking the “Eastern liberal” control of the news media.”130

Whitehead submitted his long term funding bill in April 1974 and was furious when in early June, he learned that the President had rejected it. At that point, Nixon wanted to end public broadcasting or give it pittance. Whitehead appealed to Nixon’s chief of staff, writing, “For the President to attempt to back away from that commitment now is unwise, unworkable, and quixotic.”131 In an act of pure frustration, Whitehead leaked the story to The New York Times, which on June 10 published a front page article stating that a source close to CPB claimed that Nixon had “flatly rejected” OTP’s long range funding plan.132 White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler quickly denied the statement, and on July 16, OTP’s bill was submitted to Congress. Whitehead supplied the letter of transmittal, which stated that after years of successful restructuring, public television was ready for insulated funding.133 On August 7, Whitehead announced his resignation. Nixon resigned two days later.134 OTP’s bill eventually became the Public Broadcasting Financing Act of 1975, which President Ford signed into law on December 31, 1975.135 For the first time since the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the system had the funds necessary to ensure its independence.

Under the next two Administrations, public television audiences expanded significantly, with nearly two-thirds of American households tuning in at least once a month by the end of the decade.136 This viewership was orders of magnitude larger than in 1972.137 In spite of these two positive facts, and the victories of the Watergate coverage, public broadcasting failed to soar to the heights the first Carnegie Commission envisioned. A second Carnegie Commission, undertaken in 1979, concluded that the period from 1971-1973 “slowed the growth of public broadcasting and left a psychological scar on the stations—an enhanced sensitivity to perceived threats to their independence—which persists today.”138 Even the long-range funding of 1975 did not allow for the “freedom,” “experimentation,” and “risk taking,” desired by many who joined public television in its early years.139 Whitehead had succeeded in devolving a substantial amount of power to the local stations, but without the funding or the ambition, few of these stations produced much controversial content.140 But through NewsHour and public television’s consistently excellent cultural, educational, and children’s programs, public television has found its place as “a civilized voice in a civilized community,” as the first Carnegie Commission prescribed.141

Conclusion: Watergate’s Aftermath

It might be hard to imagine without seeing NPACT’s coverage of the Senate Watergate and House impeachment hearings how they could have captivated so many Americans for so long. But it doesn’t take long after one watches them to understand why so many stayed up until three in the morning to watch Bob Haldeman calmly deny his involvement in the whole affair. At the level of public television, the Watergate affair ushered in an era of news reporting that exists to this day—a format that “dare[s] to be boring,” doing away with the flash and glitter out of respect for the rational intelligence of its viewership.142 On another level, Watergate was “that rare event in which reality literally outstripped satire,” a fascinating caper that could be so engaging as to create “Watergate junkies” who showed up to work with “Watergate hangovers,” brought on by long nights in front of the television.143 But perhaps most importantly, Watergate was a tragedy. Sam Ervin said,

I deeply regret that this situation has arisen, because I think that the Watergate tragedy is the greatest tragedy this country has ever suffered. I used to think that the Civil War was our country's greatest tragedy, but I do remember that there were some redeeming features in the Civil War in that there was some spirit of sacrifice and heroism displayed on both sides. I see no redeeming features in Watergate.

What better way to learn from a tragedy than to watch, gavel-to-gavel, how America taught itself a valuable lesson.

Special thanks to Allison Perlman for her review of this essay.

Next: Cast of Characters

Joseph Papin. [Television cameras at Senate Watergate hearings], 1973. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ppmsca-53333.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress