Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, was in London the other day, waxing indignant about the phone-hacking scandal that shook Rupert Murdoch’s media operations in Britain over the summer and forced the closure of the raunchy News of the World tabloid.
As he has in the past, Bernstein conveniently avoided reference to his own suspect conduct as a Washington Post reporter covering Watergate, the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.
Bernstein, who comes across as something of a sanctimonious windbag, sounded aghast in London, telling a panel convened by the Guardian newspaper that he was stunned by the notion of “criminals working for a newspaper, being a substitute for reporters” at the News of the World.
“Gathering news through criminal acts — it’s absolutely stunning,” Bernstein declared.
It’s not often recalled these days, but Bernstein and his Washington Post colleague, Bob Woodward, sought out federal grand jurors in December 1972, inviting them to break their oaths of secrecy and discuss Watergate-related testimony that they had heard.
The reporters were that desperate for leads in what was a slowly unfolding scandal.
The private entreaties to grand jurors nearly landed Bernstein and Woodward in jail for contempt.
As recounted in All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward’s book about their Watergate reporting, none of the grand jurors was cooperative and the overtures soon were made known to John J. Sirica, chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
The judge was livid.
According to All the President’s Men, Edward Bennett Williams, the Post’s lawyer and well-known Washington insider, went to lengths to persuade Sirica — known as “Maximum John” for the severe sentences he often imposed — not to punish Bernstein and Woodward.
“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you fellas,” Williams was quoted as saying in the book. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”
The reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, which came out in 1974 just as Watergate was nearing its climax, that in seeking out grand jurors, they “had chosen expediency over principle and, caught in the act, their role had been covered up.” That is, they managed to dodge media scrutiny of their misconduct.
All the President’s Men also described how Bernstein sought, and obtained, information from private telephone records of Bernard Barker, one of the men who in June 1972 broke into headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, the signal crime of Watergate.
Seeking Barker’s records was another case of choosing “expediency over principle” — not to mention a bit of phone-hacking, 1970s style.
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