... if our current presidency is now showing symptoms of a precancerous Watergate syndrome - as it is, daily - we have not yet reached that denouement immortalized by Hollywood, in which our scrappy heroes finally bring Nixon to heel in his second term. No, we're back instead in the earlier reels of his first term, before the criminality of the Watergate break-in, when no one had heard of Woodward and Bernstein. Back then an arrogant and secretive White House, furious at the bad press fueled by an unpopular and mismanaged war, was still flying high as it kneecapped with impunity any reporter or news organization that challenged its tightly enforced message of victory at hand.
It was then that the vice president, Spiro Agnew, scripted by the speechwriter Pat Buchanan, tried to discredit the press as an elite - or, as he spelled it out, "a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men." It was then that the attorney general, John Mitchell, under the pretext of national security, countenanced wiretaps of Hedrick Smith of The Times and Marvin Kalb of CBS News, as well as a full F.B.I. investigation of CBS's Daniel Schorr. Today it's John Ashcroft's Justice Department, also invoking "national security," that hopes to seize the phone records of Judith Miller and Philip Shenon of The Times, claiming that what amounts to a virtual wiretap is warranted by articles about Islamic charities and terrorism published nearly three years ago.
"The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before," wrote William Safire last month. When an alumnus of the Nixon White House says our free press is being attacked as "never before," you listen. What alarms him now are the efforts of Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame-Robert Novak affair, to threaten reporters at The Times and Time magazine with jail if they don't reveal their sources. Given that the Times reporter in question (Judith Miller again) didn't even write an article on the subject under investigation, Mr. Fitzgerald overreaches so far that he's created a sci-fi plot twist out of Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report."
It's all the scarier for being only one piece in a pattern of media intimidation that's been building for months now. Once Woodward and Bernstein did start investigating Watergate, Nixon plotted to take economic revenge by siccing the Federal Communications Commission on TV stations owned by The Washington Post's parent company. The current White House has been practicing pre-emptive media intimidation to match its policy of pre-emptive war. Its F.C.C. chairman, using Janet Jackson's breast and Howard Stern's mouth as pretexts, has sufficiently rattled Viacom, which broadcast both of these entertainers' infractions against "decency," that its chairman, the self-described "liberal Democrat" Sumner Redstone, abruptly announced his support for the re-election of George W. Bush last month. "I vote for what's good for Viacom," he explained, and he meant it. He took this loyalty oath just days after the "60 Minutes" fiasco prompted a full-fledged political witch hunt on Viacom's CBS News, another Republican target since the Nixon years. Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, has threatened to seek Congressional "safeguards" regulating TV news content and, depending what happens Nov. 2, he may well have the political means to do it.
Viacom is hardly the only media giant cowed by the prospect that this White House might threaten its corporate interests if it gets out of line. Disney's refusal to release Michael Moore's partisan "Fahrenheit 9/11" in an election year would smell less if the company applied the same principle to its ABC radio stations, where the equally partisan polemics of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are heard every day. Even a low-profile film project in conflict with Bush dogma has spooked the world's largest media company, Time Warner, proprietor of CNN. Its Warner Brothers, about to release a special DVD of "Three Kings," David O. Russell's 1999 movie criticizing the first gulf war, suddenly canceled a planned extra feature, a new Russell documentary criticizing the current war. Whether any of these increasingly craven media combines will stand up to the Bush administration in a constitutional pinch, as Katharine Graham and her Post Company bravely did to the Nixon administration during Watergate, is a proposition that hasn't been remotely tested yet.
To understand what kind of journalism the Bush administration expects from these companies, you need only look at those that are already its collaborators. Fox News speaks loudly for itself, to the point of posting on its Web site an article by its chief political correspondent containing fictional John Kerry quotes. (After an outcry, it was retracted as "written in jest.") But Fox is just the tip of the Rupert Murdoch empire. When The New York Post covered the release of the report by the C.I.A.'s chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, it played the story on page 8 and didn't get to the clause "while no stockpiles of W.M.D. were found in Iraq" until the 16th paragraph. This would be an Onion parody were it not deadly serious.
It's hard to imagine an operation more insidious than Mr. Murdoch's, but the Sinclair Broadcast Group may be it. The owner or operator of 62 TV stations nationwide, including affiliates of all four major broadcast networks, this company gets little press scrutiny because it is invisible in New York City, Washington and Los Angeles, where it has no stations. But Sinclair, whose top executives have maxed out as Bush contributors, was first smoked out of the shadows last spring when John McCain called it "unpatriotic" for ordering its eight ABC stations not to broadcast the "Nightline" in which Ted Koppel read the names of the then 721 American casualties in Iraq. This was the day after Paul Wolfowitz had also downsized American casualties by testifying before Congress that they numbered only about 500.
Thanks to Elizabeth Jensen of The Los Angeles Times, who first broke the story last weekend, we now know that Sinclair has grander ambitions for the election. It has ordered all its stations, whose most powerful reach is in swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, to broadcast a "news" special featuring a film, "Stolen Honor," that trashes Mr. Kerry along the lines of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads. The film's creator is a man who spent nearly eight years in the employ of Tom Ridge. Sinclair has ordered that it be run in prime time during a specific four nights in late October, when it is likely to be sandwiched in with network hits like "CSI," "The Apprentice" and "Desperate Housewives." Democrats are screaming, but don't expect the Bush apparatchiks at federal agencies to pursue their complaints as if they were as serious as a "wardrobe malfunction." A more likely outcome is that Sinclair, which already reaches 24 percent of American viewers, will reap the regulatory favors it is seeking to expand that audience in a second Bush term.
Like the Nixon administration before it, the Bush administration arrived at the White House already obsessed with news management and secrecy. Nixon gave fewer press conferences than any president since Hoover; Mr. Bush has given fewer than any in history. Early in the Nixon years, a special National Press Club study concluded that the president had instituted "an unprecedented, government-wide effort to control, restrict and conceal information." Sound familiar? The current president has seen to it that even future historians won't get access to papers he wants to hide; he quietly gutted the Presidential Records Act of 1978, the very reform enacted by Congress as a post-Watergate antidote to pathological Nixonian secrecy.
The path of the Bush White House as it has moved from Agnew-style press baiting to outright assault has also followed its antecedent. The Nixon administration's first legal attack on the press, a year before the Watergate break-in, was its attempt to stop The Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers, the leaked internal Defense Department history of our failure in Vietnam. Though 9/11 prompted Ari Fleischer's first effort to warn the media to "watch what they say," it's failure in Iraq that has pushed the Bush administration over the edge. It was when Operation Iraqi Freedom was bogged down early on that it spun the fictional saga of Jessica Lynch. It's when the percentage of Americans who felt it was worth going to war in Iraq fell to 50 percent in the Sept. 2003 Gallup poll, down from 73 that April, that identically worded letters "signed" by different soldiers mysteriously materialized in 11 American newspapers, testifying that security for Iraq's citizens had been "largely restored." (As David Greenberg writes in his invaluable "Nixon's Shadow," phony letters to news outlets were also a favorite Nixon tactic.) The legal harassment of the press, like the Republican party's Web-driven efforts to discredit specific journalists even at non-CBS networks, has escalated in direct ratio to the war's decline in support.
"What you're seeing on your TV screens," the president said when minimizing the Iraq insurgency in May, are "the desperate tactics of a hateful few." Maybe that's the sunny news that can be found on a Sinclair station. Now, with our election less than three weeks away, the bad news coming out of Iraq everywhere else is a torrent. Reporters at virtually every news organization describe a downward spiral so dangerous that they can't venture anywhere in Iraq without risking their lives. Last weekend marines spoke openly and by name to Steve Fainaru of The Washington Post about the quagmire they're witnessing firsthand and its irrelevance to battling Al Qaeda, whose 9/11 attack motivated many of them to enlist in the first place. "Every day you read the articles in the States where it's like, 'Oh, it's getting better and better," said Lance Cpl. Jonathan Snyder of Gettysburg, Pa. "But when you're here, you know it's worse every day." Another marine, Lance Cpl. Alexander Jones of Ball Ground, Ga., told Mr. Fainaru: "We're basically proving out that the government is wrong. We're catching them in a lie." Asked if he was concerned that he and his buddies might be punished for speaking out, Cpl. Brandon Autin of New Iberia, La., responded: "What are they going to do - send us to Iraq?"
What "they" can do is try to intimidate, harass, discredit and prosecute news organizations that report stories like this. If history is any guide, and the hubris of re-election is tossed into the mix, that harrowing drama can go on for a long time before we get to the feel-good final act of "All the President's Men."
These are the days to try the souls of journalists. Some will rise to greatness, some will pay a severe price for resistance. Frank Rich is a risin'.