Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” hasn’t even been released yet and it’s already causing quite a stir. In it, President Donald Trump acknowledged in early February that the novel coronavirus was airborne and deadlier than the flu, even though he continued to downplay the threat of the virus in public.
In March, Trump told Woodward, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
This is hard to believe given that the President does little to evoke calm. Indeed, as the story broke, and Woodward released recordings of his conversations with Trump, the President continued to tweet about the alleged breakdown of law and order in the country, stoking fears of violence in response to largely peaceful protests.
More bombshells are sure to come. But will any of it have a lasting impact? Is it possible for investigative journalists — even those as high-profile as Woodward — to move the needle on public opinion these days?
The US has changed drastically since Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein published “All the President’s Men” in the final weeks of the Nixon presidency. The landmark book, which came out on June 15, 1974, was later adapted for the big screen in a film starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.
Woodward and Bernstein broke story after story in the Washington Post. Their reporting helped connect the White House to the burglars who broke into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex, exposing the larger illicit operation.
In the 1970s, the revelations helped produce consequences. Nixon resigned from office less than two months after the bestselling book was published. While the book ended without tying everything together, as the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in her review, the House and the Senate as well as the courts moved swiftly to uncover the truth. In subsequent years, Congress passed a series of major reforms, including campaign finance laws and the creation of a special prosecutor that aimed to hold politicians more accountable (the statute expired in 1999 and Congress did not renew it).
Woodward and Bernstein’s work remains one of the greatest examples of journalism’s ability to speak truth to power, and their investigation changed Washington. Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election against incumbent President Gerald Ford in large part because he promised to be trustworthy and usher in a cleaner era of politics. The fact that he was an outsider appealed to many voters who were disillusioned by politics. And for decades, the specter of an investigative report that might include a “smoking gun” — like the tape that revealed Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up, which ultimately led to his resignation — struck fear in the hearts of politicians.
Fast forward to 2020 and things are vastly different. It is possible that Woodward’s book won’t do much to sway public opinion. The intense partisan polarization in the electorate means that there are fewer undecided voters who might be swayed either way by the revelations in Woodward’s new book.
The nation has also become inured to shocking news stories — the barrage of tweets, alerts, notifications and breaking news reports makes it difficult for people to understand what events are truly unprecedented and unacceptable. It’s ironic that the success of investigative journalism, as pioneered by Woodward and Bernstein, has made it more difficult for readers and viewers to differentiate a real crisis from politics as usual.
Journalism has also changed drastically in the last five decades, and many Americans no longer trust the fourth estate. Sensationalism, commercial incentives and the polemical coverage of politics, along with the oft-repeated cry of “fake news,” have left many wondering whether the person on their screens or the writer listed in the byline can be counted on for accurate information. The industry is under siege and the dire financial constraints of the digital era sometimes makes it trickier for first-rate journalism to break through.
But there is also something distinct about President Trump that seems to insulate him from this kind of reporting. It’s difficult to release a tell-all book that changes public opinion when the President is constantly telling on himself.
The disinformation and lies, the corruption, and the abuse of power have, in many cases, been committed in broad daylight. When confronted with accusations of wrongdoing, the President usually acknowledges what was done but then stands by his actions. In doing so, he undercuts the impact that someone like Woodward can have with his work. Trump takes charge of the shock and awe himself so that others can’t do it effectively.
The political world where Woodward started his career seems long gone. As horrible as the politics of 1974 felt, there was something comforting about the fact that there were real ramifications for the wrongdoing Woodward and Bernstein revealed.
That’s not necessarily true today. The President has repeatedly pushed the limits of executive power, and it seems there is little anyone can do to stop him. This should be the real source of rage in our country, given the threat this poses to our democracy. Right now, however, it’s still unclear whether we will simply move on to the next story without batting an eye — or not.