When Richard Nixon was president, most journalists knew he was a thoroughly dishonest man. Early in his first term he had declared war on them—famously in two high-profile speeches delivered by his pit-bull vice president, Spiro T. Agnew—and he spied on many with illegal wiretaps authorized by his national security adviser Henry Kissinger. When reporters crossed him, he punished them with petty retributions (excluding some from his trip to China) and unconstitutional abuses of power (siccing the IRS or FBI on others) that became grounds for his impeachment.
Well before Watergate, Nixon’s treatment of reporters led them to thunder that because of his distortions and manipulations, freedom of the press was under siege. The news media’s leading lights sounded the alarm. Accepting the “Broadcaster of the Year” award in 1971, Walter Cronkite labeled Nixon’s anti-press campaign “a grand conspiracy.” On the Dick Cavett show, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee charged that “the First Amendment is in greater danger than any time I’ve seen it.” A blue-ribbon National Press Club report found Nixon guilty of “an unprecedented, government-wide effort to control, restrict and conceal information” and “discredit the press.” The Senate even convened hearings—chaired by Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, who later led the Watergate inquiry—into whether, as Ervin put it, “the Constitution’s guarantee of a free press” was “on its deathbed.”