The cliché Commentators are finding the many ways in which the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. is "like Watergate," and surely the ubiquity of the comparison is due only to the gravity, consequence, and nefariousness of the revelations... Or is it? "It looks like Watergate - except the press are the bad guys," says journalism professor Chris Harper in The Philadelphia Inquirer. "This is like Watergate, only on a shorter timeline," writes the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate. "For this reporter," says Carl Bernstein himself, "it is impossible not to consider these facts through the prism of Watergate."
Where it comes from Indeed, the media has likened scandals large and small to Watergate since, well, Watergate. And each time they do, one must wonder, how, exactly, the exchange of memorabilia for free tattoos among college football players is in any way like a scandal that brought down an American president. The name, of course, originates from the office complex where a break-in prompted investigations that led to revelations of widespread criminal coverups in the Nixon administration. (Coincidentally, we are currently writing from the Watergate complex, which houses the offices of The Atlantic Wire.)
Nixon resigned in 1974, but comparisons really got started around 1976. In June of that year, Congressman Wayne Hays was accused of keeping a woman on his staff specifically for her sexual services. Wrote Newsweek at the time, "In Washington, one Congressional staffer called the sex scandal 'the hottest thing to hit this town since Watergate.' And like Watergate, it has unleashed new pressures for government reform."
Also that year, a scandal involving gifts from South Korea to U.S. politicians who could influence foreign aid came to light. Time Magazine wrote, "There is an unmistakable sniff of Watergate wafting over the Hydra-headed investigations of exported South Korean corruption currently under way in Washington." The scandal, known as Koreagate, may also be the first to have the suffix "-gate" affixed to it.
Since then, cover-ups large and small have been compared to the events surrounding Watergate. (An even greater number of scandals, whether they bore any resemblance to the Watergate coverup, have had the "-gate" suffix affixed to them, as proven by this exhaustive list compiled by Wikipedia. "Hack-gate" seems to be the most prominent of suggested names for Murdoch's scandal.) The most prominent of explicit comparisons (not just a suffix) in American memory, though, are ones that embroiled a presidential administration. Reagan and Iran-Contra, Clinton and Lewinsky, Bush and weapons of mass destruction, all have been compared to Nixon's coverup, that cultural hegemon of a presidential scandal.
Why it caught on Of course, Rupert Murdoch is not a president, nor an American. So why then does this scandal have even Carl Bernstein pointing out the parallels? In this case, the comparison, if a little clichéd, seems particularly apt. Perhaps Bernstein, who together with Bob Woodward set off the investigation that ended with Nixon's resignation, explains it best.
The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within News Corp. suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct. Not to mention his role in the cover-up. It will remain for British authorities and, presumably, disgusted and/or legally squeezed News Corp. executives and editors to reveal exactly where the rot came from at News of the World, and whether Rupert Murdoch enabled, approved, or opposed the obvious corruption that infected his underlings.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.