This wasn’t necessarily something to celebrate, he cautioned. Copy machines were changing the way people thought about how they shared information—dramatically and irreversibly. All that change, to people in the early 1970s, was deeply consequential, similar to the way people see the influence of the internet today.
“Paradoxically, the copying machines which were intended to expand information and truth are going in the opposite direction,” Reston wrote in 1972. “The Xerox is not increasing security but diminishing it. It is not encouraging honest dissent, but blocking it. The modern copying machines are not informing Washington so much as enslaving and confusing it...”
Forty-five years later, Xerox machines are still with us, but the flow of information is largely a matter of pixels, not paperwork. Technology is still playing an important, if not central, role in today’s political scandals.
From the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate tapes to Hillary Clinton’s private email server, the fundamental questions are the same: What information is being hidden from the public, and why?
Often, the answers depend on the type of machine that is used to conceal the information.
It was Richard Nixon’s refusal to hand over secret White House recordings that led to his eventual impeachment. Nixon suggested having his long-time secretary transcribe the tapes instead, in part so that he could remove portions of the recording that he viewed as irrelevant. When an 18-minute stretch of that tape was mysteriously ruined, erasing a crucial portion of a conversation about the Watergate break-in, Nixon’s chief of staff blamed it on some inexplicable “sinister force” in the White House.
“I don’t want to be quoted,” a White House lawyer said after one particularly contentious hearing in December 1973. “But wait for the technical experts, just wait.”
Just wait. Eight months later, Nixon resigned.
“At the time of Nixon’s resignation, some of his supporters expressed the wish that Nixon had simply burned all the tapes, in defiance of the subpoenas,” David Kopel wrote for The Washington Post in 2014. “Although this would have been very bad politically for Nixon, it could not possibly have been as politically bad as the eventual release of the smoking gun tape.”
We still don’t know for sure what was said on the 18 minutes of missing tape—all you could hear was a hum, and many restoration attempts have failed—but historians have concluded it contained, “some general comment that revealed [Nixon’s] involvement in the cover-up,” as John W. Dean, a member of Nixon’s White House counsel who was jailed for his involvement in the cover-up, told the New York Post in 2014.
Those tantalizing missing sections of tape loom large in culture. Donald Trump’s campaign fixation on Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server capitalized on memories of Nixon’s downfall.