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Watergate's lesson: History becomes 'bogus' with bad information

John Dean: “History becomes bogus when you’re dealing with bad information.”
Watergate whistle-blower says future reporters shouldn't forget the past.
October 16, 2015

John Dean, who served as President Richard Nixon’s legal counsel, and then as a witness for prosecutors during Watergate, one of the 20th century's most notorious scandals, told Arizona State University journalism students he wants future reporters not to forget the past.

“There’s a group of people out there who want to revise history and are making money off of the Watergate scandal,” Dean said. “History becomes bogus when you’re dealing with bad information.”

The historical context of Watergate came to life Thursday evening in Dean’s discussion, “Uncovering Watergate’s Legacy and Impact on Journalism,” which took place in the First Amendment Forum in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

Dean’s lecture explored his four decades of reflection on the scandal, the lessons he learned and how time has given him a much better perspective.

“I didn’t look at it (Watergate) in a historical context at the time,” Dean told an audience of about 125 people, comprised mostly of journalism students who were born a quarter-century after Watergate unfolded.

“I was in the fight of my life taking on the President of the United States. My colleagues wanted me to fall on the sword as per their orders, and I didn’t take well to that. I’m still living with that stigma, but it doesn’t trouble me because I told the truth.”

man giving lecture at podium

Reporting on a scandal

John Dean, regarded as the main whistleblower
in the Watergate scandal, told ASU journalism
students, that he doesn't live with regret
because he told the truth.

Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The scandal unfolded on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five burglars dressed in business suits, sporting surgical gloves, their pockets stuffed with crisp $100 bills and carrying suitcases filled with wiretapping equipment. Their intent was to bug the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. The five men were arrested and Nixon hastily constructed a cover-up.

Dean depicted the operatives as fumbling idiots and gave an even harsher assessment to the man who hired them, G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who served in several positions under Nixon.

“Liddy has often portrayed himself as a James Bond-type character,” Dean said. “He was not even in the Maxwell Smart category because he bungled so many operations.”

Dean also took time to praise the dogged efforts of The Washington Post in its relentless coverage of the case and cover-up, noting that it changed the face of modern-day journalism.

Dean served as counsel to Nixon from 1970-73. At the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973, Dean implicated Nixon, administration officials and himself in the cover-up. During his testimony, he also mentioned the existence of Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List,” which included major political opponents of the president, labor organizations, media, academics, business people and celebrities.

“The White House was basically a cesspool,” Dean said of Nixon's tenure, noting his second term as especially vengeful.

He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and later testified during the trial of several of Nixon’s White House aides. Dean served four months in federal prison for his role in the cover-up.

Following his prison stint, Dean went on to become an investment banker, lecturer and author of 14 books, most recently “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.”

Dean said though the Watergate saga changed the face of journalism one of its negative impacts is its lasting “aura of cynicism” the press has toward standing presidents. He believes their attitudes have shifted from trusting to distrustful, and should move back toward the middle.

“Before Watergate there was too much leniency given to presidents,” Dean said. “Now there’s not enough benefit of the doubt to the let the president do what he needs to do.”

man speaking at podium
John Dean, former counsel for President Richard Nixon, shows a video of Nixon at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Oct. 15.

Christopher Callahan, dean of the Cronkite School, said the discussion was a teaching moment for students. 

“This is a fantastic opportunity for our students to hear from one of the key figures of Watergate, which was not just a watershed moment for American politics, but for journalism as well,” Callahan said.

For Megan Janetsky, a 19-year-old journalism student, the night was an opportunity to understand Watergate’s history first-hand.

“I knew a lot about the story and I love American history, so hearing an insider’s perspective and seeing the other side of the story and the extent in which Nixon went in order to cover this up was interesting,” Janetsky said.

Dean’s lecture was also of great interest to 18-year-old Mitchell Atencio, a freshman at the Cronkite School.

“Growing up, Nixon was painted as one of the most shady presidents in history and his famous line ‘I am not a crook’ meant the opposite was actually true. He was a crook, and so I grew up with this distaste for him. That started to shift a few years ago after I started to learn more about politics,” Atencio said. “I thought Mr. Dean did a good job of explaining Watergate to those who weren’t around for it and a lot of us might not know what actually happened.”

This won’t be the last students will hear from Dean, who has been appointed to ASU’s Barry Goldwater Chair of American Institutions for the fall and spring semesters.

The Goldwater Chair supports the appointment of scholars who have distinguished themselves in the fields of political science, history, economics, law or public policy. Dean will give several classroom and public lectures throughout the fall and teach courses in philosophy and law at ASU this spring.

Charlie Rose shares career advice with ASU student journalists

October 19, 2015

What advice does long-time American journalist and talk show host Charlie Rose have for a room full of students, eager to become future journalists? Be curious.

Rose said that a critical part of being a good interviewer and journalist is to have a natural curiosity. Charlie Rose and Ted Simons giving Q&A to journalism students Ted Simons speaks to Charlie Rose during a Q&A at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Oct. 18. Download Full Image

“I try to say something before an interview that I may not even say as part of the interview,” Rose explained, “but that will communicate to them that I am enormously curious about them.” 

Rose spoke at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, Oct. 18, as part of an hour-long Q&A with Arizona Horizon host Ted Simons. During the event he fielded questions about his career, keys to success and personal experience in the industry.

The visit came the day before Rose’s award luncheon, at which he was presented with the 2015 Cronkite Award for excellence in journalism.

During the Q&A, Rose repeatedly emphasized the importance of engagement during interviews as a means of connecting with your guest to ensure a lively conversation.

“There is a difference between listening to the person you’re interviewing and actually hearing them,” Rose said.

Rose also shared a story about how his father made him work in a small country store growing up, and how he “sort of snuck into journalism” thanks to his wife, who was doing research for CBS’ 60 Minutes at the time.

close up of charlie rose on stage speaking to audience
Charlie Rose speaks to ASU students during a Q&A at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Oct. 18.

During the event, students indulged their curiosity for advice, busily typing away on laptops and scribbling down notes as Rose dished out lesson after lesson from his experiences in journalism. Dozens of soft snapping sounds could be heard as student photographers took pictures of Simons and Rose from the surrounding staircases.

Simons soon invited the students to come up to the microphone and ask their questions.

Rose injected stories of his work between questions from students to illustrate the points he was trying to get across.

In one story, Rose told of an encounter he had with Steve Jobs, and how he tirelessly questioned him about his recent ousting from Apple. According to Rose, Jobs eventually turned to him and said that if he were back at Apple, he would know exactly what to do with the company. That was the comment that Rose was looking for. 

“Charlie Rose is a big deal, and seeing him speak is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Matt Lively, freshman Cronkite School student.

Conall Casey-Waid, a junior at Cronkite, was happy with what she heard from Rose.

“I think it was really great to learn how to go into an interview because I think that’s really difficult for me,” she said. “I think I can take some of the things he said and apply it to print, like preparing some questions for an interview but also leaving things open so you can come up with new questions if [your guest] says something in the spur of the moment.”  

Before Rose departed the stage, a student asked him what the secret is to going from a journalism major to a famous and successful journalist.

Leaning forward, Rose said, “You have to desperately, excessively want it."

Charlie Rose speaking to ASU students
Charlie Rose speaks to ASU journalism students after a Q&A at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Trevor Fay

reporter, Media Relations and Strategic Communicatons