Image credit: Daniel R. Smith / Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpted from Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020)

In the fall of 2019, Robert MacNeil and I sat in his dining room, the hub of a prewar New York apartment filled with light and books: I asked him to recall the summer of 1973, when he and Jim Lehrer anchored gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings, when the United States Senate investigated the possibility that President Richard M. Nixon had authorized and covered up a burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters during the 1972 campaign. Hosted by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the hours of questions and witness testimony, with interviews and analysis during the breaks, compelled millions of viewers. The hearings ended with Nixon’s resignation, something that had never happened before in American history.

But they also cemented a partnership between the two newsmen around a shared vision for an alternative to mainstream television news that built on the achievements of public television. It was also the culmination of MacNeil’s long journey toward producing news with integrity, a career that had taken him from Canada, to England, and then to the United States.

During Watergate summer, MacNeil and Lehrer worked sixteen-hour days, broadcasting a constitutional crisis. Driving back to their homes in Bethesda, Maryland, together after a full day of broadcasting, they would go over what had transpired. “And we would say after John Dean or somebody had really begun to spill the beans”—MacNeil laughed—“‘My God, can you believe we’re being paid to do this work?’”

In February, when Congress had authorized the hearings, MacNeil had seen an opportunity to do something that had not been done since the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: show democracy in action on television. MacNeil approached Jim Lehrer, who agreed immediately to co-anchor gavel-to-gavel coverage of the hearings, a job that turned out to entail being on the air all day and at the studio into the evening.

“We were here to do what no one else would do,” Lehrer recalled thirty years later. Both journalists believed that public television should “always be pushing the envelope” for what all broadcast news, corporate and alternative, aspired to. The pair flew to Dallas to get the stamp of approval from the chairman of PBS, businessman and philanthropist Ralph Rogers.

“We had dinner with him and his wife,” Lehrer remembered, “and we said, ‘Mr. Rogers, we think the Watergate hearings are going to be an important thing and we think PBS should broadcast them gavel-to-gavel, and possibly even rebroadcast them at night.’ And he said, ‘You guys, you guys! You don’t know what the news is. There’s going to be an energy crisis like nothing we have ever seen,’” and then launched into a polemic about oil. “And we could barely stay awake while he was talking”—Lehrer laughed—“and of course, a year later, there was the biggest energy crisis we’d ever had.” Nevertheless, when the pair left they had secured Rogers’s support for broadcasting the Watergate hearings.

But there was one potential hitch: unlike commercial networks, PBS affiliates chose what they would purchase and broadcast. Would they elect to replace local programs and national favorites like the popular children’s show Sesame Street with live political broadcasts? The team arranged to poll the stations one by one, beginning with those in large, urban, liberal markets where Nixon was especially disliked. As soon as 51 percent of the stations had agreed, the decision to carry the hearings was announced, which “meant that the people who were wavering had to come on board,” Lehrer explained, so that their viewers wouldn’t feel left out.

There could have been no better contrast to the political pseudo-events that journalist Joe McGinniss had exposed in his 1968 book, The Selling of the President. The Watergate hearings were almost 250 hours of riveting television, breaking news, and expert analysis. MacNeil began every broadcast by reading the Special Committee’s charge, both to “set the tone,” as he put it, and to highlight the fact that this was democracy in action, not a media attack on the president.

On May 17, 1973, the first day of the hearings, Lehrer spoke straight to the viewers and explained why PBS had taken the extraordinary step of pre-empting regular programming. This would be, he reminded them, the first time congressional hearings had been broadcast in their entirety since 1954. “We are running these hearings because we think it is important,” Lehrer explained, “and because we think it is important that you get to see the whole thing and make your own judgments.”

He also emphasized what it meant for viewers to get the whole story and why the broadcasts were different from receiving summaries and highlights from mainstream newspapers and networks. It was an experiment, Lehrer emphasized in his soft Texas accent, in telling the whole story by “temporarily abandoning our ability to edit . . . however many hours it may take.”

The nation watched a drama unfold that might have led to only the second presidential Senate impeachment trial in American history and the first in over a century had the president not resigned. There was no question that liberals would watch. Enraged by the war and by Nixon’s easy stroll to victory in 1972, PBS’s core audience would be transfixed by the prospect of learning the full truth about a man nicknamed Tricky Dick since his 1950 Senate campaign. PBS took no breaks unless the committee did and rebroadcast sessions in the evening when most working people could view them.

When the hearings were not in session, airtime featured commentary and analysis by experts, as well as interviews held outside the hearing room by correspondent Peter Kaye. “For the first time in history, it seemed that the whole nation knew what public television was,” MacNeil recalled. The broadcast also showed that an energized public would pay for alternative television. Although there was no appeal of the kind public television is famous for now, viewers spontaneously sent donations and affiliates like New York’s WNET tripled their membership. More importantly, MacNeil had proved that a broadcasting model that trusted the public’s intelligence and ability to think about the news would earn the faith of the public in return.

The success of the broadcasts, and the willingness to give viewers all the facts and as much context as possible from both sides of the aisle, “revealed to doubters that public television journalism could be vital, fair, and trenchant when dealing with the most sensitive political matters,” MacNeil remembered. This, in turn, allowed the two journalists to fantasize about an evening show that could win the public’s trust in alternatives to commercial TV journalism. “Only news,” MacNeil believed, “would give PBS programs an air of indispensability” that would allow the network to survive future political attacks.

MacNeil and Jim Lehrer had figured out how to sell, on a broad scale, journalist I. F. Stone’s insight, when he began his famous weekly newsletter, that Americans wanted to know how their government worked. The Watergate broadcasts offered a dramatic preview of how channels like C-SPAN, Court TV, and other 24-7 cable news programming would enthrall political junkies ten years later.

The hearings also began to shift how politicians, who normally stayed under the national radar, related to a public newly fascinated with them as actors in a drama about democracy. Little-known senators like North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, a Harvard graduate, and segregationist who presented himself as a “country lawyer” and told folksy stories from his seat as chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, became television characters who played to the camera. Tennessee Republican Howard Baker’s insistent question—“What did the president know and when did he know it?”—initially intended to provide a path to Nixon’s exoneration, became an iconic phrase that ultimately led to the president’s downfall.

As the hearings ground on, Nixon’s staffers dropped one bombshell after another, live, sending simultaneous shock waves through viewers, committee members, and journalists crammed into the hearing room, as well as MacNeil and Lehrer, watching from the studio. When John Dean delivered prepared remarks, in which he revealed that Nixon had known about the cover-up and that he, Dean, had told him that the Watergate investigations were “a cancer on the presidency,” it was “a showstopper,” Lehrer recalled: so was Alexander Butterfield’s revelation that the Oval Office had secret recording devices. As Lehrer characterized it, the broadcasts “showed the government of the United States at its worst—and then it showed it at its best.”

In other words, alternative television showed government as it was, mainlining the excitement of democracy to a dedicated and growing group of political junkies. At the same time, seeing the investigation play out live provided reassurance that Watergate was a constitutional crisis but not, as Nixon characterized it, a plot against American democracy.

Working together for the entire day and into the evening, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer became good friends. But they also had the opportunity to watch something else: public television news emerged as a legitimate alternative to its corporate counterpart, supported by a viable audience of educated liberals who cared deeply about politics.

That was when the PBS NewsHour was born. And PBS is one of the many networks where the American public can see democracy in action again.

Copyright © 2020 by Claire Potter. This excerpt originally appeared in Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy published by Basic Books. Reprinted here with permission.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her SubstackPolitical Junkie.