Don't Mess with the Press

How to Write, Produce and Report
               Quality Television News

by Tony Seton



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Watergate

 

With the Watergate affair now blurring in history, it is bemusing to remember the frantic pace of the times. So many people were telling so many stories that it was sometimes hard to keep track of what was known, what had been admitted, and what was simply being reported. There were also a lot of players, including a slew of Republican staffers for CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, and the FNC, the Nixon campaign finance committee. Plus, the White House people, the Cubans and The Plumbers. And then all their lawyers. Depositions were being taken right and left.

One afternoon in September of 1972, shortly before the Watergate story really broke loose, former Attorney General John Mitchell -- known to many at the time as Martha's husband -- was to appear at the office of eminent D.C. attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who was trying to figure out whom to sue on behalf of what was left of the Democratic National Committee. I was assigned to capture Mitchell on film, with correspondent Sam Donaldson and two film crews. (This was very unusual, having two crews, perhaps due to pressure from the higher-ups because ABC was not getting their share of scoops.)

Donaldson and one crew parked themselves with what looked like half of the Washington press corps at a street corner, waiting for Mitchell to arrive in his limo. I went into the building with the other crew and hid out of sight near the elevators. At the expected time, Mitchell arrived, got out at the wrong corner, and then led a mob of reporters and camera crews into the building.

When he was about twenty feet from the elevator, I stepped out from hiding with the crew and positioned us between Mitchell and the elevator. Suddenly everything stopped. The former attorney general had nowhere to turn but to me. I realized that I could wait for Donaldson to push his way through the crowd, but what if he couldn't get through or the elevator arrived to provide an escape? I didn't want to stand there limply waiting so I threw three questions at Mitchell. They were the questions of the day: When did you know about the break-in? What was your connection with Gordon Liddy? Did you approve the break-in?

Mitchell blustered and hawed, denouncing the "charges" as scurrilous, et cetera. I felt sorry for the man, even at the time; everything was going wrong for him. He was probably more upset with what the Nixon Administration was doing in the cover-up than with the insanity of the initial plan itself. Wouldn't it have changed things if he had suddenly had a change of heart, put down his briefcase and said, "Kid, I've got a story that'll knock your socks off. Can we go somewhere and talk?" The stuff of dreams.

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The heroics were not always heroic. The next spring, when ABC decided to get footage of John Dean no one had fresh shots of the man they hatched a plan that consisted of four cars tailing Charles Shaffer and Bob McCandless, Dean's two attorneys. I was stationed somewhere in suburban Maryland at the entrance to a cul-de-sac where Shaffer lived. I was to follow him when he left in the morning, staying in touch with the bureau by walkie-talkie. (Walkie-talkies were a place that ABC saved some money; I was unable to reach the camera crew a half mile away.)

I must have seemed pretty obvious, being the only car on the street, and with a whip radio antenna on the back of the car. It didn't matter. When Shaffer left the cul-de-sac, I followed him. He drove a hundred yards down the street and then into a neighbor's driveway. Not wanting to be completely obvious, I drove past the driveway. Then he pulled back out and started following me. When we reached a fork in the road, I took a right -- away from where I thought he might be going -- and he continued to follow me. Finally I pulled into the driveway of a monastery. He pulled into the bottom of the driveway behind me, waited a few moments to mock my efforts and then drove off to his office.

* * * * * * * *

It was this nonsense that drew much of the attention to coverage from the actual news. There was much that was uncovered during the spring and summer of 1973 that was over-looked or got lost in the shuffle. Like the reports that White House "dirty tricks" chief Charles Colson, within hours of the shooting, tried to send his operatives to check out the Milwaukee apartment of Albert Bremer, the man who shot George Wallace. There was another story about a $350,000 illegal campaign contribution to Nixon from one labor official to get himself out of jail, and another contribution of equal size from his union to impose restrictions on his labor activities. It underscores the danger that you can be too taken with a single story to be on top of all the news.

 

2003-2005  Tony Seton