Book Reviews -- Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and the FBI by Kathryn S. Olmstead
Evenson, Bruce J., Journalism History
Olmstead, Kathryn S. Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and the FBI. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. 255 pp. $15.95.
Kathryn Olmstead's examination of primary collections at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and the Central Intelligence Agency has persuaded her that the post-Watergate news media did little to expose the twin threats emanating from America's "imperial presidency" and "secret government."
Although revelations by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times launched Congressional investigations into abuses by the nation's intelligence agencies, Olmstead finds a Fourth Estate that "deferred" in "nervous" compliance to the institutions it should have held to "democratic accountability."
Reasons for the poor performance by the press in tracking abuses within the CIA and FBI are perhaps the least examined aspect of Olmstead's otherwise solid scholarship. Her suggestion that journalists felt "intimidated" by syndicated columnists and politicians, who charged the press had "gone too far" in uncovering wrongdoing, seems less persuasive than speculation, found elsewhere in the book, that the public mood for real reform diminished as Watergate became more distant. At other times, she argues journalists feared "restrictions on press freedom" or "the loss of status among elite friends," which led to passivity in reporting captivities of the secret government.
More convincing, however, is Olmstead's observation that many post-Watergate reporters, and certainly the more senior ones, felt troubled as government adversaries and favored a return to Cold War policy consensus.
Olmstead's work might have benefited from a stronger summary of the complexity of press-policy maker relations in the twentieth century. Her claim that "objectivity" developed as a professional paradigm after World War I, displacing the press' traditional "watchdog" role, plays well to her assertion that the press played "cheerleader" to those in power who "dominated discussion of how American policy was to be made. …