The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate

By Gladys Engel Lang; Kurt Lang | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
THE ERVIN COMMITTEE HEARINGS

On May 17, 1973, eleven months after the five burglars were apprehended at Watergate, the electronic media took over what before then had been mainly a print story. Beginning that day the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, known as the Ervin Committee, were televised gavel-to-gavel. There would be 37 days of hearings, not ending until August 7 after 237 hours of coverage.

Remarkable about the proceedings were not only the revelations and the high standing of the persons implicated in Watergate but also the opportunity afforded the public to see for themselves as much they cared to see. The cross-examination took place before the cameras, where the exchanges between the seven-man committee and the 33 witnesses, mainly former members of the White House staff or employees of the Nixon reelection committee, could be watched close up by an audience whose size and sustained interest exceeded all expectations. In every major city, one station broadcast the hearings by day. Then, at night, some 150 to 160 public television stations carried a full replay of the day's hearings. Whatever transpired during the day inevitably made the evening news and the next morning's headlines to enter everyday conversation. Those unable to watch could listen to radio or catch the highlights on news specials and newscasts. Few people, however uninterested or bent on avoiding the hearings, could extricate themselves entirely from their pervasive influence.

Compared to most public affairs broadcasts, these hearings achieved extraordinarily high ratings. The best estimate of total exposure, based on Nielsen statistics, was some 30 hours per television home. By the second week of hearings, almost three out of four had tuned in to some part of the coverage and by early August, according to a national Gallup survey, nearly 90 percent of all Americans had watched some part of the hearings. Moreover, the total daytime TV audience had remained practically the same when all three networks carried the hearings, though viewing usually tends to fall off whenever popular entertainment is displaced by public affairs spe-

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