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Story highlights

Julian Zelizer: Journalists can't tackle Trump White House scandals single-handedly

He says other institutions also did their jobs to root out misdeeds during Watergate era

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

With President Donald Trump’s scandals accelerating at a rapid pace, it is clear that the news media will play a vital role in shaping how this historic moment unfolds. After the dramatic events of the past week, the strength of our democratic institutions is being tested.

Some are raising the specter of impeachment, while others are urging caution. And this is key because the stakes are immense. Presidential impeachment is the most potent weapon that Congress has in its arsenal. It should only be used when there are no other alternatives left.

Congress should be stepping up, but it is gridlocked, and in the absence of any independent probe, the news media have become the main conduit through which the investigation is being handled.

Journalists have been pushing this story forward by uncovering information on how, allegedly, Trump mishandled classified intelligence, and about James Comey’s memo that allegedly shows that Trump tried to shut down the federal probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (The White House denies these allegations.)

The problem is that the media can’t do this alone. The notion that an aggressive media can tackle this responsibility independently rests on the myth, as the sociologist Michael Schudson called it, of the Watergate-era media. According to this nostalgic view, reporters such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein single-handedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt White House. Their willingness to go to places where the nation’s political leaders would not was the reason our long national nightmare came to an end.

But the truth is that government institutions were vital to exposing Nixon’s wrongdoing and bringing him down. As historians have shown, the press did well because it worked within the context of functioning government institutions that also did their job.

Under Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities conducted a methodical investigation that exposed how Nixon’s White House had abused its power. The nation learned that the President had taped his conversations, which ultimately produced the “smoking gun” tape that brought him down. Outside of the Senate committee, Republicans such as Rep. William Cohen of Maine and Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona broke with their party to stand up against a President who was no longer fit to serve.

The courts were likewise crucial. Judge John Sirica was a driving force in uncovering the larger story behind the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters and forcing the release of the tapes, even when the White House did everything in its power, including firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox, to stop this. The Supreme Court, by a unanimous decision, also stood up, ruling that Nixon could not withhold the tapes from Congress.

Finally, the FBI also did its part with an investigation, which is why Nixon tried to stop it, that helped uncover the connections between the Watergate burglars and the White House.

When government institutions have not functioned well, we can see the limits of what the press can do.

When an overzealous independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, and intensely partisan House Republicans moved to impeach President Bill Clinton without a serious bipartisan investigation into whether high crimes and misdemeanors had been committed, the dysfunction of the press became manifest.

In the era of 24-hour news, reporters, editors and producers were too eager to report any piece of information that emerged, regardless of accuracy or importance. Too often, the press allowed Republicans to use it as a mechanism for circulating salacious material that blew a sex scandal way out of proportion. Eager to be the first to break a story, journalists were jumping over each other to cover the sex scandal at the expense of all other issues.

It is true that Watergate-era journalism remains the modern gold standard for the press, and it should. But we must not let memories of that fine moment in journalism obscure a crucial reality: We need all the institutions of government to function at this critical moment. If Congress does not organize a serious investigation, and if the courts don’t check an aggressive executive branch, the system will fail.

There are too many endemic problems with the press, including partisan news and fake information, to count on it to handle the job by itself. The matter is too grave to depend on one institution alone. For starters, Congress must insist on an independent FBI director and, if a special prosecutor is appointed, he or she must not be someone who will replicate the biased demeanor of Starr. If Congress sets up a commission, it must be staffed with individuals of the highest integrity.

Good journalism depends on a healthy government, even when parts of that government may be rotten. The idea that journalists can tackle Trump on their own is a dangerous fallacy, one that gives too many politicians the cover to avoid their responsibilities.