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Forty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon resigned from office.

Would the velocity of news in today's social media environment have accelerated or slowed his departure?

The Watergate scandal that took Nixon down took more than two years to ripen. The news cycle, dominated by newspapers then, was much slower. And network television news hadn't yet benefited from satellite technology.

The night Nixon resigned, Greg Dobbs was a young ABC News correspondent in the Chicago bureau. The network sent him to Peoria, Illinois, for reaction.

'How's it gonna play in Peoria?' was the concept behind the story, Dobbs recalled. 'One of Nixon's aides [John Erlichman] was always saying that. So we went to Peoria.'

But getting a network story from a small town to the network wasn't necessarily easy, compared to today.

First, news was shot on film, which took thirty minutes to an hour to develop, if a place could be found to process it. Then, the film had to be edited, and finally, transmitted to the network, which, in a small town, could only be done from the network affiliate in that town.

'If we want to take the pulse of the public today,' Dobbs said, 'we go to the [smart]phone. The Twittersphere. We look at Facebook. We know within moments what people are thinking.'

So how would it look today?

'[Nixon] had two years to try to defend himself and hold on to public office. These days, I can't imagine that being the case,' Dobbs said. 'There would be a '[hashtag] Nixon's such a crook' on Twitter. That would have spread like wildfire, if it happened today.'

Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast and digital journalism at the Poynter Center for Media Studies, said social media and other factors might have saved - rather than finished - Nixon.

'When the Watergate story broke and Nixon resigned, there was no cable news,' Tompkins said. 'We didn't have 24-hour news. We didn't have talk radio, as we know it.

'There is certainly a much louder and broader voice than there was back then,' he continued. 'The voice back then was principally a major media. That didn't give that much access to everyday people, and certainly didn't give very much access to contrarian voices.'

The failure of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is blamed by some on surreptitious recordings made at a fundraiser in Florida, in which he said 47 percent of Americans are dependent and will vote for the president no matter what. Those comments whizzed through social media.

Tompkins, of Poynter, said Nixon could have used social media to defend himself.

'Let's just imagine that we are at that time, and that the administration is under fire. I would suspect that the administration would be holding a lot of press availabilities, talking about trade with China [...] he would have had a fighting chance. Whether he would have succeeded, I don't know.'

What Tompkins is sure of, is that in the social media age, each successive president will have a harder time surviving, because the media are so hard to manage.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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