How big an influence did Watergate have on American investigative journalism?
Ileana Najarro '08-'09


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Woodward and Bernstein- the dynamic duo

June 18, 1972. For investigative journalists, this date is one to definitely remember. It marks the date when the Washington Post printed Alfred E. Lewis’s article on the capture of five men wearing suits and surgical gloves trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee Watergate complex in Washington D.C. While it wasn’t the biggest story of the year, it did attract the attention of young Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.(1) Thus the domino effect kicked off. By examining the trends of stories involving the GOP and following the leads and clues Woodward acquired from the secretive “Deep Throat”, the two investigative journalists played a major role in the deciphering of the political scandal that went down in history as the Watergate Scandal. For the three years following the publication of Lewis’s article, the Washington Post, as well as other distinguished newspapers, let Americans in on the presidential controversy that culminated with the first-ever resignation of a president by Richard Millhouse Nixon. 37 years later, bringing us back to 2009, Watergate’s effect is still prevalent in investigative journalism and in the media’s political coverage overall. This wikipage will use commentaries of some of the key players in Watergate as well as current journalism and media critics to try to determine Watergate’s true influence on the ever-changing world of media and more specifically the world of journalism.

Watergate: What It Was

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"Strange--they all seem to have a connection to this place"

In order to properly discuss how Watergate has influenced the media, let’s get through the basic information of what Watergate actually was. As mentioned earlier, it all started with the story of the five men breaking into the Watergate Complex. What interested Woodward and Bernstein about it was that the men conducted a seemingly controlled operation. After some serious investigation the duo learned of and published an article on the fact that James McCord, one of the burglars, was a member of Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President.(1) Further investigation led to the discovery of the involvement of E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, Maurice Stans, and John Mitchell in the case (all of whom were directly involved with the Nixon White House and/or his campaign funds).(1)By 1973 when John Dean, a White House aide, testified of his knowlegde of Nixon's connection to the robbery and when in July of '73 Alexander Butterfield confessed of Nixon's taping system of all meeting in the Oval Office, it was all up to the Supreme Court now. After trying to fight his way out of the court cases that follwed throughout 1973, (going so far to claim executive privlegde) Nixon finally resigned from his office on April 29, 1974. He finally did turn in the incriminating fixed tapes
from his office that got the Court's suspicsions rising in the first place.

**Here you will find recorded videos from the Washington Post's archive on the Watergate scandal. The first is a clip from Nixon's broadcasted resignation speech and the second is of John Dean's testament in court.




I will not go too in-depth with the court details of Watergate as my main focus is it's future impact on journalism. However, if you wish to learn more about the event and other key players in it, please feel free to visit this website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/index.html

Watergate 37 years later
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"...I Can Report Today That There Have Been Major Developments..."

Looking back at how Woodward and Bernstein made a name for themselves, and looking forward at the years following Nixon’s resignation, evidence and commentary does exist to support the theory that Watergate forever left its mark on investigative journalism. Watergate’s immediate effect on journalism became clear with the creation of the Investigative Reporters and Editors center (IRE) in 1975.(2) Dedicated to continuing on the ideals of investigative journalism demonstrated by the Post reporters, the center provided and still continues to provide an extensive sources database for American investigative reporters. While the IRE can be view as a product of Woodward and Bernstein’s triumph in investigative journalism, the question still remains: just how big an influence did Watergate have on the future of investigative journalism and the media’s relationship with politics?

Mark Feldstein, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University,apparently found himself asking the same question as he wrote an article on the American Journalism Review website in an attempt to answer it. Feldstein quoted many journalism critics and the Post duo themselves, thus giving a broad range of opinion. According to some of the critics in Feldstein’s article, the only major role played by journalism in Watergate was the story-telling. Quoting the communication scholars couple, Gladys and Kurt Lang, Feldstein wrote, “Journalism may have helped prepare the public ahead of time for Nixon's removal, the authors argued, but it was Congress, not the media, that forced the president's resignation.”(2) Indeed, once the court cases took over Watergate and the flood of newspapers from across the nation took charge, it seemed that really all the media could do was present its audience with the story it wanted to fear: the story of “tricky Dick’s” dastardly deeds. In fact, even Woodward agrees that the media’s role in Watergate wasn’t all it’s been made to be. In Feldstein’s article, Woodward is quoted saying, "To say that the press brought down Nixon, that's horseshit. The press always plays a role, whether by being passive or by being aggressive, but it's a mistake to overemphasize the media’s coverage.”(2) In the article, Woodward also pointed out that the hype of how he and Bernstein solved the case most surely aroused from their book All The President’s Men and the Hollywood block buster by the same name.

Here's a trailer of the film starring Robert Redford and young Dustin Hoffman:
Both the book and the movie, while documenting the Watergate scandal and shedding some light on the duo’s methods of investigation, served its purpose more as a personal account of the reporters’ journey. If one bases his or her view on Watergate by merely reading the book or watching the movie, he or she will only get one side of the story. Still, while the media’s role in Watergate wasn’t that mind-blowing, Feldstein’s article continues on and provides proof that Watergate played a prominent role in investigative journalism. Professor Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia gives the following quote used in the article that clearly presents the change in the journalist mindset: “Reporters do not just present information but also question it. Whenever journalists believe government is lying, they now flex their muscles to set policy and even change personnel.”(2)

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30 Years Later- the title of the PBS Online Newshour special on Watergate
On PBS’s Online Newshour program from June 17, 2002, Terrance Smith interviewed Woodward and Bernstein as well as the former executive editor and then vice-president of the Washington Post Ben Bradlee to get their first-person response to my question. When directly asked for his take on Watergate’s impact on investigative journalism, Woodward said, “Well, there's a lot more in-depth reporting, but that tradition converges with the Internet and 24-hour television so there's this sense of impatience in journalism.”(3) He continued on saying that the underlying rule of investigative journalism now is to beat competitors and get the story in as quickly as possible; even though the key to his success with Watergate was the patience of his editors and his own patience to go out there however many times necessary. Bernstein gave his own take on Watergate’s impact on investigate journalism taking the position that the hype for investigative journalism that grew immediately after Watergate has both positively and negatively affected the content of newspapers. He spoke of how more and more journalists are focusing on controversies and not on the little stories that could end growing something big as say Watergate. “What happens is you lose context so that if you're covering city hall and what you're really looking for most of the time is to catch the mayor saying something that's a little untrue and turning it into a big story when, in fact, the sewer system of the whole city is falling apart and people can't get their water and they're getting poisoned, you're missing the news,” said Bernstein (3). The three went on agreeing that Watergate set the stage for a change not only in how reporters addressed political issues but how the White House also changed in respect to its relationship with the press. As noted in the New York Times article titled Reagan to Meet the Press Informally Each Week, presidents after Watergate, including Reagan, began to grow cautious of the media’s power over their public image; so much so to the extent of setting down boundaries.

To read the brief from the New York Times on Reagan and the Press click below:


In fact, in the PBS interview, Woodward talks about how this aggressive tactic used by government officials has haltered some investigative reporters. After all, it’s hard to write a story when you’re life is being threatened.


To listen to yet another take on this issue please listen to this interview wiht author Alicia Sheperd taken from On Media:


Answer to the Widely Asked Question
Based on the above commentary, it’s safe to say that Watergate had a major influence on the world of investigative journalism. Whether or not that influence was positive in the sense that more and more reporters are vying for the latest conspiracy story or negative that the content of investigative journalism has diminished in its glow, it’s all up to one’s own opinion. Still, it’s nice to know that the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other distinguished newspapers are still out there to uncover the truth, no matter how hard it hurts to find.

Fun to Note
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Mark Felt is pictured above with his daughter Joan Felt
Vanity Fair magazine identified "Deep Throat" as Mark Felt on May 31st, 2005. Felt, who passed away at 95, was a former top FBI official and the main source for Woodward and Bernstein.


Here's Woodward's take on the revelation of his secretive accomplice:



Work Cited
1. The Washington Post online, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/part1.html
2. Mark Feldstein article on AJR, http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3735
3. PBS Online Newshour special,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june02/watergate_6-17.html

Dynamic Duo photo taken from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/part1.html
Editorial Cartoon (reporters): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/cartoon2.html
Editorial Cartoon (flood): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/cartoon7.html
Historical videos taken from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/video/2007/06/14/VI2007061401076.html?hpid=topnews, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/video/2007/06/14/VI2007061401076.html?hpid=topnews, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/video/2007/05/24/VI2007052401263.html
Trailer:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cd-EsO1u-0
Audio interview:http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2007/06/15/03
PBS title: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june02/watergate_6-17.html
"Deep Throat" picture: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/part4.html