I wrote this paper for a summer class (COMM 1307) with Professor Wilkerson. The following was written as a final paper.
The Watergate Scandal: Skepticism in Journalism
What role do journalists play in modern society? Do they exist solely to entertain and inform the public? Perhaps their purpose goes beyond that of a storyteller and in fact, is one of an enforcer. What better way to enforce the law than through exposing the truth? It used to be that questioning authority was dangerous, but now it’s the other way around; not questioning it could be even more damaging. Along with a multitude of other events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal changed the face of American journalism forever as well as the attitudes of everyday Americans toward government and other figures of authority. Respect was no longer automatic; it had to be earned.
On June 18, 1972, veteran police reporter Alfred E. Lewis broke this story on the front page of The Washington Post. “Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here,” it read. (Perry 1) Apparently, several of Nixon’s associates in the Republican Party broke in and burglarized Democratic Party headquarters in Washington, D.C. They also searched for sensitive documents that might help them to tarnish the reputations of Democratic Party candidates. The event came at a time when Vietnam was still a large issue and was easily overshadowed by the upcoming election news. Once Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were assigned to the story, however, it was a whole different ball game. They even followed The New York Times as they broke different pieces of information about the scandal, attempting to catch up. Finally, with the help of a confidential informant referred to as “Deep Throat”, Bernstein and Woodward were able to expose the “foul play and cover-up that followed.” (Straubhaar 98) “Deep Throat” was later revealed to be William Mark Felt, Sr., the former assistant director of the FBI during the Nixon administration. This fact was not revealed to the public until 2005, about 30 years after the incident had occurred. The story even caused Richard Nixon to resign from the presidency. On July 24 of the same year, the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to hand over the tapes of incriminating conversations he had recorded in his office, which investigators called the “smoking gun.” (Perry) Nixon refused. Several days later, “the House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three impeachment articles, obstruction of justice.” (Perry) On August 8, Nixon finally resigned. His vice president, Gerald Ford, succeeded him.
Above all else, the Watergate scandal made journalists think twice before trusting anyone, especially those in positions of authority. Though previously, journalists and government officials protected each other’s reputations, the Watergate scandal could not silence the truth; skepticism became the new norm. Journalists became “watchdogs,” people who would keep an eye on the government and authority figures to point out deception. While it brought about changes in the realm of political ethics, Watergate also “marked the birth of a different kind of reporting – more aggressive and much less respectful of the establishment.” (Shepard) Investigative journalism was suddenly “sexy” and an entire generation became interested in journalism due to the enormous contributions of Woodward and Bernstein (Shepard). This increase in interest, in turn, generated an increase in investigative reporting itself, with the question of “who will watch the government if we don’t?” prodding them along. One year after Nixon’s resignation (1975), the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization – which is still operating today – was founded. Investigative reporting makes “a difference in government and in people’s daily lives.” (Shepard)
Where would we be without the work of Bernstein and Woodward? It’s a sobering thought, to be honest. Perhaps the government would get away with more than they do now. Perhaps we’d be more naïve and fall for things more easily – events like the War of the Worlds broadcast, or misleading advertisements. If Watergate taught us anything, it’s that you can’t believe everything you hear and how it is so important to do research before making any judgments. Investigative journalism boomed because of this scandal and probably owes its success to these two men.
Perry, James M. “Watergate Case Study.” Columbia.edu. Columbia University, n.d. Web. 17
Shepard, Alicia. “The Journalism Watergate Inspired Is Endangered Now.”Nytimes.com. The
New York Times, 13 June 2012. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.
Straubhaar, Joseph D., and Robert LaRose. Media Now: Understanding Media Culture and
Technology. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004. Print.
“The Watergate Story – Timeline.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 17 Aug.
Von Drehle, David. “FBI’s No. 2 Was ‘Deep Throat’: Mark Felt Ends 30-Year Mystery of The
Post’s Watergate Source.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 1 June 2005. Web. 17