In many ways, Watergate did irreparable harm to journalism.
The journalistic investigation into the misdeeds of Richard Nixon undoubtedly helped bring down his presidency. Mythology – supported by the book and movie “All the President’s Men” – purports that the investigative heroics of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein almost singlehandedly led to the uncovering of the crimes that resulted in the 1974 resignation of our 37th president.
As with most things, reality is a lot more nuanced. It is entirely likely that Nixon’s fate would have been the same if Woodward and Bernstein had never written a word about the matter. What toppled Nixon was the testimony during the Watergate hearings and the U.S. Supreme Court’s order that Nixon had to turn over the tape recordings he had secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office – an order that came a full month after the Woodward-Bernstein book was published.
“All the President’s Men,” the book, was actually published in June 1974, about two months before Nixon resigned. The book detailed Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation into Watergate and made the Post reporters instant ink-stained celebrities.
The impact was immediate. Time magazine reported in July 1974, “Applications to journalism schools are at an alltime high, and many of the youngsters say that they want to be investigative reporters. Coverage of Watergate and related scandals has won four Pulitzer Prizes and a number of lesser awards. All the President’s Men, the how-we-did-it book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, became a bestseller after three weeks in print…”
Journalism changed forever in 1974. No longer were political reporters content to simply practice good journalism and try to decipher for their readers the often-mundane workings of Congress or the White House in forming and passing legislation, or delve into complex foreign and domestic issues. Instead, everyone wanted to be – and still want to be – the next Woodward and Bernstein.
Bringing down a president became the ticket to journalistic immortality. If Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman could be cast in the 1976 film based on the book, who would portray the latest dynamic duo responsible for toppling a president?
Clearly, the fervor to destroy a president is much more evident if the president happens to be a Republican, like Nixon. Political reporters had much to work with when Bill Clinton was in office (and when Hillary ran for the office), but they largely took a pass, becoming apologists rather than antagonists. President Obama, of course, was beyond the press corps’ reach because they were unable to catch up with him as they observed his daily walk on water.
But if it’s a Reagan, Bush or Trump, they see impeachable scandal behind every action and utterance.
This year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner was understandably skipped by Trump, and it appeared to lack its usual star power and glitz. The Legends themselves – Woodward and Bernstein – were the main attractions. To their credit, the pair seemed perhaps somewhat aware and even abashed at the trend they had established, based on their comments as reported by the Post.
Woodward warned, “Journalists should not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth.” Excellent advice.
Bernstein, co-opting the same phrase, added, “We’re reporters, not judges, not legislators. Our job is to put the best obtainable version of the truth out there, period.” Very good, until he added, “Especially now.” No, Carl, not especially now – always, even if a Clinton or an Obama is in the White House.
The dinner featured lots of defensive rebuttals to Trump’s accusations of “fake news,” to the point that one might wonder, do they protest too much?
Don’t misunderstand. Woodward and Bernstein did excellent reporting on Watergate, and their book and the movie version of it are spellbinding. It’s the unintended consequences that are unfortunate – bringing down a president or another high-ranking official became the goal of too many in journalism, instead of just presenting the best obtainable version of the truth.
Another unfortunate trend in journalism is to raise questions without presenting the answers when possible. Posing an endless list of accusatory questions is fine, but we should also provide the answers to those questions rather than expecting the subjects of our inquiries to do our work for us.
The answers often make the questions much less incriminating than they might first appear, which is not as much fun, and sometimes it takes a phone call or two. But our readers deserve the effort.
It’s fun to stir the pot, but it’s more responsible to finish the recipe – even if the dish comes out rather bland more often than not, and even if someone doesn’t get removed from office.
There will always be scandals and controversies, and the media has no trouble finding them, not to mention too often creating them. But the fact is, good journalism can and should present facts that prevent and refute unfounded gossip, misinformation and controversy.
Journalists need to understand and accept that the “best obtainable version of the truth” is sometimes boring, and no book will be written, no movie will be made. But that’s good journalism, too.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.