By Feldstein, Mark
American Journalism Review , Vol. 26, No. 4
Thirty years ago, on August 9, 1974, the Washington Post ran what was then the largest front-page headline in its history: "Nixon Resigns."
That date marked both the end of Richard Nixon's presidency and the beginning of three decades of debate about what role journalism played in uncovering the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon from office--and how Watergate, in turn, influenced journalism itself. Did media muckraking actually bring down a president of the United States? How have politics and investigative reporting changed as a result?
Thirty years later, the answers to these basic questions remain nearly as polarized as they were in Nixon's day. While journalism schools continue to teach the lesson of Watergate as a heroic example of courageous press coverage under fire, some scholars have concluded that the media played at best a modest role in ousting Nixon from office. So what really happened? In the end, perhaps truth lies somewhere between the self-congratulatory boosterism of journalists and the kiss-off of the academics.
By now, of course, Watergate has become part of our folklore: Five men wearing business suits and surgical gloves arrested in the middle of the night with illegal bugging devices at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. The burglars turned out to be part of a wide-ranging political espionage and sabotage operation run by President Nixon's top aides, one that triggered a massive White House cover-up directed by the president himself. After that cover-up unraveled, more than 70 people, including cabinet members and White House assistants, were convicted of criminal abuses of power; only a pardon by his presidential successor spared Nixon himself from becoming the first chief executive in history to be indicted for felonies committed in the Oval Office. In the words of Stanley Kutler, the scandal's leading historian, Watergate "consumed and convulsed the nation and tested the constitutional and political system as it had not been tested since the Civil War."
As important as Watergate was in political history, it was perhaps equally so in journalism history. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein produced "the single most spectacular act of serious journalism [of the 20th] century," said media critic Ben Bagdikian. Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, believes that the Post's reporting was "absolutely critical" to "creating an atmosphere in Washington and within the government that Nixon was in serious trouble and that the White House was engaged in a cover-up. I believe that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein represents a milestone of American journalism."
Even conservative critics have accepted the notion that Woodward and Bernstein were instrumental in Nixon's downfall. "[T]he Washington Post ... decided to make the Watergate break-in a major moral issue, a lead followed by the rest of the East Coast media," Paul Johnson wrote in his book "Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the Year 2000." This "Watergate witch-hunt," Johnson declared, was "run by liberals in the media ... the first media Putsch in history."
Woodward dismisses both detractors and fans who contend that the media unseated a president. "To say that the press brought down Nixon, that's horse-shit," he says. "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.
But it was Woodward and Bernstein's best-selling book, "All the President's Men," that focused public attention on the young reporters, especially after Hollywood turned it into a blockbuster movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The film immortalized the chain-smoking anonymous source called "Deep Throat," who met Woodward at night in deserted parking garages after first signaling for meetings with elaborate codes (see sidebar, page 64). …