From Watergate to Whitewater: The Public Integrity War

By Robert N. Roberts; Marion T. Doss Jr. | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
War Reporting

Historians have given the Washington Post much of the credit for uncovering the Watergate scandal. Watergate helped to ignite a new era of investigatory journalism. By the 1990s, however, many members of the public and a multitude of media experts blamed the media for the crisis in public service ethics. From one perspective, the media spend too much time reporting on the personal lives of public officials and too little time investigating scandals involving serious mismanagement of public programs.1 Other critics blame the constant stream of stories bashing government for the tremendous erosion in public trust and confidence in government.2

Watergate lulled many journalists into a false sense of security. Journalists, like the muckrakers of the early twentiethth century, expected the public to embrace them with open arms. To the astonishment of many, however, the extensive coverage of the private lives of public officials and of other public figures caused a backlash against both print and broadcast journalists. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the country seemed to be trapped in a great moral and ethical morass. Americans searched for new heroes to restore the nation's faith in itself. Yet the media seemed much more interested in destroying public figures than in helping the nation deal with serious fundamental problems.

Between 1976 and 1994, the Gallup Poll surveyed the American public to determine perceptions of ethical standards regarding various professionals. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed in 1976 gave journalists a very high-high combined rating, but only 20 percent of those surveyed in 1994 gave journalists the very high-high combined rating.3

-105-

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