Watergate and the Washington Post: Questionable Tactics in Service to Democracy
In their introduction to Journalism: The Democratic Craft, G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark write that “journalism is one manifestation of the right of free expression, a fundamental democratic freedom” (p. xvii). This is not a radical new concept. Yet as Adam and Clark go on to explain, journalism is also more than this: it is a necessary piece of the democratic structure itself, making writers “democracy’s stewards” (p. xviii). This means that journalists have a fundamental responsibility to pursue stories that further the interests of democracy, using any ethical means available.
A clear example of journalists fulfilling this responsibility, albeit in a way that pushed the boundaries of journalism ethics, is the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposing the Watergate scandal in 1972 and 1973. Though few would dispute the importance of their reporting, the pair at times engaged in tactics that were questionable at best. In his book Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History, Rodger Streitmatter writes that the Woodward and Bernstein “begged, lied, badgered sources, and, on occasion, broke the law” in order to get the leads and confirmations needed to run their stories (p. 215). They also made extensive use of anonymous sources, particularly W. Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), the second-highest official in the FBI during the Watergate investigation. These decisions raise questions about whether the reporters’ work furthered the interests of democracy enough to justify their pushing of ethical boundaries.
Woodward and Bernstein’s service to democracy can be evaluated by examining the pair’s adherence to the five values of collective life that Adam and Clark find in “journalism's best practices and protocols:” truth, empiricism, verification, impartiality, and clarity (p. xvii). If the reporters were able to maintain these values in the course of their investigation, then they will have satisfied Adam and Clark’s test of professional integrity in the service of democracy, and it can be said that Woodward and Bernstein’s tactics were outweighed by the ends they achieved.
Truth is the elusive goal of investigative journalism. Unlike traditional journalists, whose facts are generally straightforward and sources are assumed to be trustworthy unless proven otherwise, investigative journalists must not only collect information but also establish its credibility and justify that to others (Ettema and Glasser). This requires a level of diligence and careful analysis not found in everyday reporting.
Woodward and Bernstein had to do even more justification than most investigative reporters, because for much of the investigation the Post was the only newspaper reporting on the scandal (Streitmatter, p. 216-7). Yet the paper’s tenacity allowed its reporters to work over the course of several months to piece together the story and establish that the Watergate break-in was much more than the “third-rate burglary” dismissed by the White House and most of the reporters in its briefing room (Streitmatter, p. 211). The nearly impeccable accuracy with which they did so clearly demonstrates that the desire for truth was present throughout the course of their investigation.
Adam and Clark describe the value of empiricism as “the evidence of the senses is authoritative.” In the midst of a government conspiracy and coverup, evidence is necessarily hard to come by, and there is little to see or hear. (Incidentally, according to Streitmatter (p. 217), this was a large part of the reason that television news did a poor job of Watergate.) Although many of Woodward and Bernstein’s leads may have started out as pure hearsay, the pair worked to gather as much reliable evidence as possible. Interviews with government and campaign staff who overheard incriminating conversations and saw condemning evidence like the list of individuals who had withdrawn funds from the secret campaign safe (Bernstein and Woodward, p. 85) allowed the Post to feel confident that it was getting the quality of information necessary to make its case against the President, even if its staff could not get their own hands on primary sources.
Perhaps the most diligent aspect of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was the lengths to which they went to verify facts before printing them. In All the President’s Men, they described their “unwritten rule” of requiring confirmation from two sources before printing any specific allegations that could be considered criminal (p. 79). Relying on Felt and other anonymous sources within the Nixon campaign and the executive branch, the reporters were able to feel confident that their story was as accurate as possible. The Post knew all too well what would happen if they got the facts wrong – the one time Woodward and Bernstein slipped up and reported that a piece of information came from a grand jury testimony rather than an independent source, the Vice President and the New York Times viciously attacked the Post for the error, and the White House began punishing the Post even more severely (Streitmatter 218-9).
While anonymous sources can reduce a story’s credibility to readers and critics, they were absolutely necessary for the Watergate story. Many of Woodward and Bernstein’s sources were high-ranking government officials, who were risking their careers and potentially even their safety by speaking to the press. This need for confidentiality made it even more important for the reporters to do their due diligence in verifying information before printing it: rather than the credibility of an individual source, it was the credibility of the Post itself that was on the line.
Adam and Clark write that “trust is a core value. It is basic to the idea of journalism…that facts are sacred and should be initially stripped, to the extent it is possible, of their ideological social contract” (p. xviii). Watergate was an inherently partisan incident, and it seems reasonable to infer that a paper more sympathetic to the President might not have pursued the case as relentlessly as the Post. Indeed, the White House repeatedly decried the Post’s investigation as “outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting” and an attack on the President, and retaliated harshly against the paper for continuing to pursue its investigation (Streitmatter, p. 219-20). While this retaliation may have motivated the Post to continue following its investigation up the chain of command, it does not appear that the paper allowed the conflict between itself and the White House to affect the way the story played out on its pages. If the Post had taken a partisan approach to covering the incident or directly responded to the White House’s attacks in its news coverage, few would have trusted that the paper was reporting accurately and the investigation would likely have collapsed.
Watergate was an incredibly twisty and complicated matter, and it took many months of work to untangle the depth of the corruption and illegal activities. Even as Woodward and Bernstein sought out the truth, found empirical evidence, and verified their sources, they had to ensure that they were communicating their findings in a way people could understand. Indeed, according to Adam and Clark, the reporters had no choice: “Journalists have a democratic duty to write clearly and in a public language” (p. xviii).
Woodward and Bernstein had an advantage in this matter because they were working at a newspaper, which is more suited to deeply engaging with long-term and complicated issues than television or radio. The lack of imagery available in a story about espionage and backroom deals also does not impact a newspaper in the same way it affects other media. (In explaining why television news did what Streitmatter (p. 217) calls “a particularly abysmal job of covering Watergate,” NBC Washington bureau chief Frank Jordan said “It’s not the kind of story we do best…It’s not visual, and it’s also very complicated.”). By meticulously laying out their case over time in a way that the public could understand, the Post reporters were well prepared to make the case against the President once the media and most of the country started paying attention to Watergate.
Weighing the Evidence
Adam and Clark wrote that “whatever else journalism might be or do, it should embody the values that make collective life of free citizens possible” (p. xviii). Such life is not possible when a president grossly misuses the resources of the United States to spy on its own citizens, especially when such espionage is for partisan political ends. However, journalists also have an obligation to preserve professional ethics in search for truth –“as their work goes, so goes democracy” (Adam and Clark p. xviii). Accordingly, Woodward and Bernstein should not have stooped to the level of the Nixon administration and broken the law in pursuit of their story. Yet their illegal actions did not in fact contribute to the Post’s coverage of Watergate, and the majority of their work was conducted in an ethical and legal manner. Ultimately, Woodward, Bernstein, and all of the other journalists who helped expose Watergate did a great service to this country and to democracy, and this service outweighs the sometimes questionable tactics used in the process.
Adam, G. Stuart, and Roy Peter Clark (eds.). Journalism: The Democratic Craft. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. New York: Touchstone, 1974.
Ettema, James S., and Theodore L. Glasser. “On the Epistemology of Investigative Journalism.” In Journalism: The Democratic Craft, edited by G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark, 126-140. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History (Second Edition). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008.