Whether the news media merely reflected that dark view of politicians or encouraged its spread, Watergate dramatically altered the relationship between those in power and those who report on them.
As the congressional investigation into impeaching Nixon gathered steam in 1973, Railsback, the Illinois congressman, headed home for Christmas recess. He was startled to find he was not alone. Everywhere he went — his daughter’s elementary school, a high school basketball game — there were his new shadows, Sam Donaldson of ABC News and Ike Pappas of CBS.
“It was a startling new experience,” Railsback says. “Members of the House were not subject to much media scrutiny back then. All of a sudden, we were center stage.”
Four decades later, Washington’s self-image as a place where voters send representatives to work in relative obscurity, devising federal policy, is shattered. Some politicians say the paralysis that infects the capital stems from forces unleashed by the scandal — interest groups intent on countering government power, as well as a press that discovered reader interest and profit in more aggressive coverage.
“The culture of Washington changed in response to Watergate, with a huge shift in journalism toward questioning authority,” says David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University, a former research assistant to Woodward and author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.” “That led to the investigative work of the new muckrakers, but also to a gotcha journalism, with a lot of noise and heat over unimportant stories, and both forms changed the political culture.”
Almost immediately after Watergate, young people, inspired by the central role that Woodward and Bernstein played in unraveling the Watergate conspiracy, flocked to journalism schools. And despite recent waves of cost-cutting in print and broadcast news organizations, enrollment in undergraduate journalism programs nationwide has jumped by 35 percent over the past decade. Watergate remains a touchstone for budding journalists eager to demonstrate that right can tame might.
“It’s definitely still part of the lore and a serious driving force,” says Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit organization created in the aftermath of Watergate to support the expensive work of keeping government accountable.
(Watergate made accountability reporting both easier and harder — easier because sunshine and freedom of information laws were passed, opening up government records, and harder because people in power grew more wary and savvy about record-keeping. No president since Nixon has made systematic voice recordings of White House meetings, and even note-taking is more circumscribed, although the rise of e-mail and social media are changing the nature of record-keeping.)