By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, a federal judge, FBI investigators, special prosecutors and Congress had all played significant parts in holding him and his White House accountable for Watergate crimes. But, even after decades of second-guessing by others of the details, mysteries and meanings of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein’s role remains crucial.
For journalism, their Watergate stories and “All the President’s Men” (the book and the movie) have had an enduring impact. Inspired by Watergate, generations of young journalists have entered the profession to become investigative reporters. Newspapers and television networks and stations formed investigative teams and showcased their work. National magazines published long investigative pieces. Led by “60 Minutes,” television news magazines featuring investigative reporting proliferated for years.
Harking back to the original muckrakers, more journalists, including Woodward, expanded their reporting to book investigations of issues from environmental dangers to Wall Street wrongdoing to the conduct of American wars from Vietnam to Iraq. Citizen journalists eventually joined in on the Web and social media with blogs, crowdsourcing contributions and tweets that have sometimes become the leading edge of the next investigative story.
Investigative reporting has taken on every aspect of American society — from government, politics, business and finance to education, social welfare, culture and sports — and has won the lion’s share of each year’s journalism prizes. No matter how unpopular the news media may sometimes be, there has been, ever since Watergate, an expectation that the press would hold accountable those with power and influence over the rest of us. As Jon Marshall wrote last year in “Watergate’s Legacy and the Press,” Watergate “shaped the way investigative reporting is perceived and practiced and how political leaders and the public respond to journalists.”
Woodward and Bernstein’s techniques were hardly original. But, propagated by “All the President’s Men,” they became central to the ethos of investigative reporting: Become an expert on your subject. Knock on doors to talk to sources in person. Protect the confidentiality of sources when necessary. Never rely on a single source. Find documents. Follow the money. Pile one hard-won detail on top of another until a pattern becomes discernible. Just a few years ago, Dana Priest of The Post used similar methods to reveal the CIA’s secret overseas prisons in which terrorism suspects were aggressively interrogated.
Watergate also transformed some investigative reporters, led by Woodward, into marketable brand names. They appeared on television, won lucrative book and magazine contracts, and were paid for speeches. For a time, too many reporters rushed too quickly to find their own Watergate. They made notable mistakes and often gave each new scandal, no matter how trivial, the “-gate” suffix. Governments, public officials, corporations, executives and courts pushed back with public relations campaigns, lawsuits, subpoenas, the jailing of some journalists and leak investigations of suspected sources.