How significant is the legacy of the Washington Post’s reports of the Watergate scandal to the field of investigative journalism?

June 4, 2014 12:51 pm

The legacy of the Washington Post’s role in regards to revealing aspects of the Watergate mystery is said to be hanging with the printing plate that announced United States President Richard Nixon’s resignation in a conference room where Washington Post editors meet every day.

Bob Woodward, left, and Carl Bernstein in The Washington Post newsroom in 1972

Bob Woodward, left, and Carl Bernstein in The Washington Post newsroom in 1972

Debates, however, still surface as to whether or not reports of the scandal printed by the Washington Post led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and whether or not the coverage done by the Washington Post was rather over-hyped and detracts from the genre of investigative reporting.
In his article ‘Watergate Revisited’, Mark Feldstein veteran investigative reporter and Richard Eaton Chair in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland asks his readers two questions; Did the media muckraking actually bring down a president of the United States and how have politics and investigative reporting change as a result?
According to Feldstein, “…the answers to these basic questions remain nearly as polarized as they were in Nixon’s day. While journalism schools continue to teach the lessons 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 academics.”

As a result of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s reporting of the Watergate scandal the Washington Post won a coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service and received a book contract which resulted in the publication of the novel All the President’s Men. In 1976 Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford portrayed Bernstein and Woodward in a film version of the duo’s best-selling novel; a New York Times review by Vincent Canby, chief film critic for the New York Times,  says, “The manners and methods of big-city newspapering, beautifully detailed, contribute as much to the momentum of the film as the mystery that’s being uncovered. Maybe even more, since the real excitement of ‘All [the] President’s Men’ is in watching two comparatively inexperienced reporters stumble onto the story of their lives and develop it triumphantly, against all odds.”
So how significant is the investigativejournalism_110345888legacy of the Washington Post’s reports of the Watergate scandal to the investigative field of journalism?

Techniques used by Bernstein and Woodward are exaggerated in the film which causes a detraction from actual strategies that are used within the investigative field of journalism, however, with continuous development in the usage of technology in today’s society and the involvement of what is now referred to as whistleblowers, the field of investigative journalism, through investigative works such as the Washington Post‘s coverage of the Watergate scandal, is now filled with greater access and opportunities for correspondence between investigative journalist and their sources.
In his article ‘Almost like Watergate’ BBC internet research specialist Paul Myers said, “With the Fifth Estate on cinema screens, Edward Snowden hiding in Moscow, the editor of the Guardian smashing up a hard drive in front of government officials, and new exposes gaining notoriety every few months, the sometimes murky world of investigative reporting is perhaps enjoying its highest levels of exposure since Watergate”, he goes on to say, “…recently retired Guardian investigations editor David Leigh saw the new era [of investigative journalism] as characterised by two main aspects: massive data leaks and mass co-operation between journalists.”
Since the time of the Watergate scandal there are now more world-wide conventional organisations in association to the field for others to learn, develop and put into practice solid techniques in regards to investigative reporting. Within the United Kingdom there is the Centre of Investigative Journalism (CIJ), within the U.S. there are establishments such as Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), in Norway there is the Association for Critical and Investigative Press (SKUP) and Brasil has the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalist (ABAJI).
Bernstein and Woodward’s contributions in regards to their solid investigative techniques and the way they implemented their information gathered from their anonymous source, revealed as former Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Mark Felt, in 2005, renders significance to individuals within the field and is therefore factored into today’s practices of investigative journalism.

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