3Qs: How Watergate changed journalism — and the nation

Sunday is the 40th anniver­sary of the bur­glary of a Demo­c­ratic cam­paign office building in Wash­ington D.C.’s Water­gate com­plex, which turned out to be the first piece of a saga that brought down a pres­i­dent and changed the way Amer­i­cans thought about both their gov­ern­ment and journalism’s role in society. So says Stephen Bur­gard, director of Northeastern’s School of Jour­nalism in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, who we asked to dis­cuss the Water­gate scandal and its lasting influ­ence on Amer­ican reporting.

by , news@Northeastern

How did the Watergate case influence a generation of journalists?

The Water­gate story was grip­ping for sev­eral years in the mid-​​70s. Cen­tral to this was the role of the Wash­ington Post and its reporters’ remark­able per­sis­tence on a story a lot of people weren’t on at the begin­ning. And as the story was begin­ning to take root, a lot of young people at the same time were begin­ning to think in ide­al­istic ways about their careers. This story was so attention-​​getting that many were attracted to the idea that jour­nalism could really make a dif­fer­ence, and that this would be a career path that could be rewarding and meaningful.

What you got was a lot of bright and capable people choosing jour­nalism as a career. Just as it hap­pens when­ever some of the brightest people of a gen­er­a­tion enter a field, they brought a lot of drive, per­sis­tence and ambi­tion. But people still had to pay their dues in jour­nalism — you didn’t get to do the big story right away. Many fol­lowed a pre­dictable career pro­gres­sion before get­ting to one of these great national papers like The Wash­ington Post or The New York Times. Many found them­selves scur­rying around town halls cov­ering school board meet­ings and the budget and working their way up. The good reporters weren’t dis­cour­aged by that, though; they rolled up their sleeves and did tremen­dous work. By the 1990s, you had a whole gen­er­a­tion of jour­nal­ists and edi­tors doing some of the best work that news­pa­pers have ever done. I would describe that decade as a kind of ‘Golden Age of News­pa­pers,’ just before many of the industry’s cur­rent prob­lems hit. You could trace the career paths for a lot of those jour­nal­ists back to the Water­gate era.

What is the legacy of the Watergate case and the reporting by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward?

As Wood­ward and Bern­stein wrote in their Wash­ington Post piece over the weekend, this was a much bigger story than the bur­glary it was first passed off as. That was just a piece of a much broader cam­paign by the Nixon cam­paign to essen­tially wage war by illegal means on a number of fronts against the people it con­sid­ered its enemies.

This was a new kind of jolt to the Amer­ican psyche about gov­ern­ment, and it came on top of the already dis­con­certing expe­ri­ence of the Vietnam War, which really got people thinking about Amer­ican gov­ern­ment and policy. You had a whole new scrutiny that grew out of the Vietnam era and Water­gate that changed tremen­dously how people — espe­cially young people — looked at government.

How might the Watergate case be covered if it broke in today’s media environment?

One of the things you have to mea­sure is whether the news orga­ni­za­tions are paying atten­tion and whether they would have the resources to follow the story wher­ever it might lead. You don’t have news­pa­pers with the same resources to allow a reporter to follow a single story from the depths of the munic­ipal court system to wher­ever it might lead. It takes an extra effort, from reporters and edi­tors to owners and pub­lishers, to commit to that kind of story.

You’re still going to get very good ambi­tious, enter­prising young reporters who will pursue sto­ries that will lead them to bigger sto­ries, but it’s harder to do that now, and it requires the com­mit­ment and devo­tion of higher-​​level owners and man­agers to make sure that still gets done.