24th August 1997


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Beyond Watergate

Watergate coverage stirs debate on merits on adversarial media in the US

By Robert W. Greene

Some 600 Boston University journalism stu dents had braved a rainy Friday night in 1976 to hear a panel discussion on investigative reporting.

"Who wants to become an investigative reporter?" they were asked.

Almost 300 hands went up.

NIxonThese young people were already in thrall with the Watergate legacy. They took it on faith that there was an endless supply of Deep Throats out there, governors and presidents to be gotten, Pulitzer Prizes and movie contracts to be won.

Watergate, the political scandal that so motivated these young people, is 25 years old this year.

It has been that long since the American media - led by The Washington Post - reported information that helped oust a president of the United States.

There are many who still regard it as the high-water mark of American journalism. They point to the number of bright young idealists it has attracted to the profession. In many ways, they are right.

But other journalists aren't quite so sure. They argue that Watergate has made the media too adversarial in its coverage of government and legitimatised the use of anonymous sources to make substantive charges. They also complain that too many of those bright, young idealists became bad investigative reporters, sparking a negative public reaction to this kind of reporting.

TV newsman Tom Brokaw alluded to Watergate's downside in a conversation with former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee: "One of the legacies of your paper's coverage of Watergate ... is that everyone has decided to go out and become a kind of a folk hero by finding a scandal," said Brokaw. "Are we looking too hard for scandals while ignoring the broader policy questions that the country deserves to know about?"


Brokaw had a point. And so do many others who question whether the Watergate legacy has been good or bad for American journalism.

But as an investigative reporter and editor, both before and after Watergate, I lean to the view that Watergate represented a sea change for American journalism, an irreversible change for the better.

One positive result of Watergate, according to a group of Northwestern University professors, has been a recognition by American journalists that they have both the power and the responsibility to bare evil and help right what is wrong. In their book 'The Journalism of Outrage, the professors wrote: "... the perceived power of the press to uncover truth and right societal wrongs ... the 'social responsibility' theory of the media - had become the conventional wisdom of modern-day journalism."

Investigative journalism, which traces its roots back to the muckrakers of the early 20th century, certainly didn't begin with Watergate. Newsday, for example, had already won two Pulitzer Prizes for its investigative reports years before Watergate happened. What Watergate did do, though, was to popularise investigative reporting and bring it into the mainstream.

Investigative reporting became trendy in Watergate's wake. Even small newspapers formed investigative teams or designated selected staff members as "investigative reporters." TV-news programs formed "I-Teams" to match.

It was the era of investigative overkill. Much of this so-called investigative reporting ranged from superficial to awful, the result of inexperience, lack of training and competitive pressure to be "first with the worst (scandal)". The public backlash was inevitable.

But good things also happened. Watergate, in part, was an impetus for the formation in 1975 of Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE. This is a journalism organisation that was formed by veteran reporters and editors to teach their fellows the discipline and techniques of investigative reporting and establish professional standards. IRE now has approximately 3,500 members.

Among them are hundreds of university journalism professor who routinely offer courses in investigative reporting at their schools.


Time also has worked wonders pruning many of the bad investigative reporters and retaining many of the good ones. The knowledge of how to do responsible investigative stories, once limited to special teams or star reporters, has now spread through America's newsrooms becoming just one more arrow in an experienced reporter's quiver.

What was once unique is now routine. And I seriously doubt we will ever return to the unquestioning, stenographic form of journalism that marked the pre-Watergate era.

But there is a difference between the natural scepticism that marks all good reporters and what many critics regard as the distrustful, overly antagonistic stance that America's media now takes toward government politicians and big business. It is professional to question these entities, say the critics, but it is wrong to approach them with the certitude that they will generally lie or that their motives are usually devious and often evil.

This adversarial relationship is a troublesome part of the Watergate legacy because, as its critics charge, it presumes that most people in government or business cannot be trusted to tell the truth and, as a result, it programmes ensuing news stories framed by this bias. Who didn't wince during Reagan-era news conferences at the palpable antagonism demonstrated by some TV reporters? As Michael O'Neill, former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, once complained: "the press has become so adversarial in its relationship with government... it threatens the democratic process."

Another controversial aspect of the Watergate legacy is what appears to be a determination by the rest of the American media never again to be so badly beaten on a story of such major consequences.

This has led to what Prof. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia calls the "feeding frenzy" - pursuit of an investigative story so competitively that accuracy and fairness fall by the wayside - such as the media salvaging of former US Vice President Dan Quayle.

Troublesome legacies? Yes, but not incurable. Pendulums move to extremes before they steady to the middle course, and so do journalistic trends. And journalism, which is more prone to collective examination of conscience than most professions, is already focusing on these problems.

Important legacy

The enduring and most important legacy of Watergate is acceptance by most of the American media that they have the right and the responsibility to seek out and report the truth no matter how difficult it may be to find or whom it may hinder. And, as part of this legay, Watergate has stimulated others to formulate standards for investigative reporting, teach its practice to others and make it a routine part of the reporting experience.

That's more than enough reason to celebrate.


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