November 30, 2006

Watergate Remembered In a Time of War

For all its economic troubles and reputational woes, one could argue that the American newspaper industry is in the midst of a pretty good run of investigative journalism.

The Washington Post’s examination of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s activities as well as its reporting on secret prisons for terror suspects won 2006 Pulitzer Prizes. The New York Times also earned one for revealing the Bush administration’s warantless wiretap policy, as did the San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service for its probe of now jailed ex-Congressman Randy Cunningham. The Toledo Blade’s much-honored investigation of Ohio’s “Coingate” scandal turned that state’s politics on its head.

For all that however, there is still something mythic and unreachable about the most famous moment in modern American investigative journalism. The Washington Post’s Watergate probe helped bring down a president, introduced the most famous anonymous source in history, spawned a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as hero reporters, and permanently attached the suffix “gate” to every subsequent scandal of note.

That’s why even though the Nov. 28 panel discussion at Washington’s National Press Club was officially titled “What if Watergate Happened Today?” the actual subtext was: “Why don’t they make investigative reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein any more?”

During the discussion, there was an almost palpable nostalgia for the journalistic salad days of Watergate. “It was one of the most exciting times I’ve seen in 50 years of journalism,” remarked Jack Nelson who covered the scandal for the Los Angeles Times.

Alicia Shepard, author of the new book “Woodward & Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” agreed that those were “heady times…By the time Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were 30 years old, they were household names.”

As the panelists indicated, there were several crucial elements and conditions that converged in the early 1970’s to turn the Post’s Watergate investigation into one of journalism’s great triumphs.

For one thing, Woodward and Bernstein were young unattached men who had virtually no personal life to interfere with the demands of their relentless reporting. For another, then Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham—despite tremendous pressure—was steadfast in backing the work of her reporters. And then there was the much smaller and Internet-less media universe in which one newspaper could continue to own a story like Watergate without it being cannibalized by other speedier media outlets. Politicians, too, were not as skilled at minimizing the press.

For the panelists, the example that invited the most direct—and unflattering—comparison with the Watergate journalism was a perceived failure to substantially scrutinize the White House’s rationale, based largely on weapons of mass destruction, for going to war with Iraq in 2003.

Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff in part blamed the legacy of Watergate for the media’s shortcomings on the Iraq story. Thanks to the Watergate scandal, he said, “everybody, when the big story comes along, looks for the crime…As a result, I think we in the press sometimes miss what is the more significant story.”

In the buildup to the 2003 war with Iraq, he added, “a false reality was presented to the American public in virtually every respect. We, in the press, by and large missed it. It would have taken the kind of door knocking that Woodward and Bernstein did.”

Ironically, Woodward himself wrote two books—“Bush at War” (2002) and “Plan of Attack” (2004)—about the administration’s war on terror that some critics felt signaled that the once young upstart reporter had now become a voice of the establishment.

Missing in all this, of course, is the fact that most of the news media in the 1970s at first discounted the Watergate story and the Post was alone and often derided in its coverage for nearly a year after the break in.

Also, as author Shepard noted, the Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting, now the stuff of legend, was actually a model of dogged journalistic drudgery and countless incremental daily stories, many of them daunting to slog through. “I think people romanticized Watergate,” she asserted, “because those stories were really hard to read.”

It was not until their book, and later the movie, turned Woodstein’s reporting into an exciting detective story that the romance, and the royalties, really kicked in.

Perceptions of the press also have changed—and even Watergate is not immune. In the 1970s, when journalism was considered cool, Bob Woodward was played in the movie “All the President’s Men” as an intrepid truth seeker by leading man Robert Redford. In the 1990s, he was depicted in the Watergate movie “Dick” as a bumbling egomaniac by comedian Will Ferrell.