The Washington Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal stands as the single most dramatic triumph in the history of American journalism. The Post and its two now-legendary reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, showed dogged determination in pursuing a difficult and controversial story that many of the paper's elite national reporters believed was simply a replay of the same old stuff about campaign dirty tricks.
This case raises the issues of the value of hard work and determination, sourcing and verification and what is means to get the story right.
Obviously, Watergate is an enormous case study to tackle in one or two class periods. With that in mind, this case focuses on two moments in the story's evolution:
In undertaking the case, the students should read the narrative before class so they will be ready for lively debate and discussion. You might begin the discussion with Woodward and Bernstein—why did they succeed? What was unique about their reporting style? Some professors choose one student to lead off the discussion. You can let them know a few minutes ahead that you will be asking them the opening questions.
Once you have responses about the reporters' style, move into the specifics. We suggest discussing the Dahlberg element and the Hugh Sloan incidents separately. Finally you can talk about Watergate as a whole and how it has influenced American Journalism. There may not be time to address every question in the final section about Watergate as a whole. The questions outlined below should be used to fit the momentum of the class discussion.
Discussion Questions and Analysis
Woodward and Bernstein
ANALYSIS: "You could see he (Woodward) was good," Sussman recalls. "Though he'd only been at the Post a short time, he'd been on Page One as much as anyone else." That was partly because he never seemed to leave the building. "I worked the police beat all night," Woodward says, "and then I'd go home—I had an apartment five blocks from the Post—and sleep for a while. I'd show up in the newsroom around 10 or 11 and work all day, too. People complained I was working too hard."
"He really had his shit together," says Bradlee, who always talks (and writes) this way. "He was tenacious and worked hard," says Harry Rosenfeld. "He had already impressed me by the work he did on the George Wallace shooting." Wallace, a presidential candidate, was shot and seriously wounded May 15 at a rally at a suburban shopping mall in Laurel, Maryland, by a man named Arthur Bremer. Woodward says a "friend" filled him in on Bremer's background and revealed that Bremer had also been stalking other presidential candidates. It was a "friend" of Woodward's, known only as "Deep Throat," who proved to be such a valuable source in the Watergate affair.
Bernstein was even more problematical. "He was a good writer," Publisher Graham says in her book. "But his poor work-habits were well known throughout the city room even then."
Woodward was a wealthy kid from the Midwest who went to private schools and Yale. Bernstein grew up in metropolitan Washington and spent some time at the University of Maryland before dropping out. But he knew the territory and he was a persistent telephone interviewer. Sussman wanted him on the story (Rosenfeld didn't), and Sussman carried the day.
ANALYSIS: They hadn't known each other very well when they began working on the story. And, in the early days, they viewed each other with a little bit of suspicion. By now, though, they were a team. This is how they described their working relationship in their book:
They realized the advantages of working together, particularly because their temperaments were so dissimilar. Each kept a master list of telephone numbers. The numbers were called at least twice a week. Eventually, the combined total of names on their lists swelled to several hundred, yet fewer than 50 were duplicated.
Sussman says the procedure didn't always work exactly the way the two reporters described it in their book. Often, he recalls, there was heavy editing and rewriting. Pulling together the work of "good leg men" is, of course, is a major job of editors.
The two reporters were either separated or divorced, and as long as the Watergate story lasted they really had no personal lives outside the story.
After Deep Throat told Woodward about Butterfield, Woodward passed the word to investigators for Ervin's Watergate committee saying maybe "it would be a good idea to interview Butterfield."
Here, the professor can draw up more recent cases to illustrate the complex relationships between journalists and law enforcement. Two such examples are the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, in which Ken Starr's investigators fed information to journalists, and the Richard Jewell case, in which journalists failed to question the FBI's profile of a suspect.
The Dahlberg Episode
ANALYSIS: The Dahlberg episode illustrates one of the great lessons in the Post's coverage of Watergate—the persistence, the sheer doggedness, of these two street reporters, and the willingness of the paper's editors and publisher to stick with the story, no matter what. Big stories like Watergate rarely drop in reporters' laps (leaks sometimes do, of course, but leaks usually go to reporters who, by dint of hard work and perseverance, have earned reputations as experts on the subject being leaked). It is difficult to exaggerate how hard Bernstein and Woodward worked on the Watergate story. They collected the phone numbers of everybody at the campaign headquarters and everybody at the White House. They called each and every one of these people, again and again.
The Hugh Sloan Error
ANALYSIS: It's the old problem of rushing to judgment too soon, with such shaky confirmation as Bernstein's confusing arrangement. It's a problem much more pervasive today with 24-hour journalism on newspaper interactive sites. Yet, the old rules are still valid. When you have these niggling doubts about a story, stand back and take a second look. And if you're still troubled, hold the story until you get it right. Simply, Woodward and Bernstein made a serious error by failing to ask the right questions. They leaped to the conclusion that Sloan had actually testified about Haldeman—because he said he was prepared to. But the prosecutors did not ask him that at the grand jury. In many cases, particularly in legal issues, you have to ask exactly the right question because no one is going to volunteer. Beyond that, they rushed the story into print without enough thought being given to it, and their editors went along with them because they had never been so wrong before.
ANALYSIS: Here you can talk about the various ways news outlets correct mistakes—correction boxes, printing a second, correct story, etc. How effective are they? Corrections also become more of an issue on the Internet when a new (corrected) version often simply replaces the old without any notice to the reader. See if the students can think of some new ways that might be more effective.
Watergate as a whole
ANALYSIS: "It was terribly important for us to get out first on that story," recalls Ben Bradlee, the Post's executive editor at the time of the break-in, in an interview in the office he still maintains at the Post. "We had been beaten by the New York Times on the publication of the Pentagon Papers (a secret history of the early years of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam) and we wanted to get back into the game. We did just that, and nobody ever caught up with us."
For five lonely months, Watergate was the Washington Post's story, almost exclusively. Other newspapers, magazines and TV news departments looked on with a mixture of awe and skepticism. Could this be true? Could the President of the United States, the most powerful leader in the free world, really be responsible for this kind of stupid and illegal behavior by people working for him? Editors at many news organizations—some with an ideological and partisan preference for Nixon—resisted the story with the mantra: "Nixon's too smart to do something like this." And why would the Republicans do these things during a presidential election year in which Mr. Nixon ultimately would defeat the Democrats' George McGovern with 60 percent of the votes?
ANALYSIS: Some skeptics say Deep Throat was just too good to be true. Some even suggest there never was a Deep Throat, that he was probably a composite figure, made up of two or three sources Woodward talked to on a regular basis. Those closest to the coverage, though—Sussman and Rosenfeld, especially—have no doubt that Deep Throat really did exist. Only three people know the man's identity—Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee—and they're not talking.
Sussman makes the point that Deep Throat was good drama but not really that important as a source. The problem was, he often spoke in riddles, like the oracles at Delphi. No, he would say, you can go higher to incriminate people at a still more important level of responsibility in the campaign. Yes, you should look harder at who had access to the money. (In the very end, he seemed to lose it all together, by warning Woodward that the lives of the key people at the Post were in jeopardy.) Whatever the truth about Deep Throat—and we may never get to the bottom of it—he provided rich material for Woodward and Bernstein's book and for the movie.
There are a lot of things about the Post's coverage of Watergate that may be mythical, thanks to the book and the romanticized version of events in the movie that followed starring Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and Jason Robards as Bradlee. One of the myths might be the much-quoted declaration that the Post never allowed any of these stories to get into the paper unless it was based on the word of at least two reliable sources. For most of the stories, the two-source rule prevailed. Occasionally, though, says Sussman, the Post ran stories based on the word of a single source. The single source in those instances was almost always somebody more than just ordinarily reliable.
ANALYSIS: "Sussman," says Bill Greider, for many years one of the most distinguished of all Post reporters and later an assistant managing editor, "was the glue that really held our coverage of the Watergate story together." One of Sussman's major assets was his phenomenal memory. "He remembered all the details," says Bradlee. He also had a pretty good idea where the story was going.
ANALYSIS: Sussman and Rosenfeld did their jobs professionally, and Simons provided the backup they needed. But the key to it all was Ben Bradlee himself. Bradlee wasn't involved all that much in the Watergate coverage the first few weeks. But he didn't need to be, for by June of 1972, after seven years on the job, the Post had become Ben Bradlee's paper. "Ben made it all possible," says Harry Rosenfeld. "He created the milieu. He made it a place where hard-hitting reporting was the rule. It was a great place to work for those who could handle it; it was a disaster for those who couldn't. I think someone once called it 'creative tension'." Bradlee was a great leader, a man of courage and rare instincts.
"All he had to do was walk in the room and you knew who was in charge," Woodward says.
ANALYSIS: Without Mrs. Graham, there wouldn't have been any Ben Bradlee. She trusted him and supported him, and that made it all possible. "She's a woman of monumental guts and integrity," says Rosenfeld. "She and Bradlee made a great team. These were the Washington Post's golden years, and I don't know when we'll ever see anything quite like it again." Without Mrs. Graham's support, in the face of intense pressure, the Post would never have persevered in its coverage of the story. Her role in the whole drama was immensely significant.
If this author can be personal for a moment—I lived through Watergate myself as a reporter and columnist for the old National Observer—I think the Post's coverage worked because the stars really came into alignment. They had the best team—the best reporters, competent editors, an inspirational leader in Ben Bradlee, and a publisher willing to take chances in Mrs. Graham.
All of us trying to compete with the Post's coverage were simply befuddled. We didn't know where these stories were coming from. We wondered sometimes if they were actually true. I think the Post just got lucky with Woodward and Bernstein. No one could have predicted that Bernstein, on the cusp of being fired by Bradlee, would become a star. Woodward was already on course for bigger things, but no one could have guessed in 1972 that he would become the most successful and prosperous print journalist of his generation.
Maybe a key to the Post's success was the fact these were mostly metropolitan reporters and editors, seen by many people at the Post as the second team. Perhaps they were a little less jaded, a little less sophisticated than some of their worldly, we've-seen-it-all colleagues on the national staff. Maybe, too, because they were underdogs, they worked harder. They never gave up, though, as we have seen, sometimes they despaired. Nobody had ever heard of any of them. What, then, was there to lose?
ANALYSIS: Surely, today, it would be less likely that one outlet could take over a big story the way the Post took over Watergate. For one thing, in these days of chain journalism, how many Katharine Grahams are there? How many Ben Bradlees? Now we have round-the-clock news talk shows, with people endlessly babbling about subjects they know almost nothing about. We have Internet magazines in which stories flow to the web site with little or no editing. We live in a media madhouse.
But would the New Media be willing to make the personal sacrifices and the editorial commitment of time and resources to a big story in the same way the Post did with Watergate? I doubt it. Woodward emphasizes again and again the importance of "incremental reporting"—taking one step at a time, day after day, week after week—and that's something the New Media may not be prepared to do, especially during those dark periods when nothing much seems to be happening. Patience is not a hallmark of this new journalism. So there's still hope for good papers willing to do serious work. There may, in fact, be a bigger need for it now than ever before.
James Parton, the biographer and essayist, wrote a brilliant essay about the press in 1866. He had this to say:
In covering the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post measured up to Parton's grand object. It was the "fullest, promptest, and most correct." That should still be a grand object for everyone interested in journalism.
All the President's Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Touchstone paperback, New York, 1994.
The Final Days, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996.
The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, by Barry Sussman, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, 1974.
A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, by Ben Bradlee, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1995.
Personal History, by Katharine Graham, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997.
"Watergate 25," a Washington Post web site commemorating the anniversary of the Watergate story. See washingtonpost.com.
Nightmare, The Underside of the Nixon Years, by J. Anthony Lukas, The Viking Press, New York, 1976.
"The Washington Post and Watergate, How Two Davids Slew Goliath," by James McCartney, Columbia Journalism Review, July/August, 1973.
About the Author
Mr. Perry was for many years a political writer at the Wall Street Journal and National Observer. He has written two books about the press, Us & Them: How the Press Covered the 1972 Election, and, more recently, A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready. He was awarded the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award in 1997 for "a distinguished career in journalism."