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Forty years after Watergate, investigative journalism is at risk

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Forty years after Watergate, investigative journalism is at risk

By Leonard Downie Jr., Published: June 7, 2012

The Washington Post


Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate. But it became entrenched in American journalism — and has been steadily spreading around the world — largely because of Watergate.

Now, 40 years after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote their first stories about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office building, the future of investigative reporting is at risk in the chaotic digital reconstruction of journalism in the United States. Resource-intensive investigative reporting has become a burden for shrunken newspapers struggling to reinvent themselves and survive. Nonprofit start-ups seeking to fill the gap are financially fragile themselves, with their sustainability uncertain.

American investigative journalism has historically ebbed and flowed. It evolved from revolutionary-era pamphleteers, who harassed both the British and the founding fathers, to early 20th-century muckrakers, whose newspaper, magazine and book exposés of exploitative business monopolies and government corruption helped spur Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the popular election of the Senate.

Investigative journalism went into hibernation during the two world wars, the Great Depression and the suppression of dissent in the McCarthy era. But beginning in the 1960s, it gradually revived amid the upheaval of the civil rights, counterculture and anti-Vietnam War movements.

I was among a small but growing number of investigative reporters at newspapers around the country at the time. My 1966 series in The Washington Post about the incompetent judges, rapacious lawyers and skid row atmosphere in the old D.C. Court of General Sessions played a role in its abolition and replacement by the present D.C. Superior Court.

The Pulitzer Prize board created an annual award for investigative reporting in 1964. The three television networks of the era expanded their evening news shows from 15 to 30 minutes starting in 1963 and began airing prime-time investigative documentaries. The 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan made it much more difficult for public officials being scrutinized by the press to sue successfully for libel, and the Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress in 1966, made it much easier for reporters to find vital information.

Yet, for several months after the Watergate burglary in 1972, Woodward, Bernstein and their colleagues on the local news staff of The Post were alone on the story. We were ignored and doubted by the rest of the news media and most of the country, and under heavy fire from the Nixon administration and its supporters. It was a tense time for those of us working with Bob and Carl, with our credibility and our newspaper’s future on the line. We worried over every word of every story before putting it in the paper.

Finally, toward the end of the year, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and CBS News began to provide almost welcome competition. Eleven days before President Richard Nixon’s reelection in November 1972, Walter Cronkite devoted an unprecedented 15 minutes of his “CBS Evening News” broadcast to Watergate, prominently featuring The Post’s stories. He described “the Watergate affair” as a “high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage apparently unparalleled in American history.”

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, a federal judge, FBI investigators, special prosecutors and Congress had all played significant parts in holding him and his White House accountable for Watergate crimes. But, even after decades of second-guessing by others of the details, mysteries and meanings of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein’s role remains crucial.

For journalism, their Watergate stories and “All the President’s Men” (the book and the movie) have had an enduring impact. Inspired by Watergate, generations of young journalists have entered the profession to become investigative reporters. Newspapers and television networks and stations formed investigative teams and showcased their work. National magazines published long investigative pieces. Led by “60 Minutes,” television news magazines featuring investigative reporting proliferated for years.

Harking back to the original muckrakers, more journalists, including Woodward, expanded their reporting to book investigations of issues from environmental dangers to Wall Street wrongdoing to the conduct of American wars from Vietnam to Iraq. Citizen journalists eventually joined in on the Web and social media with blogs, crowdsourcing contributions and tweets that have sometimes become the leading edge of the next investigative story.

Investigative reporting has taken on every aspect of American society — from government, politics, business and finance to education, social welfare, culture and sports — and has won the lion’s share of each year’s journalism prizes. No matter how unpopular the news media may sometimes be, there has been, ever since Watergate, an expectation that the press would hold accountable those with power and influence over the rest of us. As Jon Marshall wrote last year in “Watergate’s Legacy and the Press,” Watergate “shaped the way investigative reporting is perceived and practiced and how political leaders and the public respond to journalists.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s techniques were hardly original. But, propagated by “All the President’s Men,” they became central to the ethos of investigative reporting: Become an expert on your subject. Knock on doors to talk to sources in person. Protect the confidentiality of sources when necessary. Never rely on a single source. Find documents. Follow the money. Pile one hard-won detail on top of another until a pattern becomes discernible. Just a few years ago, Dana Priest of The Post used similar methods to reveal the CIA’s secret overseas prisons in which terrorism suspects were aggressively interrogated.

Watergate also transformed some investigative reporters, led by Woodward, into marketable brand names. They appeared on television, won lucrative book and magazine contracts, and were paid for speeches. For a time, too many reporters rushed too quickly to find their own Watergate. They made notable mistakes and often gave each new scandal, no matter how trivial, the “-gate” suffix. Governments, public officials, corporations, executives and courts pushed back with public relations campaigns, lawsuits, subpoenas, the jailing of some journalists and leak investigations of suspected sources.

But the best investigative reporters became more sophisticated, aided by computers, the Internet, and the training and resources of the Investigative Reporters and Editors group, which I helped found in 1975. Their journalism went deeper, explaining while revealing, sometimes illuminating solutions while exposing problems. Investigative reporting in the pages of The Post has helped reduce police shootings in the District; reform the treatment of helpless wards of the government, change practices of the United Way, the Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian; expose corruption in Congress; and improve the rehabilitation and living conditions of severely disabled veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Perhaps the surest sign of the endurance and importance of Watergate-legacy investigative reporting is the questioning of whether the news media should have more aggressively and quickly exposed the underlying causes of recent national crises. Could the rationale and military plans for the invasion of Iraq have been more vigorously scrutinized in the run-up to the war? Was enough done to examine risky Wall Street manipulations before the 2008 financial meltdown?

We continue to live in perilous times, making investigative journalism as essential to our democracy as the Watergate stories were. However, the impact of digital media and dramatic shifts in audience and advertising revenue have undermined the financial model that subsidized so much investigative reporting during the economic golden age of newspapers, the last third of the 20th century. Such reporting remains a high priority at many financially challenged papers, which continue to produce accountability journalism that matters to their communities — but they have far fewer staff members and resources to devote to it. Meanwhile, much of the remaining investigative reporting on television stations and networks, which also are struggling to maintain audience and revenue, consists of consumer-protection and crime stories that drive ratings.

Into this breach have come a variety of nonprofit, Web-based, local, regional and national investigative reporting organizations started by journalists who left commercial news outlets: ProPublica in New York, the Texas Tribune in Austin, California Watchwith offices throughout the state, and the Voice of San Diego, among many others. They have been funded by charitable foundations, philanthropists, other donors and some university journalism schools.

Most of them have small staffs and budgets, but their zeal for their mission reminds me of the Washington Post reporters and editors who chased after Watergate four decades ago. Some of their journalism already has had significant local and even national impact. Their Web traffic is relatively small, but a number of them have reached much wider audiences by having their stories published and broadcast by numerous newspapers, television and public radio stations, and their Web sites.

Investigative nonprofits are being started all the time. But many of the fledgling sites are struggling to survive. Foundations that provide seed money seldom are interested in helping with long-term sustainability. Fundraising and membership drives must compete with other causes. Some start-ups have already failed. Others have had to cut costs and staff to stay alive.

This Watergate anniversary will surely elicit where-are-they-now stories, more reminiscences by those key players who are still with us and yet more second-guessing about what happened and why 40 years ago. Journalism and the American people would be best served if it were also an occasion for widespread recognition of the importance of accountability journalism in our democracy — and the need to ensure that it survives and flourishes in the digital cacophony.


Leonard Downie Jr. is the Weil family professor of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and vice president at large of The Washington Post, where he worked for 44 years. He was The Post’s executive editor from 1991 to 2008.

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