Watergate's 35th Anniversary: Would That Story Have Been Broken Today?

By: Joe Strupp Sunday will be a memorable day for me, for two reasons. Yes, it is Fathers Day and a reminder of the joy my two children have brought to my life, not to mention some likely breakfast in bed.

But just as significant in my life, and that of many other reporters is that it's also the 35th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Even though I was no more than six years old at the time that the five burglars broke into the Democratic National Headquarters in that Washington hotel and office building, the impact it had on me was strong.

As I grew older and became almost obsessed with the break-in and subsequent investigations, trials, and finally resignation of Richard Nixon, I also marveled at the way two reporters from The Washington Post had broken the story of Nixon administration ties to the crime, and later his criminal cover-up. As interesting to me, and probably thousands of other young journalists, was the way Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and many others at the Post meticulously investigated the administrative crimes, using old-fashioned "shoe-leather" reporting, sources, and digging up information.

As any readers of "All The President's Men" know, it took Woodward and Bernstein, as well as others who broke elements of the story, hundreds of boring hours poring over documents, transcripts and finding often-reluctant interviewees to track down the stories. When the Pulitzer Prize went to the paper in 1973, it was not for any "gotcha" interviews, opinion-laden blog postings, or cable gasbag arguments over guilt, innocence or constitutional abuse.

These reporters used the journalistic basics that I, and all other seasoned reporters, would learn and hopefully practice during our careers. Taking time to find out what happened, why, and what it meant. They also did much of their reporting through anonymous sources, with little if any real threat of jail time or court subpoenas.

Yes, subpoenas were threatened and even served on the Post journalists, but no one ended up in a Judith Miller-style court appearance, or jail time, and likely would not have given the way reporters were treated then.

If Watergate had broken today, chances are someone would have posted a news story with inaccurate information too early, or the in-depth reporting needed might have been neglected in favor of quicker, more immediate, and more broad-interest scoops. That is not to say that the Post, still among the best daily papers and Web sites in the industry, would not have been on top of the story. But there is no doubt that online and immediacy demands of today could have impacted the careful, slow-building and meticulous coverage.

As for anonymous sourcing, it is clear the recent efforts to penalize confidential sources, and reporters who use them, may have an impact onreporting another Watergate today. Famed Deep Throat source W. Mark Felt, who helped guide Woodward during his parking garage meetings, may have felt more threatened with legal problems, and possibly jail, had he cooperated in today's climate -- as would Woodward and Bernstein.

Who knows, someone with a cell phone camera working in the parking garage might have snapped a photo of Woodward chatting with this unknown source. Or a blogger would have blown the whistle.

While it is important to remember the political tragedy and journalistic success that was Watergate, it is also sad to remember how much journalism has changed since then. Yes, the advent of online news and worldwide Web reach has helped newspapers, and most other media, tremendously by allowing daily papers to compete with other 24-hour news animals.

But it has also rushed much of the news process to the point where careful reviews and triple-checking of facts are often not done in time. During their award-winning reporting, much of it done over days and weeks, the Watergate reporters had their share of goofs and mistakes, but far fewer than the scoops and revelations that made such coverage valuable, and able to stand up to the scrutiny of those who regularly sought to criticize it.

I'm not saying all is lost in the realm of true investigative journalism. A look at the recent Pulitzer Prizes found a welcomed return, in many categories, to investigative packages and stories, with news microscopes focused on issues ranging from housing scandals in Miami to oceanic problems in the Pacific.

Still, the majority of today's newspaper reporting is having to be limited in some cases -- both due to staffing cuts and new 24/7 demands. The Watergate anniversary is a good reminder of the need for that vital part of newspapers, watchdog news, not to be forgotten.


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