The De-Watergating of American JournalismS

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's investigation into the origins of the Watergate break-in—which took place 40 years ago yesterday—is one of the most highly mythologized episodes in the history of journalism. It represents the Platonic ideal of what journalism-with-a-capital-J ought to be, at least according to its high priesthood—sober, careful young men doggedly following the story wherever it leads and holding power to account, without fear or favor. It was also a sloppy, ethically dubious project the details of which would mortify any of the smug high priests of journalism that flourished in its wake. The actual Watergate investigation could never have survived the legacy it helped create.

"[I]t was a dicey, high-wire thing to do. But that's what we did. That's what the whole enterprise was."

That's Bob Woodward, defending himself recently to New York magazine after writer Jeff Himmelman uncovered evidence that—contrary to their previous claims—Woodward and Bernstein had received crucial help from a grand juror on the Watergate case. "Dicey" and "high-wire" aren't really words usually ascribed to Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate reporting. The popular myth features them politely and insistently pushing their story forward, ever mindful that the reputation of the Post and of the entire newspaper business—the future of the Republic, even—rested on their actions and behavior. They were methodical paragons. "You're no Woodward and Bernstein" has become the insult of choice (believe me, I've heard it plenty) hurled at reporters who were deemed insufficiently careful, accurate, or professional.

The popularity of their heroic account helped swell enrollments at journalism schools across the nation as eager young college graduates came to view reporting not as a lowly trade but as a noble profession. Those schools, in turn, instilled a sense of rectitude and sanctimony in their young recruits, based in part on the model that young Woodward and Bernstein presented. That carefully cultivated sanctimony, in turn, helped fuel the right-wing critique of the news media—which was always based more on the hypocritical distance between journalists' public claims to abstract fairness and their actual human behaviors than on any actual transgressions—that has thoroughly poisoned politico-media culture.

So imagine, if you will, how the ombudspersons of our day would have reacted if they had learned that reporters for the Washington Post had agreed to adhere to "guidelines" and "ground rules" laid out by Ken Starr governing how and when they could interview potential witnesses in his investigation? How would Media Matters react if a Fox News reporter got caught privately advising Rep. Darrell Issa on fruitful leads to pursue in his Fast and Furious inquiry? How would Fox News react if it emerged that New York Times reporters, in pursuit of an interview with Obama for a story about his "Kill List," had agreed to submit their questions in advance?

Woodward and Bernstein, of course, did all the above and more—including burning confidential sources, illicitly accessing phone and credit card records of investigative targets, colluding with congressional and law enforcement investigators, and impersonating sources in order to trick targets into talking—in the course of their Watergate investigation. These are not secrets—they're all right there, laid out in full view in All the President's Men, which at times reads more like a confessional than a victory lap. To their credit, the reporters seemed as concerned with unburdening themselves about the corners they cut and mistakes they made as they were with soaking in the glory of their fresh kill. The "diciness" of the whole affair comes through loud and clear, even though it has subsequently been sanctified by the priesthood.

A bill of particulars:

  • In August 1972, Bernstein was pursuing information about a Dade County, Fla., district attorney's investigation into the Watergate burglars' Miami ties. The DA's chief investigator asked Bernstein for a favor. Would he mind checking his sources for "derogatory information—arrests, mental illness, history of homosexuality" on a name? Bernstein, eager to trade information, happily agreed. It turned out the man was the DA's opponent in the next election. (Bernstein was furious when he realized he'd been roped into oppo research; he'd found a Pentagon source willing to pull the man's military records but by that time the investigator said he didn't need the information anymore.)

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Conspiring with a prosecutor to investigate a political target.
  • Bernstein illicitly pulled phone and credit card records on Watergate targets, acts which are plainly illegal today. Early on in the investigation, he got a source at a telephone company to turn over burglar Bernard Barker's records:

    Bernstein had several sources in the Bell system. He was always reluctant to use them to get information about calls because of the ethical questions involved in breaching the confidentiality of a person's telephone records. It was a problem he had never resolved in his mind. Why, as a reporter, was he entitled to have access to personal and financial records when such disclosure would outrage him if he were subjected to a similar inquiry by investigators? Without dwelling on his problem, Bernstein called a telephone company source and asked for a list of Barker's calls.

    Today, knowingly receiving information from a customer's telephone records without their consent is a federal offense punishable by up to ten years in prison.

    Later, Bernstein called a source at a credit card company to obtain the records of Donald Segretti, a key Watergate figure who had criss-crossed the country to recruit dirty-tricks operatives for the Nixon campaign. All of Sergretti's flights and hotel stays were laid out in detail for the reporters.

    It's worth noting that Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper holdings are currently burning to the ground over behavior that is barely distinguishable from the above. The News of the World is gone from this Earth for illegally accessing voicemails. Bernstein's intrusions—while likely not criminal at the time—were vastly more violative of his targets' privacy. A few voicemail messages are one thing, but a full record of everyone you've called, or who has called you, is another.

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Violating privacy and sanctity of personal financial records.

  • In September 1972, eager to establish a connection between Segretti and the planners of the Watergate operation, Bernstein hatched a plot to call G. Gordon Liddy and pretend to be Segretti—"Gordon, this is Segretti. I think we've got big troubles." The ruse only had to last long enough for Liddy to respond with recognition, demonstrating that the men knew one another. Liddy's wife answered the phone, and Bernstein left a message.

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Lying, impersonating a target.
  • In December 1972, Woodward and Bernstein ran afoul of U.S. District Judge John Sirica for contacting grand jurors investigating the break-in. He threatened to hold them in contempt for attempting to interfere with the grand jury process (a legally dubious proposition), but relented after protracted negotiations with Post lawyers. Later, Sirica and Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert likewise objected to the reporters' attempts to contact Watergate witnesses. They ordered the paper to stop.

    Astonishingly, Post editor Ben Bradlee acceded to the request, pulling Woodward and Bernstein off the story for two days. Eventually the Post came to an accommodation with Sirica and Silbert, agreeing to abide by "ground rules" when it comes to approaching witnesses: "Two days later, Bradlee put the new ground rules in writing.... 'It is OK for us to talk to witnesses...PROVIDED that the minute a witness tells us he or she has been forbidden by the court to talk to us, we call off the dogs.... In other words, we can not try to talk a witness into talking if that witness has expressed an understanding that he or she is not supposed to talk." To get a sense of how extraordinary such an agreement is, just imagine the bombshell that would have gone off if it emerged that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald had been dictating the terms by which reporters could talk to witnesses in his Valerie Plame investigation.

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Cowing to government control over how you conduct your reporting.

  • Committee to Re-Elect the President treasurer Hugh Sloan was a key source for Woodward and Bernstein—one of the few honest men in the Nixon camp. They repeatedly returned to him for information and confirmation about what they were reporting, but he always tended toward discretion and only doled out the barest of details. In an attempt to get him to speak freely, they offered to provide a copy of the transcript of the interview to Sloan and his lawyer for review—and, within reason, alteration—prior to publication. Sloan declined.

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Offering a source the opportunity to change his story after the fact.
  • In October 1972, Bernstein called a source at the FBI while Woodward surreptitiously listened in and transcribed the call. That's a low-tech form of secretly recording the call, and—as the agent told them when he found out about it—was a federal crime if the call crossed state lines (it's unclear from the book where all the parties were during the call).

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Breaking the law; eavesdropping.
  • Woodward and Bernstein later became enraged when it turned out that the same agent had provided bad information. They had relied on him to confirm that Sloan had testified that H.R. Haldeman was one of the men in control of the slush fund that paid the Watergate burglars. That turned out to be false—Haldeman was indeed in control of the fund, but Sloan had never testified to that before the grand jury, or told the FBI, because no one asked. They reacted by marching to FBI headquarters and confronting the agent. When he turned them away, they went to the agent's boss and outed him as a confidential source. It was "the most difficult professional—unprofessional, really—decision either had ever made." It was also a waste of time—nothing came of the outing, the supervisor refused to talk, and the agent never explained his error.

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Violating a pledge of confidentiality.
  • In March 1973, relatively late in the investigation, Woodward met with deputy press secretary Gerald Warren in the White House and offered to show Nixon a list of questions in advance if he would agree to an interview. "[I]f the president agreed to be interviewed, then questions would be provided in advance. There would be no attempt to spring something on him." Nixon, of course, declined.

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Offering to coddle power in exchange for access.
  • An extraordinary example of collusion between reporters and congressional investigators is tossed off almost as an aside toward the end of All the President's Men. The moment that—in the popular imagination, at least—blew the Watergate story wide open was Alexander Butterfield's admission before Sen. Sam Ervin's committee in July 1973 that Nixon had installed a secret taping system in the White House. That admission led to subpoenas for the tapes, a constitutional crisis, destroyed evidence, and eventually Nixon's resignation. In All the President's Men, Woodward and Bernstein try to take credit for that moment by claiming that they tipped off investigators to Butterfield's existence as a potential witness. After months of investigation, they write, the Post reporters had simply never gotten around to interviewing Butterfield. When Woodward asked investigators for Ervin's committee whether they had spoken to him, they answered that they were too busy. So instead of actually confronting Butterfield himself, Woodward badgered committee staff to do his work for him.

    In May, Woodward asked a committee staff member if Butterfield had been interviewed

    "No, we're too busy."

    Some weeks later, he asked another staffer if the committee knew whey Butterfield's duties in Haldeman's office were defined as "internal security."

    The staff member said the committee didn't know, and maybe it would be a good idea to interview Butterfield. He would ask Sam Dash, the committee's chief counsel. Dash put that matter off. The staff member told Woodward he would push Dash again. Dash finally okayed an interview with Butterfield for Friday, July 13, 1973.

    On Saturday the 14th, Woodward received a phone call at home from a senior member of the committee's investigative staff. "Congratulations," he said. "We interviewed Butterfield. He told the whole story."

    Much of that anecdote reeks of Woodward retroactively placing himself at the center of events. Still, it makes clear that by the end of the investigation, he was more inclined act as an advisor to Nixon's inquisitors than to pursue leads for himself and his newspaper.

    CRIME AGAINST JOURNALISM: Forsaking independence; offering confidential advice to government agents.

The examples above—many of which are misdemeanors at best—aren't culled to cast judgement on Woodward and Bernstein. They deserve credit for laying them all out there, and, as I have written before, good reporting often entails bad behavior. A campaign like the Watergate investigation, which led to an unambiguously noble result, is an ideal forum for the application of situational ethics. It's difficult to gin up any genuine umbrage over an attempt to trick a monster like G. Gordon Liddy.

But those various sins would likely render any major contemporary journalistic enterprise illegitimate if exposed in the hothouse environment that is Watergate's legacy, largely because they diverge from the attitude of public rectitude that Woodward (not so much Bernstein) continues to represent. It's the one thing Nixon and the right got out of Watergate: They were able to milk the increasingly professionalized and self-regarding press corps for commitments to propriety and ethical forthrightness, ratcheting up the baseline for what "acceptable" journalism is and in the process robbing a new generation of reporters of the tools and reckless swagger to pull off a repeat performance.

Woodward and Bernstein, in gaming out a routine for convincing (read: fooling) Nixon loyalists into talking to them, came up with a routine that involved Woodward highlighting his status as a registered Republican. Come on, I'm one of you. Flash forward to 1991, when Leonard Downie takes over the helm of the Post from Bradlee: He stopped voting altogether, and made it known that he would prefer it if his reporters were to similarly abstain, for fear of committing some sort of private bias. How would Downie have felt about tipping off Sam Dash to a hot witness?

While the right has been the primary beneficiary of the de-Watergating of the American press, the left has lately gleefully endorsed the process. Now that Rupert Murdoch is in the dock for unambiguous violations of British law, many traditional defenders of press freedoms are all-too-happy to cheer on a federal criminal investigation into routine petty bribes by cops reporters. News Corp's routine use of private investigators to do precisely what Bernstein did—obtain phone and credit card records—is presented as evidence of journalistic depravity when the perpetrator is Murdoch.

And it's not just the above transgressions that render much of the Watergate investigation almost quaint by today's standards. Some of its biggest stories were wholly unsupported by the facts, and some of the Nixon Administration's most heated criticism were dead right. While Ben Bradlee was confidently dismissing his attackers, his reporters were privately praying that they were right.

One major front-page story in 1972 exposed a major cover-up underway at CRP, based largely on an interview in which Sloan cryptically laid out the story and confirmed details. The story accused two aides, Robert Mardian and Fred LaRue, of systematically destroying evidence of a CRP-led dirty tricks campaign. On a subsequent interview with Sloan, he asked the reporters how they had gotten that story. I had deduced as much, he told them, but was shocked that Woodward and Bernstein had found someone with first-hand knowledge of what happened.

"Bernstein's stomach began a slow dance of panic. He had been under the impression that Sloan had confirmed almost the whole story on the basis of firsthand knowledge, not deduction. [M]uch of it had rested primarily on what Sloan had said."

Another major story, laying bare the outlines of the Nixon White House's political spying operation, was described thusly by Woodward and Bernstein after the fact: "The two lead paragraphs, with their sweeping statements about massive political espionage and sabotage directed by the White House as part of a basic re-election strategy, were essentially interpretive—and risky. No source had explicity told the reporters that the substance represented the stated conculsions of the federal investigators." That's essentially an admission that they were winging it—"no source had explicitly told the reporters" what they reported.

Contrast that with Nixon flack Ron Zeigler's first major rhetorical attack on the Post's Watergate reporting, in October 1972: "I would say [Nixon's] concern goes to the fact that stories are being run that are based on hearsay, innuendo, guilt by association." That's simply a less charitable way of saying the stories to that point were "essentially interpretive." Ben Bradlee's response, naturally, betrayed none of his reporters' inner reservations: "For now it is enough to say that not a single fact contained in the investigative reporting by this newspaper about these activities has been successfully challenged."

The irony is that, just days before Bradlee uttered those words, Woodward and Bernstein had reported that three Nixon officials had seen wiretap reports from the CRP's secret spying operation: J. Glenn Sedam, Robert Odle, and Williams Timmons. Though Woodward and Bernstein wouldn't realize it for weeks, it wasn't true. The men had received routine security memos, not wiretap reports. "They had been unfairly accused on the front page of the Washington Post, the hometown newspaper of their families, neighbors, and friends," Woodward and Bernstein wrote of their mistake.

Ron Zeigler was right, and Ben Bradlee was wrong. That's a shocking and disturbing notion considering the mythology surrounding both men—lion of truth v. mouthpiece for a scoundrel. But it's only disturbing if one makes a fetish of accuracy, or employs it as a stand-in for character, as is fashionable among journalism's professional class. (That's not to say that accuracy isn't the paramount goal of a good reporter, just that the failure to achieve it is a regrettably normal part of the human experience and not some sort of metaphysical sin.)

I doubt any similarly situated newspaper editor could afford to be wrong in a public battle with the White House today. Thanks to the press mavens for whom error is a moral failure, the stink of a mistake is harder to wash off. The audience is less forgiving and more suspicious; one screw-up throws the whole enterprise in doubt. It's a signifier that the reporter in question is no Woodward and Bernstein.

[Image by Jim Cooke; photo by Getty]