Could the Watergate Investigation Have Happened Today?

Question: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from Watergate about investigative journalism?

Carl Bernstein: Let me say one thing about investigative journalism.  I’m not one who really believes that there’s a pseudoscience called investigative journalism that’s different from all the rest of journalism.  I think all good reporting is the same thing—the best attainable version of the truth.  How do you do that?  What is the methodology?  Whether you’re covering the Congress, whether you’re covering something like Watergate, whether you’re covering sports, or City Hall, the methodology is to go to as many sources as you possibly can, not get pressured to go into print too fast.  

If you read "All the President’s Men," you’ll see that we chafed at Ben Bradley and some of the other editors saying, “Hey guys, haven’t got it yet.”  We had the advantage of a great, great management and a courageous publisher.  When the Nixon White House and the Nixon Administration tried to fight us by trying to take away the economic lifeblood of The Washington Post Company by revoking... trying to revoke the television licenses owned by The Washington Post Company, she said, "No."  And when we got subpoenas for our notes from the committee to reelect the President of the United States, the Nixon Reelection Committee on a kind of bogus lawsuit they filed to try to get at our notes, she took possession of my notes and said, you want the notes, you’re going to have to take me to jail.  And so this was a remarkable woman.  And Bradley was a remarkable editor.  

And there was a – that newsroom and the standards that governed it, particularly during Watergate, are to me the real lessons of Watergate.  About being responsible, about having more than one source, about... you know, we had a two-source rule.  That because the stakes of what we were doing was so high, we had to have the information from two sources before we would put it in the paper.  Should you have that rule every day?  Not necessarily.  But it’s a pretty good thing to keep in the back of your head.  

I was lucky enough to... I’ve now been in the business 50 years.  I went to work just about 50 years ago, probably the week that we're recording this, at The Washington Star, a great afternoon newspaper, in 1960, as a copyboy.  And I went to work with people a good deal older than I, I was 16-years-old, as I say.  And these were great reporters as well as some great hard-drinking characters... who had this idea that the function of a newspaper is the best obtainable version of the truth.  And they... and even more than The Washington Post in those days, The Star made sure that that was the mission, the reportorial mission of the newspaper. This separation between the editorial policies of the paper—it was a conservative newspaper—its editorial policy was anathema to the Kennedy Administration which came in the next year.  Nonetheless, its coverage was absolutely, spectacularly deep and committed to the truth.

Question: Given the current state of the media, do you think that something as big as the Watergate investigation could happen today?

Carl Bernstein:  I think... I think hypothetical questions are very difficult to answer, especially "if" history questions.  But do I think that there are news organizations that if they had the same kind of information that Bob Woodward and I had in Watergate would go ahead and print the stories?  Absolutely, I do.  

I think what is really a bigger question is, how would readers respond?  How would the political system respond?  The great thing about Watergate is, is that the system worked.  The American system worked.  The press did its job.  We did what we were supposed to do.  

Then you had a great judge, the judiciary worked. The great judge pried some secret information out of the defendants in his courtroom and helped break open the conspiracy based partly his actions on what he had read in our stories.  Then you had, even though the prosecution was overwhelmed by its closeness to the Nixon White House and by nefariousness in the Justice Department. You then had a great congressional investigation, the Senate investigation into Watergate.  Could you have that today in the partisan atmosphere that exists on Capital Hill?  Could you have a real bipartisan investigation that would take the facts wherever they went?  I’m not all sure.  

The Congress is a dysfunctional institution, it’s broken.  One of our three branches of government is broken.  Perhaps irrevocably, it is... we’re paying a terrible price for its mendacity and its inability to deal with the problems of America. The Congress of the United States, the mediocre quality of so many of its members as well as the ideological divides and many other factors that make the Congress so dysfunctional.  You then add in Watergate—a special prosecutor who, when the President of the United States claimed that he had the privilege to withhold his tapes from the investigation, it went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the President was not above the law and that he had to turn over his tapes.  And that was with the President of the United States expecting the Chief Justice that he had appointed to support him.  Would that happen today?  

And then you had a vote by the House Judiciary Committee to impeach the President of the United States, several articles of impeachment.  Would that happen today with the same information and the partisan environment?  It was Republicans that really held Nixon accountable and said, "Look, he might be a Republican, but he is a criminal President."  He has, you know, bent the Constitution, violated his oath of office.  Would that happen today in our political system?  I’m not at all sure.  I’m not nearly as worried about the press as I am about the political system.

Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

There are news organizations that, "if they had the same kind of information that Bob Woodward and I had in Watergate would go ahead and print the stories." But today the political system might not respond.

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