• HISTORY: Watergate

Mention the word “Watergate” to any journalist, and instantly he or she will know something about it.

Here’s the story in brief:

In 1972 two young reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were assigned to look into why five burglars had broken into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters located in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington.

At the time, few people in Washington paid much attention to the story. Republican Richard Nixon was finishing his first term as president and was likely to be re-elected against weak Democratic opposition. No one believed that the burglars, who had been caught by local police, would be traced back to the White House.

But they were.

It took months for Woodward and Bernstein to make the connection. They looked through thousands of records and talked with scores of people.

What they uncovered not only made the connection between the burglars and Richard Nixon’s operatives but also exposed a shocking level of political corruption and illegality that led to court cases and Congressional hearings. Eventually, it was reveal that Nixon himself, while he probably did not know about the burglary beforehand, participated in the cover-up and tried to obstruct the official investigation.

In August 1974, he became the only president in American history to resign from office.

The story of Watergate is far more complex and interesting that this brief summary, and a number of books have been written about it, including Woodward and Bernstein’s own account, All the President’s Men. (That book was made into a movie of the same name. The movie follows the account of the book fairly closely and is well worth seeing.)

The story of Watergate has become part of American journalism’s mythology. That is, Watergate is used to illustrate that journalists can have a powerful effect on society. Its moral is that pursuing the truth, even if the pursuit is long and arduous and even if hundreds or thousands of people are trying to hide it.

The adversarial role of the press is another lesson of Watergate.

Journalists should not just say and report what people in power want them to report. They should be independent. They should understand that people with political and economic power can easily abuse that power, and good journalism is one of the few balancing forces to that potential for abuse.

The full story of Watergate is one with which you should be familiar, especially if you are thinking about pursuing a career in journalism, and we encourage you to read the Woodward and Bernstein book, watch the movie, and read some of the other books and articles listed below.

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