Watergate and the Washington Post: Questionable Tactics in Service to Democracy

In their introduction to Journalism: The Democratic Craft, G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark write that “journalism is one manifestation of the right of free expression, a fundamental democratic freedom” (p. xvii). This is not a radical new concept.

A clear example of journalists fulfilling this responsibility, albeit in a way that pushed the boundaries of journalism ethics, is the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposing the Watergate scandal in 1972 and 1973. Though few would dispute the importance of their reporting, the pair at times engaged in tactics that were questionable at best. In his book Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History, Rodger Streitmatter writes that the Woodward and Bernstein “begged, lied, badgered sources, and, on occasion, broke the law” in order to get the leads and confirmations needed to run their stories (p. 215). They also made extensive use of anonymous sources, particularly W. Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), the second-highest official in the FBI during the Watergate investigation. These decisions raise questions about whether the reporters’ work furthered the interests of democracy enough to justify their pushing of ethical boundaries.

Woodward and Bernstein’s service to democracy can be evaluated by examining the pair’s adherence to the five values of collective life that Adam and Clark find in “journalism's best practices and protocols:” truth, empiricism, verification, impartiality, and clarity (p. xvii). If the reporters were able to maintain these values in the course of their investigation, then they will have satisfied Adam and Clark’s test of professional integrity in the service of democracy, and it can be said that Woodward and Bernstein’s tactics were outweighed by the ends they achieved.

Truth

Truth is the elusive goal of investigative journalism. Unlike traditional journalists, whose facts are generally straightforward and sources are assumed to be trustworthy unless proven otherwise, investigative journalists must not only collect information but also establish its credibility and justify that to others (Ettema and Glasser). This requires a level of diligence and careful analysis not found in everyday reporting.


Josphat Macharia

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