Commentary: Watergate inspired many investigative reporters

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 21, 2012 

June 17 will be the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, investigative journalism's "big bang." It inspired a lot of people in college at the time to become journalism majors, and newspapers began putting more resources into investigative reporting.

The most crucial job that news organizations have is to be watchdogs of government, and Watergate was the seminal event that showed its importance to our democracy.

The American Society of News Editors brought together former Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with retired Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee on April 3 to answer the question of how Watergate would be covered in the digital age of tweets, blogs and texts.

According to Bernstein, very differently. In 1972, reporters had the luxury of working on one story a day or even one story a week. In today's 24-hour news cycle, there's no time to let a story percolate. Some reporters get one fact and there's intense pressure to put it online immediately, without context.

Readers/viewers were more open to facts back then, in Bernstein's opinion. Now people look more for confirmation of their beliefs.

Many people seem to think that news organizations always write with an agenda in mind. I've rarely found that to be true in American newsrooms. Most reporters just want to cover a good story. They don't care about right or left, conservative or liberal. Of course, perhaps my opinion is biased because of my job.

Woodward talked about an advanced journalism class at Yale where the professor asked the upper-level students how they thought Watergate might play out today. It was apparent the Internet had warped their sense of how good journalism gets done. One student, Woodward said, thought Watergate would last about two weeks -- just Google CREEP (the acronym for the Committee to Re-Elect the President) and Richard Nixon would resign immediately when presented with the facts.

I was in journalism school at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos when the Watergate break-in occurred. It drew little attention. The Post put eight reporters on the story the day of the Saturday burglary. By Sunday only Woodward and Bernstein were still investigating.

With the way newspapers have downsized in recent years, you wonder how many reporters the Post could put on a Saturday story today.

Woodward and Bernstein kept hammering away while other news organizations mostly ignored it. The New York Times finally put reporters on the story full-time, but the Post owned the story as it grew. TV, like it often does today, took the newspaper accounts and broadcast them without doing any original reporting.

Today that's called "retweeting" and is considered a good and honorable practice. You're not ripping off someone's original reporting; you're exposing it (with proper credit) to new audiences.

I met Woodward at a college journalism convention at Lamar University in the spring of 1974, where he bought a round of beer for some of us after his speech. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity. I was preparing to be a professional journalist and here was a guy whose work helped bring down a corrupt American president.

And my idea of what an editor should be was affected dramatically by the portrayal Jason Robards gave as Bradlee in the movie All the President's Men. When I was named to this job, then-Publisher Rich Connor asked whether I wanted the title to be "editor" or "executive editor." I chose the latter because it was Bradlee's title.

By the summer of '74, I was reporting for the Waco Tribune-Herald. I was in the wire room Aug. 9 watching the AP teletype machine when the following sentence banged out -- PRESIDENT NIXON TO RESIGN.

I tore it off the wire machine and took it to the news editor, who called the pressroom to stop the presses.

In my nearly 40-year career, that "stop the presses" cry happened only one other time. Streaking was a campus craze in the spring of 1974, and one night it seemed as if all 18,000 students at SWT decided to participate simultaneously. I was editor of the student newspaper, the University Star, and I stopped the presses to add eight open pages of photos of naked coeds and fraternity members galloping through the streets wearing only their shoes and their smiles.

It was the only issue I edited that became a sellout!


Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram.

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