Watergate's Lost Legacy

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (l-r), as Washington Post writers 5/7/74
This column was written by David J. Sirota.
Upon the news this week that Watergate source "Deep Throat" had come forward, CNN's Judy Woodruff waxed nostalgic about the golden era of muckraking journalism. "It is so hard, I think, for young people we know who work here at CNN and other news organizations to even imagine what Watergate was like," she said. "To have a White House come undone, an administration come undone, because of some news reporting." Coming from a lead reporter at one of America's largest cable networks, it was truly a sad commentary.

First and foremost, it was sad because she was right -- American journalism today has lost its confrontational, hold-their-feet-to-the-fire attitude that gave it a reputation as our government's fourth check and balance. Young reporters can't imagine what that kind of reporting really is because they've never experienced it.

Certainly there was Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but those were cheap attempts by journalists to recreate Watergate without actually doing the real investigative work. They were pathetic journalists' attempt to grab the sizzle of scandal without doing the hard work that uncovers serious crimes like Watergate. Though there are certainly some very fine investigative reporters left, they have become a rare breed, usually replaced by blow-dried blowhards who spend more time sucking up to power than challenging it.

It was also sad because Woodruff, one of CNN's senior reporters, had the nerve to complain about the decline of journalism, even though she and her television news colleagues have had a big hand in that decline. Though Beltway insiders lament the termination of Inside Politics, that show -- like most others -- has cheapened journalism and made politics into a melodramatic soap opera. For every occasional story that delves into real issues like health care, jobs, and stagnating wages, we get hundreds of stories that are nothing more than "he said, she said" fights between dueling suits, the reporter never once taking the time to delve into the issues that are actually being discussed.

Interestingly, one of the much-lauded reporters who broke Watergate, Bob Woodward, actually epitomizes these problems. More than any other, his career charts the decline of the national press corps to the laughingstock it is today. Here was a tough-nosed reporter who made his name doing the gritty, unglamorous work that eventually exposed one of the most egregious abuses of power in American history. But instead of using the credibility he had earned from Watergate to build a career exposing corruption, he quickly dove into the Beltway culture, where that kind of thing is looked down upon. He used his fame to suck up to those in power, and then write books like Bush at War that simply told power's story, ultimately becoming just another bloviating cardboard cutout on the pundit circuit.