It is undeniable that the Watergate scandal was one of the greatest examples of the journalist’s role as the protector of democracy by questioning those in power and keeping them accountable to the American people. The story that started with what seemed, or at least what the White House was calling, a “third-rate burglary” would eventually lead to the uncovering of one of the worst cases of political corruption in American history and the unmaking of a president. In a way the effect they had can be compared to the works of Sam Adams in the days leading up to the American Revolution. Both works of journalism had far reaching repercussions on American politics and are both considered the finest examples of the power of the press. Each work though was of vastly different moral standing.
It was two reports at the Washington Post, Bon Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose relentless pursuit of the truth can be considered one of the finest of works of journalism in the 20th century. Despite the fact that other news agencies refused to pick up on the story and the Washington Post was under attack from the highest political offices in the country, the story came out
The question has been raised as to how Woodward and Bernstein exemplify the standards set forth by the code of ethics for journalists. In my personal opinion they do. The basic ideals of the journalist code of ethics are to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable.
Woodward and Bernstein went to great lengths in the investigation of their story. It was only through their determination, research and legwork that the whole story behind the Watergate break-in was uncovered. They phoned everyone they could and dropped in on many people at home whom they believed would have vital information. Compare this to Sam Adams who gave fictional accounts to stoke the flames of revolt.
The Washington Post really had no choice but to act independently during Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation. The newspaper became the target of a vendetta by President Nixon who authorized attacks on the newspaper’s holdings and journalistic privileges. Executive editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham could have bent under the enormous pressure coming at them from the highest posts in America, but they refused to do so, instead siding with their reporters and story that they were uncovering. Even when other news organizations were criticizing the Washington Post and dismissing their findings as poor journalism and their stock began to lose value, a detriment to any news organization that at its core was a business, Bradlee, Graham, Woodward and Bernstein acted purely in pursuit of the truth.
At one point in the investigation, the Washington Post was guilty of printing a piece of information, that sworn testimony before the grand jury implicated Chief of Staff Haldeman in the political corruption, which would turn out to be wrong. No such testimony before the grand jury had taken place. Opponents to the Washington Post’s investigation were quick to point to this as proof of their lack of credibility. Within five days the Post posted a correction to the story on the first page. Sam Adams though, who we all know now to have fabricated most stories concerning the English soldiers posted in the colonies never made any attempt to correct the perceptions of English brutality he had created in the minds of the early Americans.
As I stated earlier both Sam Adams, and Woodrow and Bernstein had equally undeniable effects on American governance during their respective times, but they also had an equally undeniable difference in how they accomplished things. I imagine that if their styles of journalism were reversed in their respective times, neither would have accomplished what they did. I’m sure that if Woodrow and Bernstein had resorted to fabricated facts to expose presidential corruption as part of some personal vendetta would have accomplished nothing, no matter how corrupt Nixon would have really been. Sam Adams, taking the time to meticulously ensure that every fact that he reported about the English troops was true and free of bias would probably not been able to fan the flames of revolution that swept the colonies. History it seems is selective as to when the means justify the end.