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Nixon v. The Newspaper: How the Press and the Presidency Changed each other During Watergate

Published on 25th March 2017

On April 6, 2016, Sigmundur Daniel Gunnlaugson, the Prime Minister of Iceland, resigned his post. He did so under massive pressure from the Icelandic people after revelations were published of his use of private offshore bank accounts to store personal money and avoid taxes over a time period which included the 2008 worldwide recession when Iceland’s banking system collapsed. By the next day, a growing mass of protestors in Reykjavik began calling for a full dissolution and remaking of the government, but none of this would have ever happened but for the source of the information itself: a compendium of documents known as the Panama Papers. German journalists operating with the assistance and supervision of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists discovered, through a Panamanian law firm, that dozens of the world’s most powerful people, including Gunnlaugson and Petro Poroshenko, the now embattled President of Ukraine, were funneling money into shell companies based out of Panama to avoid higher tax rates in their home countries. Public reaction, however, has largely been mixed. On the one hand, directly affected constituencies, such as in Iceland are in a furor. On the other side of the equation is an attitude of “politics as usual.” Many people have become somewhat disillusioned to public scandal due to a greater trend in disillusionment towards government, but this was not always the case. Rather, a series of journalistic breakthroughs, culminating in the investigative triumph of Watergate, created a new relationship between the press, the government, and the public.[1] Specifically, it rocked public trust in institutions, and dramatically changed both the substantial and the perceived role of the free press in the political process.

Watergate. Over 40 years after it happened, the scandal has become ubiquitous in American history. Whenever a scandal occurs, no matter where it may be or what it may entail, it is automatically slapped with the suffix “-gate.” The examples are copious: Deflate-gate, Rather-gate, Billy-gate, Korea-gate, Zipper-gate, and so on. There is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to a “List of Scandals with –gate-- suffix.” The cultural and political repercussions of the scandal have been documented ad nauseum. It is somewhat ironic that a somewhat less developed topic in relation to Watergate is the people who reported it. While many are well aware of the bestselling All the President’s Men, and while its two most famous figures, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were lionized in a movie adaptation of their book, the larger journalistic world that they operated in is largely ignored. When analyzed holistically, however, it becomes clear that Watergate was a landmark moment, not just historically, but journalistically, and because the press occupies such an important role between the government and the public, understanding what this landmark moment did to the press and to that relationship is of paramount concern. The environment in which journalists operated, its effects upon the White House during Watergate, and vice versa created the climate that resulted in the confrontational world of investigative journalism today.

Journalism can and does take on many roles, but perhaps the most important in a democratic society is that of the watchdog. Investigative journalism has a long history in the United States, tracing back to the first pamphlets made in the New World. The Golden Age of investigative journalism is widely held to be the muckraking era of the 1910s, featuring such historical icons as Upton Sinclair and Nellie Bly, but the trend was largely suppressed after national crises swept into the fray. World War I and President Wilson’s accompanying Sedition Act, The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the heights of the Cold War numbed the effect of investigative journalism for much of the middle of the 20th Century. Starting with the Vietnam War, however, it would come back with a vengeance, especially after the crux moment of Watergate. Before this point, reporters had largely had an unspoken relationship with the government and Lesley Stahl has said that “vast numbers of reporters knew that John Kennedy was cheating on his wife. That was no secret. But we wouldn’t have dreamed of printing that...It just wasn’t done.”[2] Kennedy is just the tip of the iceberg, though. It would take a series of major journalistic breakthroughs to change this climate and to erode public confidence in the administrations that governed.

The first crack in the armor came in 1969, when an independent reporter named Seymour Hersh broke a story about an army unit which had allegedly gone on a rampage in a Vietnamese village and had killed between 200 and 500 men, women, and children. The name of the village was My Lai. Initially, the Federal Government under Lyndon Johnson[1] and General William Westmoreland attempted to make the argument that My Lai was a bona fide battle and that most of the casualties were Viet Cong soldiers, but they had not counted on a soldier by the name of Lt. William Calley doing a series of interviews with Hersh, which Hersh then sent to over 50 newspapers. Soon, more leaks sprung up, including particularly damning evidence from Ronald Ridenhour, a soldier there at the time. The revelations were one of the first times in recent memory that a journalist had gone against the government and won, and it was a good example of how “reporters were becoming more resourceful as the muckraking spirit spread throughout American journalism” but his revelations did not expose everything and what they did expose was mainly damaging to the military and the idea of the Vietnam War on the whole, not to the president.[3]

The second split in the increasingly complicated relationship between the president, the press, and the people happened in 1971 when Neil Sheehan of the New York Times was able to acquire from government whistleblower Dr. Daniel Ellsberg a vast number of documents that explicitly and in rich detail outlined the American policies in Vietnam stretching back to the 1940s. Ellsberg has stated in regards to the matter that “I learned…that the war was not ending as the American people were being lead to believe” in “a process of deception and escalation.”[4] Largely the results of a study done by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, these documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, revealed the extremely shaky nature of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and other facets of the Vietnam War. While the Nixon Administration was not covered in the story, Nixon and his people went to great lengths to prevent it from being published, and Attorney General John N. Mitchell personally called the editors of the Times telling them not to publish, but the Times did anyway, as did the Washington Post. The Administration went so far as to take the incident to court, arguing that the publishing of previously classified documents would “cause irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States.”[5] At first, the Times did heed this argument, but after the Post got on board and both pressed full steam ahead, there was no stopping the story. Ben Bradlee, then executive editor at the Washington Post claims that the reason for such zeal in the face of possible criminal charges was that “that’s what newspapers do: They learn, they report, they verify, they write, and they publish.”[6]

What the newspapers had not anticipated, however, was to win, and win they did. The Pentagon Papers were declassified, against the wishes of the Nixon administration. Bradlee has stated that this incident “crystallized for editors and reporters everywhere how independent and determined and confident of its purpose the new Washington Post had become,” which would become critical soon enough.[7] Some have even gone so far as to claim the “Pentagon Papers, not Watergate as the real journalistic breakthrough” that caused the 1970s surge in investigative journalism and the downfall of public trust in the government.[8] This is certainly a bold assertion, but one that is significantly flawed. The Pentagon Papers were a very salient step in the changing relationship between the press and the president and had a major impact on public opinion of the office, but if it had been the landmark moment that some have claimed it to be, then why did it take over two years for the Watergate story to unfold? The eponymous burglary occurred in June of 1972 but Nixon did not resign until August of 1974, largely because it took that long for public opinion to turn against him in the face of increasing amounts of media coverage toward the scandal. Why was the Washington Post largely the only one on the story until April 1973 when one of the burglars, James McCord, implicated the administration in a hearing? If the publishing of the Pentagon Papers were the defining moment, then the general press would have devoured Watergate, but the story is more complicated than that.

The film version of All the President’s Men, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, does a good job of making the Watergate story look like a well-oiled machine. Redford’s Woodward and Hoffman’s Bernstein catch a lead and chase it down like bloodhounds until the president is finally toppled. What actually happened is quite a bit more haphazard. In June of 1972, when the incident at the Watergate Complex occurred, President Nixon was riding a wave of popularity and was sure to crush his opponent, George McGovern, in the presidential election that autumn. So, when Woodward wrote his first story, that James McCord, one of the burglars, was connected to the CIA, many people simply could not believe that the president, or even the administration more generally, would even need to be involved with something like Watergate, indicative of a high-threshold issue, one that is “outside the range of and remote from most people’s immediate concerns.”[9] According to a study done by the American Institute for Political Communication, “The Watergate Affair was a campaign issue but it did not begin to approach the war and McGovern himself in salience or impact on the public mind.”[10] Even after bombshells, and Pulitzer Prize-winning bombshells at that, such as My Lai and the Pentagon Papers, nobody could believe that the Committee to Re-elect the President could possibly stoop to such blatant sabotage.

Many, not just in the public, but in the journalistic world as well, thought that the Watergate story was a fool’s errand and a dead end. In 1972, for example, “about seven of every ten newspapers (71.4%) had endorsed Nixon.”[11] For a time, Woodward and Bernstein, or, as they were popularly known in the newsroom, “Woodstein” thought so, too.[12] Even so, they kept meticulous records, following every lead. They were also some of the only reporters from a major news provider working on the story full time. Even their main rivals, the New York Times, did not express much interest, and one of their most high profile journalists, Tom Wicker, has said that “we were dragged kicking and screaming into Watergate.”[13] Of the major television stations, only NBC had anybody on the Watergate trail full-time, and that was one person. “During the campaign fewer than 15 of the 433 reporters assigned by 16 leading news bureaus to the Washington area devoted their full time to Watergate developments.”[14] The most obvious cause for this was that, for most, there was no reason to believe that Watergate was anything more than a third-rate burglary. As Max Holland writes, “the American public was remarkably unimpressed by the break-in, writing it off as something both parties indulged in, or as such a bungled effort that it could not possibly involve the president.”[15] Nobody had any way to connect it to any of what would become myriad “dirty tricks.” These included such schemes as creating fake events for unfriendly politicians, extensive spying, and the infamous Canuck Letter. Even after the Post began to piece the story together, the journalistic world was, on many fronts, apathetic as to Watergate. The Post kept at it, though, as evidenced by the fact that they published a front page story on October 10, 1972, before the election, asserting that “During their Watergate investigation, federal agents established that hundreds of thousands of dollars in Nixon campaign contributions had been set aside to pay for an extensive undercover campaign aimed at discrediting individual Democratic Presidential candidates and disrupting their campaigns.”[16]

The Post kept going, and it was not just Woodstein. It was in fact editor Howard Simons who approached the matter with the most zeal, stating that “I want an investigative team full time and I don’t care who you put on it. Just full time and nothing else.”[17] If anything went wrong, if any of the stories were false, then it would have been Katharine Graham, the publisher, who took the fall. The paper knew that they were taking a risk by publishing stories directly antagonistic to the administration, and this risk would become all the more salient once the story got hotter, but they still kept investigating, taking precautions such as Bradlee’s rule that any story had to be substantiated and verified by at least two independent sources, and Bradlee often showed himself to be quite tough in what stories he allowed to print. When Woodward and Bernstein tried to tie Howard Hunt to Chappaquiddick, he flatly stated “Get some harder information next time.”[18] Most of these stories were small and, contrary to the movie, the breaking open of Watergate was more death by a thousand cuts than anything dramatic. As Woodward tells it, “There’d be a little story…about a $3,000 receiver from a firm in Rockville…That story really didn’t lead anywhere, except that it told you that this was a really well-financed operation. As you get these details and add them together, the facts created the momentum for understanding what was really happening.”[19]

Therein lies one of the main reasons as to why it took so long for Watergate to become such a major “Crisis in Confidence,” in that it took a very long time for the story to unfold. In fact, Woodward spent a substantially greater amount of time poring over files at the Library of Congress than he did meeting Deep Throat, the Post’s main connection on the inside, later revealed to be none other than W. Mark Felt, deputy head of the FBI. Woodward actually met Felt fewer than a dozen times, and he never gave the paper any information that they did not already have.

As time went on, the dots began to connect a bit more clearly than before. McCord was dot one. The cash the burglars carried, traced back to a check laundered through Mexico was another dot. Notes on one of the burglars, implicating H. Howard Hunt, one of the Nixon Campaign’s main individuals, was another, but none of these dots really meant anything if the public never believed any of them and, for a while, that was the case. Ever since Watergate first broke, the White House was in denial mode, and Press Secretary Ziegler was adamant in his “third rate burglary” claim.[20] Nixon, who not a year earlier had engaged in the first example of prior restraint of the press in American history, declared war upon it, which he had done once before in 1962, when he lost the Gubernatorial race in California. “The main thing is the Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one…[T]he game has to be played awfully tough,” he asserted.[21] His list of “enemies” was filled with reporters and Kay Graham was at the very top. He even went so far as to attempt to get an audit from the IRS about the Washington Post’s taxes and get their television license revoked. The legal fees that the paper would accrue defending itself would make profit a major question, which became a highly salient issue later on. According to Jon Marshall, “The company (The Post) spent more than a million dollars in legal fees to keep the licenses, and its stock price fell from $38 a share to $28 in the first two weeks after the challenges and eventually down to about $17.” Attorney General John Mitchell even threatened Graham directly, stating that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s (a story about the slush fund) published.”[22]

Then, in April 1973, McCord testified that the White House had direct knowledge and approval of the Watergate incident. He was done covering for the higher ups, and made that known by stating that “Political pressure had been applied to the defendants (the Watergate burglars) to plead guilty and remain silent.”[23] Suddenly, the White House strategy for evading the press by discrediting them flew out the window. By May 1973, a special government prosecutor began to investigate the White House, whom Nixon tried to have fired in October. His new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, resigned rather than fire the prosecutor, Archibald Cox. His deputy attorney general also resigned, but solicitor general Robert Bork, a strict constitutionalist who agreed with Nixon finally complied. Judge Sirica stated in regards to the incident that it looked as though “some colonels in a Latin American country had staged a coup.”[24] Then, Alexander Butterfield, a low-level White House aide, let slip that the president had bugged the Oval Office. In November, with this knowledge, the Congress subpoenaed the tapes, and Nixon grudgingly complied under mounting public pressure to do so, save 18.5 minutes, “accidentally” lost. “Electronics experts later found that the tape had been erased manually at least five times, making unlikely the original…explanation that Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, had accidentally deleted the conversation while transcribing it.”[25] This proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, in this case the camel being the President. In August, 1974, Nixon resigned.

The effect of the press on these events has been and will continue to be debated. What if the Post had viewed Watergate as a non-story like everybody else? What role did they really play in bringing Nixon down? To be sure, the fourth estate was not alone. Judge Sirica, who was in charge of the Watergate hearings was “not satisfied” with the initial guilty pleas of the burglars and pushed hard for more. It was to him that McCord gave his damning testimony.[26] The committee that investigated the White House’s involvement in Watergate was run in the Senate under Sam J. Ervin and the nature of the committee hearings as being were “largely credited with shifting public opinion against the White House.”[27] The nature of hypotheticals is that they will always be debated. What is firm, however, is the impact that Watergate had on the press and the public. Both sides of this equation were dumbstruck, the news media, much of which had publicly supported Nixon throughout the crisis, felt as though they had been betrayed. The last president who had been impeached had held office over one hundred years prior to Nixon’s near-impeachment. The reputation of the American presidency and, despite the Chief Justice’s sentiment that “it worked”, the reputation of American government was shot. Political participation hit extreme lows in the following elections.[28] The effect for the press, on the other hand, was completely the opposite. In 1974, Simon & Schuster published All the President’s Men, and the movie followed not long after in 1976. Woodward, Bernstein, and Deep Throat were enshrined in the American mythos. “Newsweek dubbed Woodward and Bernstein “The Dynamic Duo” and the media criticism journal Columbia Journalism Review praised two of its own as the “Davids who slew Goliath.”[29] The Golden Era of investigative journalism was back. 

A romantic notion of journalists emerged, one of concerned crusaders, wielding their mighty pens to bring an inherently corrupt system down. The number of students enrolling in investigative journalism classes skyrocketed, and many asserted that they did so because of Watergate. Jon Marshall asserts this, as well as the notion that “Within a two year span, two how-to books called Investigative Reporting and a third called Investigative Reporting and Editing were published.”[30] Scandals began to break with increasing frequency and presidential candidates began to be scrutinized much more heavily than before, and these scandals were all over the political map. Koreagate was a 1976 incident involving Democratic Congressman Richard Hanna and illicit profiteering off of rice sales to South Korea. In 1978, Billy Carter, the president’s brother, received over $200,000 from the government of Libya in exchange, allegedly for influence.[31] This was the new political climate that the investigative surge post-Watergate had created, but it had a sort of double-edged effect. While investigative journalism becoming popular meant that there was far more interest in the public as a watchdog on the government, it also meant that the field was becoming saturated quickly with many who were not as conscientious or as professional as the Post had been, which led to reaching on stories and to mistakes, promoting the transition from an age of investigative journalism to one of tabloid journalism. According to Jon Marshall, “After the performance of the Johnson White House during Vietnam and the Nixon administration during Watergate, reporters assumed that government officials were lying if they denied wrongdoing.”[32]

The end result is somewhat murky, but the implicit trust between the American presidents, the press, and the public never recovered. A good example of this is the tale of Gary Hart, a Senator from Colorado. He ran for the democratic nomination for the presidency in 1988, and was viewed as a very strong candidate. An excellent speaker and a motivated politician, many viewed Hart as what McGovern should have been. He polled quite well and some expected him to even beat the republican frontrunner, George Bush. One fateful day, however, he left his condo with model Donna Rice, unawares as to the Miami Herald reporters waiting outside. The reporters chased him down and confronted him, bringing his rather well-known penchant for womanizing to light. At a press conference not long afterwards, a reporter asked him “Do you think that adultery is a sin?” “Yes,” he answered. “Have you ever committed adultery?”[33] Such a broad, pointed question would have been unheard of before Watergate, but in the post-Watergate world, it was enough to bring down the candidate.

In more recent years, this adversarial relationship, again devoid of any sense of trust, has continued, most pointedly with the Bush (43) administration and its foray into the Middle East. Bush would hide many things about the operations from the press and even expressed open disdain for investigative journalists, now branded by the tabloid trend, and 9/11 would give him the ability to do so with impunity. Maja Satara has claimed that “The Bush Administration openly stated that it did not believe in the “check-and-balance” system of the Fourth Estate, an alarming assertion that turned out to be true.”[34] That is nothing new. Presidents tend to brush the press aside when crises arise. It is generally assumed to be a result of the rally-around-the-flag effect, a definition commonly used by political scientists to explain how presidential approval ratings tend to spike in the wake of significant events. After 9/11, Bush’s approval rating was skirting 90% and he had little need of the press in order to cultivate public opinion, and therefore the only role of the press was adversarial in nature, as it had been since presidents and the press had a relationship in the first place.

This new adversarial relationship is unlikely to change anytime soon, but there are two sides to the coin. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the group that broke the Panama Papers, were born out the post-Watergate investigative boom, as were its contemporaries, the Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Center for Investigative Reporting. The efficacy and ethics of such organizations and of investigative journalism on the whole has taken on quite a spotlight due to aforementioned notions of idealistic heroism after the triumph of Watergate, but the root effect of Watergate has been a return, in a certain sense to what investigative journalism was in the 1910s: The watchdog. The purpose of investigative journalists is to be the civilian oversight of government and, as the Panama Papers show, even in a post-Watergate world of tabloids and political scandals, the impulse is not going to go away.

[1] The incident took place in 1968, under the Johnson Administration, and the cover-up lasted until Hersh broke the story in 1969, at which time Nixon had come to power.


[1] Luisa Kroll, “Panama Papers Fallout,” Forbes, April 5, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/luisakroll/2016/04/05/panama-papers-fallout-icelands-pm-resigns-ukraines-under-pressure-russian-billionaire-responds/#309b6d27abad.

[2] Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, “I Don’t Have to Answer That,” Radiolab, podcast audio, January 29, 2016.  http://www.radiolab.org/story/i-dont-have-answer/.

[3] Jon Marshall, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 50.

[4] Daniel Ellsberg, in Crisis in Confidence: The Impact of Watergate, ed. Donald W. Harward (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1974), 68.

[5] Roy J. Harris, Jr., Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 213.

[6] Benjamin C. Bradlee, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 317.

[7] Ibid., 313.

[8] Harris, Pulitzer’s Gold, 206.                                    

[9] Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang, The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls During Watergate (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 37.

[10] The American Institute for Political Communication, The 1972 Presidential Campaign: Nixon Administration-Mass Media Relationship (Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Political Communication, 1974), 356.

[11] Lang and Lang, The Battle for Public Opinion, 28

[12] Max Holland, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 56.

[13] Marshall, Watergate’s legacy and the Press, 90.

[14] Lang and Lang, The Battle for Public Opinion 28

[15] Holland, Leak, 66.

[16] Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats,” The Washington Post, October 10, 1972, A01.

[17] Holland, Leak, 54.

[18] Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), 34.

[19] Harris, Pulitzer’s Gold 230

[20] Harris, Pulitzer’s Gold, 224

[21] Marshall, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press, 87.

[22] Bernstein and Woodward, All the Presidents Men, 105.

[23] Ibid., 275.

[24] Marshall, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press, 101.

[25] Ibid., 103.

[26] Rodger Streitmatter, Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History (Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2008), 221.

[27] Ibid.

[28] John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, “Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2012,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php.

[29] Streitmatter, Mightier than the sword, 223.

[30] Marshall, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press, 112.

[31] Ibid., 119.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Abumrad and Krulwich, “I Don’t Have to Answer That.”

[34] Maja Satara, The George W. Bush Administration and the News Media: The Unfolding of a Turbulent Relationship (Oslo: University of Oslo, 2008), https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/26254.


The American Institute for Political Communication. The 1972 Presidential Campaign: Nixon Administration-Mass Media Relationship. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute for Political Communication. 1974.

Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President's Men. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1974.

Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. "FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats." The Washington Post, October 10, 1972: A01.

Bradlee, Benjamin C. A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1995.

Ellsberg, Daniel, In Crisis in Confidence: The Impact of Watergate, Edited by Donald W. Harward, 65-76. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1974.

Harris, Jr., Roy J. Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. 2007.

Holland, Max. Leak: How Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2012.

Lang, Gladys Engel, and Kurt Lang. The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls During Watergate. New York: Columbia University Press. 1983.

Marshall, Jon. Watergate's Legacy and the Press. Chicago: Northwestern University Press. 2010.

Satara, Maja. "The George W. Bush Administration and the News Media: the Unfolding of a Turbulent Relationship." Oslo: The University of Oslo. 2008. https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/26254.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media have Shaped American History. Philadelphia: Westview Press. 2008.

Woolley, John, and Gerhard Peters. "Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2012." The American Presidency Project. 2016. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php.