Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of journalists

The Watergate scandal dominated much of my college experience. While I worked on the student newspaper, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post reported on a simple burglary that led to a presidential resignation. Woodward and Bernstein became household names in the 1970s and inspired a generation of journalists to take up the mantle of investigative reporting.

Woodward has talked in recent years about how he gets up in the morning, wondering what powerful people are hiding. He’s not cynical, he says, just realistic. I share Woodward’s passionate skepticism. Frankly, that’s what keeps investigative journalists going.

Some people cringe when we use the word muckraker. It still carries the connotation President Theodore Roosevelt meant it to have back in 1906 when he used the term to attack journalists who were single-mindedly negative. (It was a phrase from John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” about a man raking the muck, unable to see the stars.) Journalists turned it on Roosevelt and embraced the name, saying it was precisely because they could see the stars that they needed to illuminate wrongdoing — the muck.

Bob Woodward. Flickr Creative Commons

Bob Woodward. Flickr Creative Commons

Carl Bernstein. Flickr Creative Commons

Carl Bernstein. Flickr Creative Commons

I founded inewsource in 2009 because I watched as investigative reporting teams collapsed during the recession. I had had an exciting and fulfilling career at The San Diego Union-Tribune, where I’d reported for more than a decade, mostly as a legal affairs reporter, revealing, explaining and telling compelling stories. I covered trials, wrote about appeals, interpreted decisions and witnessed the first execution — in the gas chamber — in California in 25 years.

My passion for truth telling started young but Woodward and Bernstein helped make it part of my mission.

It should be remembered that the Watergate investigation didn’t start as a major political scandal. It started with a burglary. Most investigations don’t start out big. They often start with a thread, a tip or what might appear to be an innocuous event. With Watergate, two reporters in their 20s were assigned to follow the arrests of men accused of breaking into the Watergate office complex to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee. The men were linked to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. The White House refused to comment on a “third-rate burglary.”

Woodward and Bernstein persisted with help from a source they called Deep Throat, writing about secret funds and spying. Pressure over the investigation mounted on the owner of the Washington Post, as Nixon won re-election in 1972 by a landslide.

(An important aside: Through years of reporting and editing, I have drawn inspiration from Woodward and Bernstein, but also from the owners of the newspaper they worked for. Without media leaders who are willing to stand up to powerful people, and risk advertising revenue and in the case of nonprofits, donations, there would be no investigative reporting. At inewsource, we have fought the fight at personal and financial expense. We believe it’s an imperative.)

The reporters — teams of reporters at many news organizations — kept on. By 1973, there were two official investigations ongoing. Nearly two dozen people were implicated in crimes. Secret tapes came out, impeachment proceeded and Nixon finally resigned in August 1974.

The unfolding of the Watergate scandal fueled a generation of investigative journalists 40 years ago. The Oscar-winning movie, “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigation of priests and abuse in the Catholic Church, kickstarted another movement a year ago. This most recent election and its glaring media failures have prompted introspection but also a resolve to do better. Much better.

There is no better time to revisit the work of brave and dogged journalists. And to be inspired — as we are at inewsource — to rake the muck so that others are empowered to see the stars.

shadow-ornament

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About Lorie Hearn:

Lorie Hearn is the founder and executive director of inewsource.