Watergate Scandal and the Role of Journalism
In August 1974, Richard Nixon made a decision no President in Office had ever done before, and which no President has done since. He resigned. After two long years, the Watergate Scandal forced Nixon to essentially step down from his duties before he was forcefully removed in what was a definitive period in American politics. It began with a break-in at the Democratic Party Headquarters for the election campaign that was in progress, and ended with Republican officials being arrested and a President forced to resign from office.
As well as the scandal being significant in a political sense, Watergate became the topic of one of the finest ever pieces of investigative journalism. Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post were able to reveal to the American public that their government was using corrupt, back-handed tactics to defeat opponents. With the testimony of anonymous whistle-blower ‘Deep Throat’, later to be named as former associate director of the FBI Mark Felt, Woodward & Bernstein cracked one of the biggest abuses of power ever carried out by an American President. They, along with Washington officials, noted that Nixon had bundled hundreds of thousands of dollars in ‘hush money’ to the burglars to prevent their stories getting out. Through dedicated investigation from the pair of journalists, Nixon’s plan to spy on his opponents was, with some of the most progressive journalists working on the story, destined to fall apart at the seams.
In the early 1970s, America was a political melting pot. Their forces were still fighting in the Vietnam War which continued to divide the nation, threatening the Nixon administration’s chances of being re-elected in 1973. It had become increasingly unlikely that the USA could win the war in South-East Asia, putting the Republicans under pressure. In the August following the break–in at the Watergate Hotel, Nixon gave a speech denying any of his staff were involved. The American people believed him, and the Republicans won the election comfortably.
As well as the stringent lines of investigation from the American media, Nixon himself played a part in his own downfall. He ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to disrupt the FBI investigation, essentially trying to hold off from the truth being exposed. It was at this point that focus moved from a burglary at a hotel to an instance of a President abusing his power, this being just one of the many reasons why he was christened ‘Tricky Dicky’ during his time in politics.
The coverage of the Watergate scandal from journalists such as Woodward and Bernstein helped to change the way Americans and, later, the world viewed politicians. Before the Second World War, and up until the war in Vietnam, most Americans would live for every word their President had on social issues whilst questioning very little. After Watergate, this changed. The people were shown that they could and should question their leaders on issues; it was their right to know what their elected representatives do while in office.
Watergate showed that the media can be a weapon to aid the public in keeping score of their leaders. The extensive coverage and investigative journalism were able to uncover the actions which President Nixon was so determined to keep classified; he was even willing to prevent a government agency from doing its job. Corruption and confidentiality have always been a part of politics, but advancement in journalistic integrity, like that which was seen throughout the Watergate scandal, has been helping to break the news of corruption to the public ever since. Woodward and Bernstein set the benchmark on how to bring down a corrupt government, and they certainly weren’t the last to do so.
PATRICK HOLLIS is a final year English & Journalism student at Coventry University, with a keen interest in Political and Historical events.
Edited by Bozhidar Ivanov