ANALYSIS: Media Relations - Watergate: how did it change journalism?/Watergate is said to have spawned a new era in journalism, but Sherri Deatherage Green finds that its legacy for journalists and PR pros is not clear-cut

Scandals come and scandals go, but will we ever stop attaching ’gate’ to the ends of them?

Scandals come and scandals go, but will we ever stop attaching ’gate’ to the ends of them?

Scandals come and scandals go, but will we ever stop attaching

’gate’ to the ends of them?



Watergate obviously set the standard for scandals in the last quarter of

the 20th century. President Richard Nixon lost his job because he lied

about his knowledge of a botched break-in at the Democratic National

Committee headquarters. An investigation turned up evidence of

wiretapping, shady campaign financing and other illegal activity. And

The Washington Post reporters who broke the story, Bob Woodward and Carl

Bernstein, earned almost mythical status as their hunt for the truth

eventually made its way to the silver screen. But is Watergate

responsible for the current ’nothing is sacred’ attitude of the media,

which keeps PR pros awake at night worrying about the next piece of dirt

reporters may dig up on their clients?



Brewing cynicism



Americans over 40 may think of Watergate as the main ingredient in a

stew of public cynicism toward government, a stew that had bubbled and

boiled through Vietnam and the Kennedy and King assassinations. Some

passed that cynicism along to their children, but didn’t necessarily

explain its historical recipe.



’Watergate for them is Teapot Dome,’ observes Dr. David Rubin, referring

to a Harding administration scandal long relegated to history books.

Rubin, dean of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public

Communications, says his students get lost in the complexity and

enormous cast of characters in All the President’s Men, the

book-turned-movie that chronicles the exploits of Woodward and

Bernstein. ’They find (the movie) incredibly confusing and slow in its

pacing ... it’s certainly not sparking any interest in the field.’



One of the many prevailing assumptions, or even myths, about Watergate,

is that it propelled a host of young Woodward wannabes into journalism

schools. Dr. Michael Schudson, a communications professor at the

University of California-San Diego, refuted that idea in his 1995 book

The Power of News. ’Watergate clearly did not start the rush to

journalism,’ Schudson writes. A trend toward increased enrollment began

in the mid- to late-1960s, but plateaued a decade later. Watergate may

have extended journalism’s popularity, but earlier societal and

political developments got the ball rolling, Schudson argues.



Another contention, which might not stand up to close scrutiny, is the

belief that the Watergate tide launched a wave of investigative

journalism.



Some newspapers established investigative teams well before Woodward and

Bernstein began delving into the break-in, and others played catch

up.



But many later abandoned such cost-intensive projects. Changing media

ownership patterns also stifled investigative journalism. As big

corporations gobbled up news organizations, more attention became

focused on the bottom line. ’It’s a real luxury to be given the kind of

time, space and money that they got to do that type of reporting,’ Rubin

says.



Nevertheless, the prevailing attitude of the Washington press corps did

change after Watergate. In his new book, Shadow: Five Presidents and the

Legacy of Watergate, Woodward prints a personal letter President George

Bush wrote to decline an interview. ’I think Watergate and the Vietnam

War are the two things that moved Beltway journalism into this

aggressive, intrusive, ’take no prisoners’ kind of reporting that I can

now say I find offensive,’ Bush writes. The new cynical breed wants to

emulate you ... It is almost like their code is ’you are guilty until

proved innocent.’’



Jim Doyle, who served as a spokesman for Nixon prosecutors Archibald Cox

and Leon Jaworski, noticed a ’new sort of ignorant confrontational

attitude’ among journalists during post-Watergate presidential news

conferences.



Gone was the courteous respect for the highest office in the land.

Schudson theorizes that White House correspondents may have used public

displays of aggression to save face. Woodward and Bernstein, after all,

broke the Watergate story without being a part of the White House

club.



If today’s news organizations generally lack the time, financial

resources or motivation to dig deeply into substantive issues, many

still dig up dirt - the kind that gets personal and doesn’t require

months of pouring over financial records or studying the nuances of

foreign policy. ’Press investigations of government have become

increasingly trivial,’ Rubin laments. But the explosion of cable and

broadcast TV news magazines influenced this trend much more than

Watergate did, sources say.



In a day when scandals are more likely to involve extramarital affairs

than creative bookkeeping, Sheila Tate, president of DC-based public

affairs firm Powell Tate, tells her clients to think about the worst

question they could be asked. ’You have to deal with the things that

wake you up in the middle of the night,’ she says.



Some observers credit All the President’s Men with creating the

celebrity journalist phenomenon. Others argue that Woodward wouldn’t be

recognized on a street corner outside of Washington, since he doesn’t

resemble Robert Redford, who played him in the film, at all. But Ted

Koppel or Connie Chung would draw stares. Many media celebrities owe

their fame to news magazine programs that are relatively cheap to

produce and promise higher ratings. ’They have become very sensational,’

says Tate, who served as Betty Ford’s press secretary. Sometimes,

producers already have damaging stories ’in the can’ before they

approach Tate’s corporate clients for interviews. In such cases, she

advises executives to issue written statements.



But if she sees a chance to help bring balance, she may negotiate an

interview.



’Frequently, these stories are generated from unholy alliances producers

have with plaintiffs attorneys or labor unions,’ Tate says. ’They don’t

take into account that their sources are biased.’



Accepting anonymous sources



Perhaps one of the most accurate assumptions about Watergate is that it

led to an increased acceptance of anonymous sources. Woodward and

Bernstein may take the secret of Deep Throat’s identity to their

graves.



’I think there are not only sources themselves who play this game, but

public relations people,’ Rubin says. In this environment, PR

professionals may have more opportunities to discreetly provide

background information to journalists. But those who abuse the privilege

run the risk of being seen as manipulators.



Post-Watergate cynicism may have helped fuel the growth of corporate

public affairs in our nation’s capital, Tate surmises. ’All of this fed

a sense on the part of corporate America that Washington is a very

dangerous place,’ she says. More companies recognized PR as an important

tool in getting their message to the public through a skeptical and

growing press filter.



Future historians may argue over whether Watergate was America’s

greatest political controversy or just one act in a long epic of

scandals. But its most enduring legacy may well be an annoying little

suffix synonymous with scandal.



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