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?
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
Some newspapers established investigative teams well before Woodward and
Bernstein began delving into the break-in, and others played catch
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
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
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
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
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
’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
’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.