3Qs: How Watergate changed journalism — and the nation

University of Photography

Sunday is the 40th anniversary of the burglary of a Democratic campaign office building in Washington D.C.’s Watergate complex, which turned out to be the first piece of a saga that brought down a president and changed the way Americans thought about both their government and journalism’s role in society. So says Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism in the College of Arts, Media and Design, who we asked to discuss the Watergate scandal and its lasting influence on American reporting.

How did the Watergate case influence a generation of journalists?

The Watergate story was gripping for several years in the mid-70s. Central to this was the role of the Washington Post and its reporters’ remarkable persistence on a story a lot of people weren’t on at the beginning. And as the story was beginning to take root, a lot of young people at the same time were beginning to think in idealistic ways about their careers. This story was so attention-getting that many were attracted to the idea that journalism could really make a difference, and that this would be a career path that could be rewarding and meaningful.

What you got was a lot of bright and capable people choosing journalism as a career. Just as it happens whenever some of the brightest people of a generation enter a field, they brought a lot of drive, persistence and ambition. But people still had to pay their dues in journalism — you didn’t get to do the big story right away. Many followed a predictable career progression before getting to one of these great national papers like The Washington Post or The New York Times. Many found themselves scurrying around town halls covering school board meetings and the budget and working their way up. The good reporters weren’t discouraged by that, though; they rolled up their sleeves and did tremendous work. By the 1990s, you had a whole generation of journalists and editors doing some of the best work that newspapers have ever done. I would describe that decade as a kind of ‘Golden Age of Newspapers,’ just before many of the industry’s current problems hit. You could trace the career paths for a lot of those journalists back to the Watergate era.

What is the legacy of the Watergate case and the reporting by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward?

As Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their Washington Post piece over the weekend, this was a much bigger story than the burglary it was first passed off as. That was just a piece of a much broader campaign by the Nixon campaign to essentially wage war by illegal means on a number of fronts against the people it considered its enemies.

This was a new kind of jolt to the American psyche about government, and it came on top of the already disconcerting experience of the Vietnam War, which really got people thinking about American government and policy. You had a whole new scrutiny that grew out of the Vietnam era and Watergate that changed tremendously how people — especially young people — looked at government.

How might the Watergate case be covered if it broke in today’s media environment?

One of the things you have to measure is whether the news organizations are paying attention and whether they would have the resources to follow the story wherever it might lead. You don’t have newspapers with the same resources to allow a reporter to follow a single story from the depths of the municipal court system to wherever it might lead. It takes an extra effort, from reporters and editors to owners and publishers, to commit to that kind of story.

You’re still going to get very good ambitious, enterprising young reporters who will pursue stories that will lead them to bigger stories, but it’s harder to do that now, and it requires the commitment and devotion of higher-level owners and managers to make sure that still gets done.