Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate. But it became entrenched in American journalism — and has been steadily spreading around the world — largely because of Watergate.
Now, 40 years after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote their first stories about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office building, the future of investigative reporting is at risk in the chaotic digital reconstruction of journalism in the United States. Resource-intensive investigative reporting has become a burden for shrunken newspapers struggling to reinvent themselves and survive. Nonprofit start-ups seeking to fill the gap are financially fragile themselves, with their sustainability uncertain.
American investigative journalism has historically ebbed and flowed. It evolved from revolutionary-era pamphleteers, who harassed both the British and the founding fathers, to early 20th-century muckrakers, whose newspaper, magazine and book exposés of exploitative business monopolies and government corruption helped spur Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the popular election of the Senate.Investigative journalism went into hibernation during the two world wars, the Great Depression and the suppression of dissent in the McCarthy era. But beginning in the 1960s, it gradually revived amid the upheaval of the civil rights, counterculture and anti-Vietnam War movements. I was among a small but growing number of investigative reporters at newspapers around the country at the time. My 1966 series in The Washington Post about the incompetent judges, rapacious lawyers and skid row atmosphere in the old D.C. Court of General Sessions played a role in its abolition and replacement by the present D.C. Superior Court.The Pulitzer Prize board created an annual award for investigative reporting in 1964. The three television networks of the era expanded their evening news shows from 15 to 30 minutes starting in 1963 and began airing prime-time investigative documentaries. The 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan made it much more difficult for public officials being scrutinized by the press to sue successfully for libel, and the Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress in 1966, made it much easier for reporters to find vital information.Yet, for several months after the Watergate burglary in 1972, Woodward, Bernstein and their colleagues on the local news staff of The Post were alone on the story. We were ignored and doubted by the rest of the news media and most of the country, and under heavy fire from the Nixon administration and its supporters. It was a tense time for those of us working with Bob and Carl, with our credibility and our newspaper’s future on the line. We worried over every word of every story before putting it in the paper.Finally, toward the end of the year, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and CBS News began to provide almost welcome competition. Eleven days before President Richard Nixon’s reelection in November 1972, Walter Cronkite devoted an unprecedented 15 minutes of his “CBS Evening News” broadcast to Watergate, prominently featuring The Post’s stories. He described “the Watergate affair” as a “high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage apparently unparalleled in American history.”