Trump and the Watergate effect

Will young journalists still be inspired by today’s watchdog reporting?

Photograph by Tony Korody (Getty Images)

I was 16 when my brother David, home from college and chatting with me about my future, pointed at me and suggested, in a single word, a life’s work: “journalism.”

His advice took root. I joined my high school’s student newspaper, eventually became its editor in chief, and have been happily ink-stained ever since.

My family had spent that summer of 1973 gathered around the TV set in our Lackawanna, New York, living room, riveted by the Senate Watergate Committee hearings.

And though The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were unseen during the hearings, their presence loomed. It was their reporting that had uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, “I am not a crook.” Soon after, their journalistic exploits—and those of their take-no-prisoners editor, Ben Bradlee—would be celebrated in the 1976 movie, All the President’s Men.

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What these journalists did offered not only an important mission, but a gritty, roll-up-your-sleeves glamour. So, thanks to Watergate, Woodstein, and Deep Throat, I was launched. And so were a generation of baby-boomer journalists—thousands of us. Some were in college in the mid ’70s. Others, like me, were in high school, or even younger.

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We were ready. Only eight years after that conversation with my brother, I was “following the money,” as the saying went, as a young government reporter at The Buffalo News. Watergate’s through-line was brightly defined when my reporting partner, Peter Grant, and I revealed financial malfeasance in Erie County government; not long afterwards, the budget director resigned under pressure. Years later, as the News’s chief editor, I set up the paper’s first investigative team.

Tim O’Brien—executive editor of Bloomberg View, a former New York Times business reporter, and Pulitzer Prize–winning editor—heard the siren call, too. He was a 12-year-old kid at science camp in Illinois when the Watergate hearings broke into his consciousness; a teacher had put the hearings on in his summer classroom.

“I remember Sam Ervin saying [of Nixon], when he thought his mic was off, ‘He’s just a goddamn liar,’” O’Brien told me. (Ervin, the folksy conservative Democrat from North Carolina, was the committee chairman.) The whole cast of characters was fascinating: the Republican senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker, who asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”; former White House Counsel John Dean, holding forth in his tortoiseshell glasses.

Photograph by Tony Korody (Getty Images)

“Those televised hearings gave me one of my first civics lessons about checks and balances and holding power accountable,” O’Brien says.

In 1976, when All the President’s Men came out, O’Brien caught the journalism bug for real. “I wanted to be Robert Redford moving that ceramic pot” as a signal to his source, O’Brien says. “I thought, ‘Wow, these are the guys that set everything in motion.’”

Alicia Shepard, author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, described the changes—not all positive—that Watergate wrought: “the advent of celebrity journalism in which reporters become the story, a greater acceptance of anonymous sources, a far more skeptical attitude of reporters toward government and a sharp rise in investigative reporting.”

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Now—more than 40 years on—with a nation of reporters focused on President Trump, the echoes of Watergate have been well worked over: the appointment of a special prosecutor, the firing of top officials, the talk of obstruction of justice, even speculation about possible impeachment.

 

What will be the legacy of this new golden age of political-accountability journalism?

 

The New York Times and The Washington Post are back to trading scoops, just like the old days, and their top editors, Dean Baquet and Marty Baron, both in their early ’60s, came of age in the Watergate era themselves, and have impressive watchdog credentials. Baquet won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting at the Chicago Tribune; Baron was immortalized by Hollywood in the movie Spotlight for leading The Boston Globe to a Pulitzer for its exposé of the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal.

But what will be the legacy of this new golden age of political-accountability journalism? Will the star reporters of the Trump era—the Maggie Habermans and David Fahrentholds—launch a new generation of reporters, eager to make their mark?

My first impulse is to say no. There’s a lot that argues against journalism history repeating itself. But it may depend in large part on how all of this turns out.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatening to prosecute journalists—as well as sources—for their role in publishing leaked material, it’s possible that reporters may go to jail during the Trump administration. That might look exciting, but it’s not something most young people seek out.

What’s more, Trump’s continual harangues about “fake news” and journalists as “scum” may make at least some students think reporting isn’t such a noble pursuit.

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And no longer is there a sensible, dependable path to a perch at one of the top news organizations in the country. No longer can a student count on a path from, let’s say, the Glens Falls Post-Star to the Albany Times Union to Long Island Newsday to The New York Times. The old “farm-team” system is largely gone.

And unlike the era just after Watergate and the publication of the Pentagon Papers, when news organizations were generally admired, our era often depicts journalists as biased and untrustworthy.

at the gate Tourists read the day’s headlines outside of the White House on August 8, 1974, only a few hours before President Nixon would resign on air. (Bettman/Getty Images)

With public opinion holding “the media”—whatever that far-too-general term means—in ever-lower regard, journalism may no longer look like a high calling. Trust in the news media is near its lowest point in decades. We’ve all been exposed to the chants of thousands at Trump rallies: “CNN sucks!”

But don’t completely rule out a repeat of history. Trump coverage may not recruit a new generation of reporters, but it does seem to inspire those who are already in the journalism pipeline. Many of them are fired up by what they see every day.

“I do think it has the potential to attract people into journalism, but that might depend on your politics or, if you’re still pretty young, your parents’ politics,” says Waverly Colville, 21, a senior at the University of Missouri, where she’s a journalism major with an emphasis on investigative reporting.

Today’s watchdog journalism reminds her of reporting she supervised as an editor at Missouri’s student newspaper. That project took advantage of anonymous tips to reveal a cheating scandal involving students who were running for student government positions.

What’s happening now in Washington resonates, she says: “You’re really seeing how important the media is.”

Scott Nover, 22, a journalism graduate student at George Washington University, singles out the Post’s David Fahrenthold, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his reporting on Trump’s false claims of charitable giving; the Times’s Susanne Craig, who was sent one of Trump’s tax returns by snail mail and was able to verify its authenticity and extrapolate what it might mean for his overall finances; and CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski, who (while at BuzzFeed) was able to prove Trump’s claims that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning were false.

“The farther the Trump administration goes away from the truth, the more invigorated journalism becomes,” Nover tells me. “It’s less black-and-white than during Watergate, because it’s not an easily identifiable two-person team at one paper; it’s a lot of different journalists playing their own roles.”

He knows the shaky business model and other downsides of journalism might deter some people his age, but for him, it’s just the opposite: “We want to run into the fire, whatever that involves: the financial instability, the lack of job security, the waning respect . . . . The more I see in Washington, the more I feel like I need to be a journalist. It’s more a calling than a choice.”

The generation of journalists who came before him—call it the Watergate generation—would understand completely.

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Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor and, for 13 years, the executive editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper, where she began as a summer intern. A former member of the Pulitzer Prize board, she has taught in the graduate schools of journalism at the City University of New York and Columbia University.