Could future journalists uncover a Watergate?

I was intrigued by this question that The Washington Post posed on Twitter today: “Could the Web generation uncover a Watergate-type scandal?”

I followed the link and saw that the piece was based on a panel discussion featuring Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They had their doubts:

“One of the colleges asked students in a journalism class to write a one-page paper on how Watergate would be covered now,” said Bob Woodward, “and the professor — ”

“Why don’t you say what school it was,” suggested Carl Bernstein, sitting to Woodward’s left in a session titled “Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age?”

“Yale,” Woodward said. “He sent the one-page papers that these bright students had written and asked that I’d talk to the class on a speakerphone afterward. So I got them on a Sunday, and I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there.’ ”

“This is Yale,” Bernstein said gravely.

“That somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events,” Woodward said. “And they went on to say the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed, and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate.”

A small ballroom of journalists — which included The Washington Post’s top brass, past and present — chuckled or scoffed at the scenario…

I also enjoyed the way the piece, written by Dan Zak, characterized the Woodstein legacy:

Tuesday’s panel briefly reunited the pair, whose untangling of the Nixon administration inspired a generation of journalists who have since been laid off or bought out in large numbers. Woodward and Bernstein’s main point was evocative of a previous, plentiful era: Editors gave them the time and encouragement to pursue an intricate, elusive story, they said, and then the rest of the American system (Congress, the judiciary) took over and worked. It was a shining act of democratic teamwork that neither man believes is wholly replicable today — either because news outlets are strapped or gutted, or because the American people have a reduced appetite for ponderous coverage of a not-yet-scandal, or because the current Congress would never act as decisively to investigate a president.

For the record, while I may indeed be one of those “who have since been laid off or bought out in large numbers,” I didn’t get the idea to go into journalism from these two guy — however much their example may have encouraged me. I was already working as a copy boy at The Commercial Appeal when I first heard of them…

9 thoughts on “Could future journalists uncover a Watergate?

  1. Phillip

    I sort of agree with the “reduced appetite” theory. A “Watergate” might be uncovered but nobody would care. That’s due to a whole variety of reasons, one of which ironically is a cynicism about the functioning of our government for which we have LBJ and Nixon to thank, in large part. If, however, sex was involved, that’s a different story, then I think the American people would get interested and stay interested.

  2. Juan Caruso

    As I remember, Watergate was leaked by a lawyer, Deep Throat. Yes the details were investigated by W. & B.

    The challenge confronting today’s journalists is not really whether a ‘Watergate’ could be uncovered by worshipers of the bar, but how long the ‘professional press’ will ignore much larger scandals like “Fast and Furious”.

  3. Steven Davis II

    I think they have enough to work with with just the latest news of Obama threating to fire the Supreme Court Justices and telling journalists how to do their job. Someone is starting to outgrow his britches… and probably will end up getting a spanking if he doesn’t stop.

  4. Scout

    Well it’s not even just that there is a reduced appetite, there is also a surfeit of conspiracy theory noise with 24 hour news channels and talk radio personalities all being overly critical of some little thing or other that they think someone has done. When and if something truly important and relevant were discovered and reported, it would very likely be lost in the shuffle for the average non-critical listener.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    Interestingly, Romney gave a speech to Associated Press editors this week that was chock full ‘o’ lies and utter nonsense, and he wasn’t called on it. You’d think that would be an audience that would know better.

  6. Tavis Micklash

    “Could the Web generation uncover a Watergate-type scandal?”

    Its a little insulting to think they can’t. While its easily to cast everyone under the age of 30 into the “lazy” mold there is talent out there.

    Undoubtedly it would get leaked out. Wikileaks would love to drop something like that. There are always people with grudges. Rich people with an agenda would be willing to fund it.

    I hope im right because otherwise its gonna be a bad time watching the US crumble after the baby boomers retire. No one will be willing to change a bed pan I guess.

  7. Silence

    I think the exerpt from Dan Zak gets to the meat of it before moving off target. New media wouldn’t have the resources to go down the rabbit hole and uncover a hidden, intricate story. Modern newspapers also can’t or wouldn’t dedicate the time and resources. How much great investigative reporting has The State done lately? It seems like The Free Times does a much better job at uncovering stories and doing in depth local investigative journalism.

    Television won’t do anything that can’t be compressed into a 3 minute piece or a good sound bite.

    As a culture and as consumers of media we certainly haven’t lost our appetite for scandal – or even potential scandal, but we prefer to be titillated by sexual or hollywood type scandals, not following the money around DC. As for Congress – They have certainly spent a lot of time investigating the president, first Whitewater, then with the WMD’s.

    I do think there’s another trend going on though. Bad behavior among the famous and among the political class has become so pervasive, or at least so publicly known, that we hardly get upset about it anymore. Unless there’s sex involved.

    Vincent Foster’s alleged suicide, Ron Brown’s mysterious death, insider trading, fake commodity trades, shady savings and loan deals. All the public remembers from the Clinton scandals is a BJ in the oval office from a chubby intern. The perjury, any of the other stuff, we couldn’t care less about.
    Governor out visiting his mistress in Argentina? We care about that!
    Senator using a wide stance in an airport bathroom? We care!
    Governor bringing a hooker to DC? We care!
    President using a secret campaign slush fund to pay for former FBI agents and Cuban exiles to break into a psychologists office and the DNC headquarters and then lying about it? Naah.

    Of course nowadays there’s no need for a secret campaign slush fund since it would be all done by a non-coordinated Super-PAC, giving the candidate more distance and plausible deniability of any knowledge of a criminal activity.

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