What were the consequences of Watergate for the US press?

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Rachael Gallagher

History of Journalism

Coursework 2


What were the consequences of Watergate for the US press?

In 1972 and 1973, led by investigative reporters from the Washington Post, the press exposed links between the administration of President Nixon and a burglary of the Democratic Party national headquarters. This became known as the Watergate Scandal. Senate hearings on the scandal and preparations of the House of Representatives for impeachment were carried by live television and attracted huge audiences. President Nixon resigned soon thereafter.

Previous to this scandal erupting, the elite East Coast press, exemplified by the New York Times and the Washington Post, were the specific targets of President Nixon’s scorn, calling them “pointy headed liberals”, and “the nattering nabobs of negativism”. The press had their revenge, however, and Nixon was forced out by the investigations of two reporters from the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. They managed to reveal Nixon’s part in covering up the Watergate break in as well as a list of other crimes. This event remains one of the greatest moments in the history of American journalism, and has had a deep impact on the role and perception of the American press.

The long-term consequences of Watergate are agreed to be profound. Watergate undeniably boosted journalism to be a far more high profile profession than was previously thought, and proved undoubtedly the power in the press.

Watergate had a deep impact on the practical conduct of American presidential politics and on the legislative activity of Congress. A number of laws were passed in the late 1970’s which had traceable connection to Watergate, most notably the Ethics in Government Act (1978). Many commentators have also noted how, in the aftermath of Watergate, the conduct of American presidential politics altered in various ways, as actual and aspiring presidents (along with their teams of aides) strive to avoid the type of catastrophe that struck the Nixon administration.

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There could have been no real public opinion on Watergate without the media. By reporting and even sponsoring polls the media presented the cast of political actors in Watergate and gave measure to the public response of every move they made.

Not all of the consequences for the US press post-Watergate have been seen as beneficial.  Since Watergate, the Post has acquired a virtual monopoly over the Washington newspaper market, which has lowered the standard of journalism,

        “…grown fat and – frankly – journalistically flabby. Its op-ed page is notable for its turgid prose, its conservative slant, ...

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