For decades, the work of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward was held up as a paragon of journalism. Their work inspired generations of J-school students and spawned millions of admiring words in books, magazines and newspapers. Even as the 40th anniversary of what then-White House spokesman Ronald Ziegler called a “third-rate burglary” arrived this year, the superlatives kept pouring in.
“Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate,” former Post executive editor Leonard Leonard Downie wrote recently. “But it became entrenched in American journalism -- and has been steadily spreading around the world -- largely because of Watergate.”
The real brilliance of Bernstein and, particularly, Woodward (who has done a much better job marketing himself as the man who literally wrote the book on inside-Washington powerbrokers) was that they kept their source secret for so long. The power of the story was in its mystery: Who is Deep Throat?
In their book and the movie it inspired, All the President’s Men , Bernstein and Woodward portrayed themselves as intrepid reporters engaged in cloak-and-dagger reporting in a search for the truth. “Communicating through copies of the The New York Times and a balcony flowerpot, they meet in a parking garage in the middle of the night. Deep Throat speaks in riddles and metaphors about the Watergate break-in, but advises Woodward to ‘follow the money,’” is how Wikipedia sums up the film.
Brilliant! And powerful. “For journalism, their Watergate stories and ‘All the President’s Men’ (the book and the movie) have had an enduring impact,” Downie adds. “Inspired by Watergate, generations of young journalists have entered the profession to become investigative reporters.”
But Downie’s laudatory piece is almost a decade out of date. The world has known since 2005 that Watergate was no triumph of investigative journalism, but was merely the revenge of a powerful civil servant.