Four Decades After Their First Big Watergate Story, Woodward and Bernstein Still Matter

The newspaper story stunned Washington. It revealed that a $25,000 check donated to the president's re-election committee had landed in the bank account of a man charged with breaking into the opposition's campaign headquarters.

The story, "Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds" by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, appeared 40 years ago on The Washington Post's front page. It showed for the first time that President Richard Nixon's campaign had financed the burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in June 1972.

Before Woodward and Bernstein's Aug. 1 article, the press had covered Watergate sporadically since the June break-in. Few people could believe that the White House would be involved in a crime as bizarre as the botched burglary of a campaign office.

The Woodward and Bernstein story turned a trickle of Watergate coverage into a powerful stream of investigations describing how the burglary was part of a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy. With strong support from their editors, the two young reporters relentlessly uncovered one shocking truth after another about the president and his top aides. A little more than two years later, Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace.

How much of a difference did Woodward and Bernstein really make? Thanks to the popularity of their book All the President's Men and the movie of the same name, they were hailed during Watergate's aftermath as the dynamic duo who exposed a White House crime spree.

Since then some critics have belittled the role played by Woodward, Bernstein and the rest of the press, arguing that journalists had little to do with driving Nixon from the presidency. Historian W. Joseph Campbell calls the idea that reporters brought down the Nixon presidency a "media myth." New York University professor Jay Rosen recently tweeted that historians mention Woodward and Bernstein "just barely" when discussing how Watergate came to light.

It's true that Woodward and Bernstein didn't do it alone. FBI investigators, U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica, the Senate Watergate Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski all played crucial roles.

But to say that journalists had nearly nothing to do with toppling Nixon is wrong. In addition to Bernstein and Woodward, other reporters such as Time magazine's Sandy Smith, a Los Angeles Times team led by Jack Nelson, and the New York Times' Walter Rugaber and Seymour Hersh had important Watergate scoops.

As my book Watergate's Legacy and the Press shows, it's doubtful that the truth of Watergate would have come to light without the hard work of reporters. Here's why:

  • The White House cover-up of the Watergate crimes worked for more than six months, allowing the president to win re-election in a landslide. Nixon and his aides lied by denying any links to the crimes, his personal lawyer arranged for payments of hush money to the Watergate burglars, and the president's staff stifled the FBI's investigation. The Post was on its own during most of 1972 in poking holes in the cover-up.
  • The original prosecutors of the case showed no inclination to investigate the full scope of crimes by the White House and Nixon campaign. The only ones they charged were the five Watergate burglars and their immediate bosses, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen, who oversaw the case, reported regularly to Nixon. The president boasted that he had Petersen "on a short leash."
  • The first congressional hearings on Watergate, led by House Banking and Currency Committee Chairman Wright Patman of Texas, resulted directly from the Aug. 1 Bernstein and Woodward article about campaign funds going to the burglars. Nixon's men prevented Patman's committee from having the power to subpoena witnesses, but these initial hearings prompted Senator Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts and others to push the Senate to have its own hearings.
  • The cover-up began unraveling during confirmation hearings in early 1973 for L. Patrick Gray to become permanent FBI director. Referring to an Oct. 15, 1972, Post story, Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina asked Gray about the Nixon team's attempts to sabotage the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates. Gray responded by spilling the beans on White House efforts to quash the Watergate investigation.
  • Judge Sirica said that reading the Post's investigations made him realize he wasn't hearing the full truth during the trial of the Watergate burglars. Sirica imposed tough sentences on the original defendants, prompting chief burglar John McCord to write a letter to the judge revealing that top Nixon aides were engaged in a high-level cover-up of their crimes.
  • The viciousness of Nixon's attacks against the Post is perhaps the strongest evidence that Woodward and Bernstein's stories threatened him. He plotted to block the renewal of two lucrative television licenses held by the Post. His surrogates made speeches bashing the newspaper. He told his aides to pressure the Internal Revenue Service to examine the tax returns of Post publisher Katharine Graham and the newspaper's lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams. "The main thing is The Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one," Nixon told his aides.

Nixon had good reason to attack Woodward, Bernstein and their editors. The Post's stories broke through the Watergate cover-up that had stymied the official investigation by the FBI and prosecutors. If not for the work of journalists, Nixon might never have resigned.

Jon Marshall is the author of "Watergate's Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse" (Northwestern University Press, 2011) and teaches journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School.