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Watergate “Crimes Against Journalism”

by on October 14, 2015
In John Cook’s “The De-Watergating of America” article on Gawker.com, Cook lays out a multitude of unethical or dishonest methods of gaining information employed by both Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate case.  It seems slightly hypocritical that the two journalists, who set out to expose wrongdoing and are known for one of the most famous whistleblowing case in history, went about acquiring much of this information in a dishonest manner. At the same time, as Cook points out, it would be nearly impossible to gather the information that they did without doing some slightly shady things along the way.
 
Cook says, “they deserve credit for laying them all out there, and, as I have written before, good reporting often entails bad behavior.” On the one hand, this type of exposure of their own wrongdoing by the reporters themselves is brave and commendable, and yet on the other hand if they had not owned up to it the Nixon administration would have used that against them. The “De-Watergating of the American Press” was of course used by the right to try and discourage future journalists from committing similar acts.
 
So what are we, both as journalists and as news consumers, supposed to think of this type of behavior? Is it okay to go against journalism ethical protocol if it’s for a really great story? What constitutes as a good story worthy enough of dishonesty? Should we think any less of the Watergate story because of some of the ways they went about getting information? 
 
The Watergate scandal was American journalism’s proof that it could in fact take down a presidential administration. This was a major historical turning point for journalists. And yet, today’s journalistic standards would by no means allow the majority of transgressions against journalistic ethics committed by Woodward and Bernstein to slide. “In the wake of Watergate journalistic standards become too restrictive, broadly speaking, leading to a state of affairs where the Woodward and Bernstein investigation would be viewed as illegitimate by many of the people who followed in their footsteps,” said Cook. Are we sacrificing good journalism for the sake of our own consciences? 

 

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