Watergate 40 Years Later: Shoe Leather vs. Google

Investigative reporting, Richard Nixon, Yale University, Gordon Crovitz, Google, Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men, public relations. (Photo: Washington Post)It’s vitally important that public relations specialists know how journalists work. PR professionals can’t corral solid earned media results for clients without understanding how editors and reporters go about their daily jobs. 

There’s no better inside look at the reporting craft — a great case study for communications students — than the investigative saga of the Watergate scandal. This June marks 40 years since the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters, the beginning of a gripping drama that ended in a disgraced Richard Nixon resigning as president.

Watergate news coverage, led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, is a shoe leather story. The reporting duo painstakingly assembled their facts through Interviews with reluctant subjects and stealth meetings with confidential sources. Details of undisclosed Nixon reelection campaign financing and expenses — including discovery of a secret fund — emerged only through tedious sifting of the data.

Watergate took place in that ancient time before PCs, the Internet and Google existed. Yale University journalism students recently were asked, “How would the story unfold in the Digital Age?"

Surprising answers from the students point to a generation gap in the understanding about traditional reporting techniques and the use and role of the Internet’s search capability. Student comments left Woodward quite perplexed when he and Bernstein met with the Yale students. 

The Yale tale is best told in the just-released book "Before 'Watergate' Could be Googled" by L. Gordon Crovitz. He writes about a talk Woodward and Bernstein gave at the annual meeting of ASNE, the American Society of News Editors. 

“Mr. Woodward said he was shocked by how otherwise savvy students thought technology would have changed everything,” Crovitz said in a Wall Street Journal article. Continuing to quote Woodward: "I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm," he said, "because the students wrote that, 'Oh, you would just use the Internet’ and the details of the scandal would be there. The students imagined, as Mr. Woodward put it, 'that somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events.'"

Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story thanks to shoe-leather journalism, including the source known as Deep Throat, 30 years later identified as Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI). Crovitz continues, "The truth resides with people," said Mr. Woodward, meaning human sources who disclose confidential information.”

“Why would bright students think they could simply do a Google search for Watergate? Mr. Woodward told me last week that the 'magic lantern' phrase came to him after reading one of the Yale essays as saying, in effect: 'Just go to the Internet and Google $50,000 secret fund' and somehow details of a hidden criminal conspiracy would be there," Crovitz writes.

 “Mr. Woodward concludes that the Internet is "not that magic and it doesn't always shine that bright." It's a great tool for research, including for linking data that before might have been public but was hard to put together,” Crovitz said.    

For a deeper appreciation of how the Watergate story came together as the national drama unfolded, read Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book “All the President’s Men” and see the 1976 movie of the same title. Less satisfying would be just to Google “Watergate.”Google searches can produce a wealth of information, including connecting dots of random information. But that wouldn't have been enough to uncover the secrets of Watergate.