By, Carl Bernstein
June 8, 1992
It is now nearly a generation since the drama that began with the Watergate break-in and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon, a full twenty years in which the American press has been engaged in a strange frenzy of self-congratulation and defensiveness about its performance in that affair and afterward. The self congratulation is not justified; the defensiveness, alas, is. For increasingly the America rendered today in the American media is illusionary and delusionary—disfigured, unreal, disconnected from the true context of our lives. In covering actually existing American life, the media—^weekly, daily, hourly—break new ground in getting it wrong. The coven^e is distorted by celebrity and the worship of celebrity; by the reduction of news to gossip, which is the lowest form of news; by sensationalism, which is always a turning away from a society’s real condition; and by a political and social discourse that we— the press, the media, the politicians, and the people— are turning into a sewer.
Let’s go back to Watergate. There is a lesson there, particularly about the press. Twenty years ago, on June 17, 1972, Bob Woodwaixl and I began covering the Watei^te story for The Washington Post. At the time of the break-in, there were about 2,000 full-time reporters working in Washington, D.C, according to a study by the Columbia University School of Journalism. In the first six months afterward, America’s news organizations assigned only fourteen of those 2,000 men and women to cover the Watergate story on a fiill-time basis. And of those fourteen, only six were assigned to the story on what might be called an “investigative” basis, that is, to go beyond recording the obvious daily statements and court proceedings, and try to find out exactly what had happened. Despite some of the mythology that has come to surround “investigative” journalism, it is important to remember what we did and did not do in Watergate. For what we did was not, in truth, very exotic. Our actual work in uncovering the Watergate story was rooted in the most basic kind of empirical poUce reporting. We relied more on shoe leather and common sense and respect for the truth than anything else—on the principles that had been drummed into me at the wonderful