Did the press uncover the Watergate scandal? (And what was the Watergate scandal?)
Probably the most famous news reporting in all of American history and the most celebrated single bit of news reporting worldwide was the Washington Post investigation of the set of incidents we know as "Watergate." This reporting took place over an extended period from the summer of 1972 to the summer of 1974.
Watergate forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign from the Presidency, the only President ever to do so. Had he not resigned, he almost certainly would have been forced from office by impeachment. The House of Representatives had approved three articles of impeachment and the Senate was ready to serve as judge and jury as to whether he was guilty of the charges. Even Nixon's strong supporters in the Senate could count the votes and knew the Senate would vote to remove him from office.
Why? Because the evidence was convincing that Nixon had abused the powers of his office, using his position to mount attacks on those he considered his personal enemies—the press, the movement against the war in Vietnam, and the Democratic Party. Nixon approved plans of aides, sometimes initiating the plans himself, to burglarize the offices of Democratic candidates for President and also to burglarize Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Ellsberg was the Pentagon official who in 1971 had leaked "the Pentagon Papers" to the New York Times. The Nixon cabal hoped to find information they could leak to sully Ellsberg's reputation.
The "smoking gun" that led to Nixon's downfall was the tape-recorded evidence that proved the President ordered his aides to cover up burglaries and other petty, mischievous, but decidedly criminal activities he supported in his reelection campaign. This criminality included decisively the "obstruction of justice" that Nixon's own tape recordings revealed— Nixon's demanding that his aides instruct the C.I.A. to order the F.B.I. to call off its inquiries into the Watergate burglars, on the pretext that national security matters were at stake. For some analysts, this "cover-up" was worse than the original crimes, although reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward would later argue, to the contrary, that the crimes covered up were themselves "a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law."
When Bernstein and Woodward began their reporting of the original June 17, 1972, burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office and condo complex in Washington, they had no idea what they were about to open up, nor did their editors at the Washington Post. Nor did others in the news media. Nixon may have considered the news media his enemies, but journalists considered Nixon an unusually smart, shrewd politician with a very safe shot at reelection; they found it just not credible that the White House was directly involved in burglaries (paying hush money to the burglars) and a long list of "dirty tricks" launched against different Democratic candidates. Why would a man so smart get involved with operations so dumb?
It took the rest of the press a long time to climb aboard the Watergate express. Meanwhile, much was revealed by non-media-related agencies of investigation—Federal Judge John Sirica pried information out of the arrested burglars; the Democratic National Committee and the private group Common Cause initiated lawsuits against the government that disclosed other relevant information; the Senate established a special "Watergate" committee to examine Watergate in a series of nationally televised hearings during the summer of 1973. As time passed, the biggest revealer of secrets was Richard Nixon himself, once it became known that he had secretly tape-recorded his many meetings in the Oval Office, leading federal prosecutors to subpoena the tapes.
No one doubts the importance of—and the courage of—the Washington Post in pursuing the investigation when few others were interested in it. Their efforts alone could not have pushed Nixon from office, but their dogged dedication to the story secured investigative reporting as the moral center of what is best in journalism.