Media in America as the Fourth Estate: From Watergate to the Present
During the 1970's, the role of the media changed from simply reporting the news to revealing serious political scandals (Waisbord, 2001). The media's role during Watergate was viewed as the mirror that reflected the most that journalism could offer to democracy: holding powers accountable for their actions. This became a trend in the American media and journalism had high credibility in the years that followed, and a great increase in journalism school enrollment followed.
However, during the 1980's and 1990's, this trend withered away. Investigative journalism is no longer rampant the firmament of American news. While the tone of the press was self-congratulatory in the post-Watergate years, the state of American journalism is currently viewed in a less positive light.
For the elite, the shift in journalism is welcomed. For example, according to John Dean, an American journalist, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have suggested that the presidency was weakened by Watergate. "No one has watched the impact of Watergate on government more closely than yours truly," said Dean (2002). "I wrote a book, Lost Honor, examining the impact of Watergate ten years after the events. And I do not believe Watergate can possibly justify the secrecy arguments that are being made now. If anything, it justifies openness."
The Role of the Media
The role of the news media in modern society involves more than just news coverage (Coronel, 2000). The Fourth Estate is considered one of the most important parts of the check-and-balance system created by the U.S. Constitution. News media have a responsibility to be the eyes and ears of the public. Sometimes, the media even acts as the voice of the public. The media is obliged to tell the general public what the public institutions are doing and to convey our concerns to these institutions in the form of commentary.
Politics and the Media
The world learns much of what it knows through the filter of the media, which includes television, radio, newspapers and the Internet. What the public is told and how media messages are conveyed shapes the public's views, goals and plans. In this light, the media has a great deal of influence.
The (First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press Coronel, 2000). In the United States, the media is often referred to as the fourth branch of government (or "Fourth Estate," as it monitors the political process in an attempt to make sure that political players do not abuse the democratic process (Coronel, 2001). When media workers uncover dishonesty or abuses of power, they are expected to report it to the public.
Many people call the media the fourth estate because it plays such an important role in the outcome of political candidates and issues. For this reason, the role of the media is often controversial. News reporting should be objective, but journalists often display personal opinions that affect their reports.
How Watergate Changed the Role of the Media
On June 17, 1972, police caught five men trespassing in the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate office complex (Selfa, 2002). The burglars, led by former CIA agent James McCord, were not after money or valuables. Rather, they were attempting to plant listening devices in the DNC offices.
The team of burglars was part of a top-secret unit organized out of the White House by Nixon administration operative E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the director of "security" for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, Nixon's private campaign organization (Selfa, 2002).
Nixon told Liddy and Hunt to hire the team of burglars to track down administration leaks to the press. When the group was caught at the Watergate, the White House attempted shut down the investigation, paying Hunt, Liddy and the burglars to remain quiet.
However, the Watergate story led journalists to engage in acts of political espionage. For example, Donald Segretti, one of the burglars, was exposed for political "dirty tricks" against Democrats, such as leaking false stories to the media to slander Nixon's opponents in the 1972 election.
The role of the media, particularly reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, changed during the Watergate scandal. Woodward and Bernstein exposed Nixon in a way that has idealized since. However, since this time, the press scrutiny has gone downhill.
For the majority of Nixon's presidency, the media, including liberal newspapers, treated the White House with kid gloves. The official persecution of civil rights and antiwar activists by Nixon's Justice Department was overlooked and the media chose to belief White House officials rather than searching for the real stories.
However, when it became obvious that the White House was willing to target the Democratic Party, members of Congress and the press itself, the media, following the lead of the ruling establishment, decided to turn on Nixon and engage in real journalism.
Since then, Watergate has been viewed as a symbol of the power of investigative reporting. Some people believe that Nixon was forced to resign because these two reporters showed how he had abused his position.
The truth was that Nixon resigned because evidence of illegal acts committed by the president's aides was exposed down the line, yet many people still credit the media for breaking the story. The Washington Post reporters may not have caused the overthrowing of the president, but they did expose the story of his aides' indiscretions, place it on the news agenda, and frame it as one of wrongdoing at the highest levels of government.
The Watergate scandal greatly impacted journalism, as it inspired a new generation of U.S. journalists and set the standard for what the media can do. Hollywood helped by glamorizing the role of the reporter.
However, just one generation after Watergate, when citizens and governments in many countries are overwhelmed by malfeasance and when it has become obvious that few people are checking up on the excesses of power, it is now important to renew public interest in the role of a free press and of enterprising journalists in ensuring that officials and institutions are accountable for what they do.
Today, the role of the press as watchdog is greatly accepted in America, even if only in theory. The media often ends up doing what the police, the courts, parties and parliaments should doing: exposing malfeasance, calling for reforms, and mobilizing public action against corruption.
In the past twenty years, the role of a free and independent press has become more and more important. In many countries, the fear of media exposure prevents official abuse. In some cases, media exposure has caused corrupt officials to resign. If they do not, public pressure forces governments to convict those who are guilty of malfeasance. Due to investigative reporting, wrong policies are exposed, extravagant projects are delayed, and corrupt politicians have lost elections.
For this reason, the impact of investigative reporting has caught the attention of donors and multilateral institutions that hope to improve governance. Since the Watergate scandal, the press has assumed responsibility for holding powerful institutions responsible for their actions. The idea of the press as Fourth Estate, as a check on the excesses of government, is now a major part of liberal democratic theory. However, this is not a new concept. The importance of freedom of information has been deeply embedded in America's laws and constitutions since the 18th century.
Today, as the world increases in complexity by the minute, and the power of large public and private institutions over the lives of the public is even more pervasive, the concepts of free press and the free flow of information are even more important. However, despite the media's leaps toward free press, investigative reporting has become somewhat of a risky business since the 1980's and 1990's.
Big business has become so powerful in America over the past few decades that the media often treats it with kid gloves. Many journalists are afraid to upset the mutually beneficial relationships between media owners and business and political leaders. In addition, the media is aware that investigating such issues as corporate irresponsibility might lead to the loss of advertising dollars. Faced with these obstacles, investigative journalists tend to show only what they can sell newspapers and news programs.
New Era of Journalsm
According to Dean (2002), the work of Bob Woodward, the Watergate reporter who uncovered the scandal, set the stage for a new era of journalism. According to Woodward, "Nixon's successors, I thought, would recognize the price of scandal and learn the two fundamental lessons of Watergate. First, if there is questionable activity, release the facts, whatever they are, as early and completely as possible. Second, do not allow outside inquiries, whether conducted by prosecutors, congressmen or reporters, to harden into a permanent state of suspicion and warfare."
According to Dean (2002), "It seems that President Bush and Vice President Cheney want to remove the last vestiges of congressional power…