Before we begin, here’s a quick history lesson for those age 40 and under. Watergate was the 1972 political scandal stemming from the June break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters located at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington D.C.  The break-in was the work of some shady characters known as  “the burglars.” When “the burglars” were caught, police learned they were connected to people known as  “the creeps” who worked for the Committee to Re-Elect the President.  At the White House, “the President’s men”  working for President Dick Nixon got involved by raising “hush money” for “the burglars” and by helping  “the creeps” cover the whole thing up. But the media, the judiciary, and Congress would have none of that, especially after finding out all the greasy details were on tapes recorded by an Oval Office system left behind by John Kennedy.   All of it added up to Nixon resigning as “the President” in August 1974.   End of history lesson.  Now we resume our regular message. Celebrity journalists did not really exist before Watergate.  And it’s too bad  that how-to-be a celebrity journalist ended up being the most used lesson of Watergate. But during that summer 40 years ago, Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein really left a far more important lesson for all those who followed them in the profession. For if either the movie (“All the  President’s Men”) or their book by the same name is to be believed Woodward and Bernstein spent much of their summer of ’72 just trying to develop sources. The reporters had a list of all the names of people who worked for Nixon’s campaign, but no personal telephone numbers or addresses.  In this ancient era before the internet, the only way to match up  those names was to use an old fashioned technique call “legwork,” something often used before Google came along. This contribution to the most important lesson of Watergate: keep working through the summer doldrums and you will be rewarded. Every summer I’ve worked in the news business, I’ve noticed the summer doldrums. Here’s how it works now.  Hedge fund manager and other 1 per centers take off for the summer, usually going to the Hamptons to wait for President Obama to arrive so they can all “hang.”   This slows down the markets and causes periods of inactivity or stagnation that spreads beyond business to even the arts and academia. Journalism is like a mirror reflecting the doldrums back at you, which causes you to do even less than you normally do.  This process adds further to the doldrums.   We use to deploy in August, but now we spread the doldrums at least a month earlier. Watergate never would have been a scandal and Nixon never would have resigned if only Woodward and Bernstein done what most Washington D.C. reporters did during the summer of ’72 and gotten out of town.  With both political conventions in Miami, long Florida vacations were popular that year. But, no, Woodward and Bernstein keep driving those confusing Washington D.C. suburban residential streets, getting lost, and but eventually finding their way.  That’s why Nixon had to resign. It’s the lesson we should  all remember from Watergate–if lost and confused keep working even if nobody else is.  If you are doing this, everything else will come out okay. Luckily, we do not experience the doldrums in food safety.  Since we began publication,  I’ve been trying to figure out the pattern for food safety-related news and I’ve finally decided there is not one. Whenever we think we are into a lull and go into a story planning exercise, it gets blown up by events that come at us out of the blue.  Big unexpected events like the 2010 Gulf oil spill or 2011 E coli outbreak in Hamburg, Germany were complex ongoing situations that we covered extensively for months in Food Safety News. Like major outbreaks, especially those causing injuries or deaths, are covered here with dozens and sometimes hundreds of articles that help balance out any seasonal  nature to what we do. As for the 40th Anniversary of Watergate,  I think we should wait a couple of years to really celebrate it.   After all, none of us paid any attention to it during that summer of 1972.   But by May 1973 when the Senate Watergate Committee began televised hearings, you could not go anywhere with out hearing or seeing them. We were all paying attention then, and it’s always better when we do.

  • TP

    “Paying attention”
    “Keep driving even if confused”

  • Ahhh Watergate …. I was 8 years old in 1973, Dan, and it screwed up my after-school television viewing with all of those boring hearings. Also, it upset my grandfather, who, as the owner of one of the larger businesses in the area (hay farming), was big in the SouthCentral PA Republican circles. He was constantly talking about how Nixon was being unfairly setup. (Confession: I once found a box of his navy blue Nixon bumper stickers and plastered them all over my first real bicycle. For all I knew, that Nixon guy was alright.)
    But in the late 70’s and early 80’s, as I became less interested in cartoons, the Brady Bunch or Star Trek reruns and more interested in journalism, Watergate took on a different meaning to me. It was my first real lesson in the idea that politicians couldn’t be trusted. And, eventually, I became jaded about other things, too. I also learned that journalists served an important role in keeping everyone honest, even if we are sometimes attacked for our efforts.
    So kudos to you for recognizing the anniversary and beating me to a really good column idea. Keep up the great work at Food Safety News!

  • Theresa Kentner

    Unfortunately, journalism has taken a bad turn prompted by the celebrity status bestowed on Woodward and Bernstein. It is no longer all about the story, but about the journalist as well. Issues are even more clouded as journalists strive to make a mark to ensure *their* career instead of giving the headline to the story.
    Politicians have remained the same, working to convince you that they are on your side, when they are only ever on their own.
    Cynical much? Yes, I am. I also was a youngster during the Watergate hearings and when Nixon resigned and was summarily pardoned, that was something even this kid could figure out as a trade off.
    This was not the democracy I learned about in school and was a much more bitter lesson.

  • Great article. I used to do PR for financial services companies/investment firms and you ain’t kidding about the summer doldrums in that industry. It seemed like all the brokers took month-long vacations.
    I liked your “lessons we should all remember from Watergate–if lost and confused keep working even if nobody else is. If you are doing this, everything else will come out okay.”
    “Legwork” was strongly emphasized in my journalism education and it’s still an important guiding principle for good reporting.

  • Minkpuppy

    My sole memory of Watergate was being irritated that my afternoon cartoons were being interrupted for the hearings, especially Sesame Street. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve dropped watching the news and returned to frivolous entertainment in
    the evenings. Our local news has an obsession with the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality and I find it depressing.
    I’ve also been very disgusted recently about the lack of “Legwork” done by some folks that call themselves journalists. There seems to be a trend of practically quoting verbatim another journalist’s work without actually researching to find out if that information is accurate. Many times the original article embellishes or deliberately leaves out information to make the story more dramatic or horrifying as the case may be.
    It also does a disservice to readers when a writer fails to step outside their belief system to look at an issue objectively. If you only report the things that agree with your beliefs, you’re not really learning anything or conveying all the information.
    The media organizations just need to forget the sensationalism and get back to the news and facts.

  • Joe

    As one who was in college during Watergate I have to tell you this had a profound effect on many in my generation. There was some sensationalism in the press, sure — but this was a MAJOR issue/scandal.
    These days we get Murdoch, Fox News and its ilk sensationalizing non-issues and the public has grown numb. Case in point: In March — “Obama is responsible for Raising Gas Prices” — Now prices are declining and Not a Word.
    Meanwhile the really big Scandal Stories — like Climate Change — are being masked by professional denial. Looks like Nixon just had a bad Spin Team — with today’s “experts” he would have made it through just fine…

  • Ron Henzel

    I believe that the Watergate scandal left an indelible mark on my generation — the one that was passing through junior high and high school at the time, and had its youthful idealism and naïveté about government exploded earlier than I think the previous generation’s had. As a middle school history teacher, I’ve endeavored to explain to my students just how disillusioning that entire period was. I put together a video summarizing the events. You can watch it at

  • Nick

    Amazing how Journalists scream about Nixon trying to cover up Watergate – where people broke into a building – but Journalists are utterly silent about Obama covering up Fast & furious – where a US Border agent and 200 Mexican civilians are DEAD.