Watergate was a watershed event in American history. The many effects of Watergate are still seen today and it is a cultural landmark for many people. Studies have been done on its effects, and it is basically common knowledge to those who know history that it caused increased watchdog journalism. How quickly did this watchdog journalism come along after the scandal? Was it immediate? And how far down did it go? State government? Local? These questions are what prompted this study to be done. I wanted to know whether Watergate impacted the media’s treatment of governmental agencies and officials (e.g. congressmen, governors, executive bureaus) in such a way that negativity toward Nixon and his administration carried over to other areas of government uninvolved with the scandal.
This study attempts to look at that relationship between the media and non-Nixon administration government. It seeks to show that print media, specifically, covered more negative (or scandal-related) stories after Watergate than before. The implications of this study are mainly twofold. The first important implication involves the propensity of the media for generalizing the deceitful actions of a few into a distrust of the larger superstructure. The second is the true impact of Watergate on the way the media covers all levels of American government, and how quickly and strongly that impact was felt.
Most scholars and political scientists agree that a great emphasis on watchdog journalism was one of the largest effects of the Watergate scandal. However, I am unaware of any research that has approached the question of how quickly the media turned to this watchdog journalism or negativity following the scandal. Periods of public distrust of government have been documented (Hill 1981; Oegema, Hoof, and Kleinnijenhuis 2006) as well as periods of heightened trust (Citrin and Green 1986). These studies are displays of public opinion, however, not media treatment. This is the case with many research studies done on attitudes about government or Nixon with the Watergate scandal taken into account as a variable or cause (Lang and Lang 1980; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1998; Arterton 1974; Wagner 1983; Macleod, Brown, and Becker 1977). They focus almost exclusively on the general public’s attitude, not the media’s treatment of government in terms of what stories they cover and in what manner they do it.
This study examines whether or not print media coverage of the government became more focused on negative stories about government as a result of Watergate. The topic of media negativity has been covered by several studies in this field (Gurevitch, Blumler, and Coleman 2009; Moy, Pfau, and Kahlor 1999; Patterson 1996), but none have focused exclusively on the time period directly before and closely following the scandal. Research, such as that by Francke (1995) or Feldstein (2006), may show the progression or cycles of watchdog journalism or muckraking, but it never touches upon the question of whether the media’s treatment of government through story coverage changed immediately following Watergate (immediately, in this case, meaning six months after Nixon’s resignation). Graber devotes an entire chapter to the history of muckraking and watchdog journalism, and yet there is no mention of media negativity in the terms I have laid out (Graber 2006). It is a topic that has not been explored to the fullest extent. In fact, there have even been studies which claim that the media favor and are more positive to certain local levels of government, something this study’s hypothesis would be at odds with (Paletz, Reichert, and McIntyre 1971).
The other important part of the research question is whether or not dislike of the Nixon administration would carry over into general negativity towards government by the print media in general following Watergate; in other words, it assesses whether or not a generalization had been made by the media. Some very comprehensive research has been done on the broader topic of negative attitudes towards institutions versus specific people (Bowler and Karp 2004). Bowler and Karp build on the knowledge that scandals influence people’s opinions of those involved in a negative fashion, showing that the institutions connected with those individuals are also seen more negatively. Not only will the public think less of a senator involved in a scandal, they will also think less of the Senate, most likely. This research relates directly to my research question, in that the media might have written negatively about government institutions after the Watergate scandal, even though only a handful of members of the government were involved. The media may have seen those individuals involved in Watergate and generalized that the entire government was deserving of their negative attention, even though only several people were part of the scandal.
Perhaps the most relevant study deals with critical news content during the Vietnam War (Hallin 1984). By critical, the study meant stories that were mainly criticisms of the war, or were very critical of the war. The study shows that while journalistic norms did not change, critical news stories increased in number during the Vietnam War, which is around the time of the Watergate scandal. This research speaks to the fact that the media grew more negative during the time of Watergate (or very nearly the time), but it still does not show any correlation between the scandal and increased negativity; only between the Vietnam War and a higher level of criticism. Other studies have been done on critical news during the time period in which the Vietnam War took place, but they do not relate so directly as Hallin’s work (Forgette and Morris, 2006).
Media negativity, Watergate, and the media’s treatment of government at certain times are all topics that have had multiple studies conducted on them. However, no in-depth study has been done on the impact of Watergate on media negativity and criticalness of government, especially in the context of whether or not the negativity trickled down from Nixon’s administration to other branches, and also levels, of government.
To more completely understand the media’s change in treatment towards the aforementioned government institutions and officials, it would be best to look at several different print sources, not just one. The New York Times (NYT), The Los Angeles Times (LAT), and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) were, and are, all quite popular and respected newspapers. Thus, I made those three papers the basis for the research. The time periods I studied are as follows: for the “pre-Watergate” section, I studied the three papers from March 1 – March 29, 1972, excluding weekends. At this point, the break-ins had not occurred and the general attitude towards politicians was not out of the ordinary. The “post-Watergate” section focuses on January 2 – January 30, 1975, excluding weekends. At that point in time, the scandal had been fully exposed, Nixon and his administration were exposed and shamed, and Nixon himself had resigned. Weekends were excluded for the purpose of continuity and the elimination of extra variables. The WSJ does not have a weekend paper, so to control for the variable of which days are included, weekends were excluded. That way, each newspaper looked at the same days.
The focus of the newspapers was on two things: the editorials and the story headlines. The editorials were expected to more easily provide a look into the stance of each paper. More specifically, I looked into the editorials each day to see if they mention any of the listed words that I determined would indicate negative coverage or coverage of a scandal-related event. The keywords I looked for were: abuse, accuse, affair, alleged, arraignment, arrest, betray, blackmail, “break the law,” bribe, charges, conspire, conviction, corruption, court, cover-up, criminal, deceive, dirty, disgrace, distrust, embarrass, embezzlement, extortion, fraud, guilty, illegal, indictment, investigation, lie, misconduct, mislead, mistake, mistrust, scandal, shame, steal, theft, trial, wrong, and wrongdoing (or any tenses/forms of these). These 41 words or phrases are obviously associated with scandal in some way. I looked for any of those 41 words to show up in headlines or editorial titles. I then proceeded to check if they were referring to the government in any way, and more specifically, non-Nixon administration government. I did not count any headlines or editorials that contained those keywords but were not referring to the United States government being implicated or involved in such activities in some way. For example, if a headline read “Court rules that fraud case based on faulty evidence,” it was not counted simply because although it has ‘court’ and ‘fraud’ in it and the government is involved in that headline, the government is only explicitly on the administering-justice side. The same discounting applied if the headline read something like, “Venezuelan leader charged with abuse of power.” That is indeed about corruption in government, but not the United States government, so it was not factored in.
These methods will be able to show whether or not more stories about negative things in government were reported after Watergate as opposed to before. Editorials were hypothesized to more likely be the stronger evidence, as they present a straight opinion on what the paper thinks of the government oftentimes. Still, editorials are not enough, as they are selective and do not talk about all the stories each day. Including headlines would show that reporters are most likely more vigilant and more watchful for negative stories or scandals about the government, excluding Nixon’s administration and anything Watergate-related. Headlines allowed it to go beyond conscious editorial choices of what to write about. They allow analysis of what effect, if any, Watergate had on journalism in terms of a possible stronger propensity to seek out more negative stories. My hypothesis was that the newspapers from 1972 would contain fewer headlines regarding negative aspects of the government, while the newspapers from 1975 would contain more. Editorials were also expected to be more negative towards the government in their criticisms in the 1975 papers than in 1972. I did not expect to see differentiation across the newspapers for each separate bloc (e.g. WSJ and NYT having drastically different amounts of negative headlines for March 1972).
My research yielded some interesting results: some expected, some unforeseen. One portion of the study that I expected to fit neatly in with my hypothesis was the editorials. I had almost just assumed that the number of editorials with the aforementioned keywords would increase from the 1972 to the 1975 sample. However, this was not at all the case. In fact, for two of the papers (The NYT and LAT), the number actually decreased from 1972 to 1975 (See Figure 1). The editorials for 1972 differed slightly amongst the three papers. The WSJ had the least, only two, as compared to six editorials with keywords in their titles for both the NYT and LAT.
The editorials surprisingly showed very little difference between the samples. Both the NYT and LAT decreased, from six to five, while the WSJ increased, but only from two to three. I was at least expecting a slight increase, and was hoping to perhaps see a doubling of the number from 1972 to 1975 for each paper. Instead, two of the papers displayed a decrease and the other increased by only one. It is difficult to determine why this is so, but one possibility could be that editorializing is a very conscious process. Editors think about what they have covered before and do not want to go over the same things. Editorials vary in topic in each paper, and perhaps, though more stories may have focused on scandal or corruption in 1975, the editors did not want to or could not sustain that many editorials on the topic.
More changes were seen in the headlines, by far. This portion of my research exhibits what I hypothesized it would: an increase in headlines with keywords in them from 1972 to 1975 (See Figure 2). All three newspapers were fairly close in number for their 1972 headlines with keywords. The NYT had 14 such headlines, The WSJ had 13, and The LAT had 17 – all quite close. This was a perfect sample in terms of consistency. None of the papers differed much in terms of number, leading to the conclusion that there was, 1) no bias amongst them on scandal-related issues, and, 2) no scandal that was vastly underreported on by any paper while being reported on constantly by the others. The I.T.T. case was a scandal that cropped up several times and was mentioned in all three papers, not just the NYT and LAT, for example.
The data from the 1975 newspapers showed an increase across the board for all headlines containing keywords (See Figure 2). The NYT went from having 14 such headlines in 1972 to having 30 in 1975. The WSJ increased as well, but only slightly, up from 13 to 15. The LAT saw almost the same amount of increase as the NYT, going from 17 to 31. The massive increase in headlines containing these scandal related words was expected, but it was expected for all three papers. I did not hypothesize that the WSJ would have vastly different results. Only increasing by two, while the NYT and LAT increased by 16 and 14, respectively, is quite a minimal difference. However, it may be a great indicator of actual bias by the NYT and LAT towards finding scandal-related stories. The minimal increase may also be attributed to the fact that the WSJ leans right, politically, and the executive branch had just been vacated by a conservative president and continued to be held by the Republican Party. It is possible that the WSJ chose not to report on certain stories involving the government and any scandals or corruption because of this political leaning. However, it can be said that the WSJ would be more likely to report on such scandals because the legislative branch of the federal government was controlled by Democrats. No substantive claim either way can truly be made without further research.
One can clearly see the increases in the NYT and LAT, however. The dramatic difference from pre-Watergate to post-Watergate indicates that either more scandals/acts of political wrongdoing occurred after Watergate (and the WSJ simply chose not to cover them), or that the two papers chose to have their reporters be more investigative in their journalism; more watchdogs and fewer lapdogs, in terms of government oversight. The latter conclusion does not necessitate more scandals or acts of political wrongdoing, and is thus, different from the former explanation.
There seemed to be no correlation between days amongst the three newspapers. In other words, it was not as if January 23rd was a day for which all three papers had many headlines containing keywords. No such correlation could be found. This finding shows that it is most likely not just the scandals themselves that caused the media to cover these. If it were only the scandals themselves, there would be a general clustering of headlines on specific dates when scandal-related events broke out (See Figure 3). This is not the case, however, suggesting that the actual coverage and increased negativity do not simply stem from the events occurring, but perhaps from some internal bias or decision of each newspaper.
The most commonly found keyword from the 1972 sample was “allege” or any of its forms (allegation, alleged, etc.). It appeared 11 times. The second most common was “charge” and any of its forms, with nine appearances. “Bribe” and “guilty” both had three, and all other keywords showed up two or fewer times. The most commonly found keywords from the 1975 sample were “indict” or any of its forms, and “guilty.” They appeared eight times and seven times, respectively, across all the newspapers. “Break the law” and “charge” both appeared six times and “allege” appeared five times. All the rest of the keywords appeared three or fewer times.
Some interesting analysis of what keywords appeared can certainly be done. The four most common words from the 1972 were: allege, charge, bribe, and guilty. “Allege” and “charge” had significantly more appearances. Both words seem to suggest wrongdoing, but do not condemn or confirm it. Allegations are put forth as not wholly substantiated claims. The word “alleged” is always attached to crimes because they have not yet been proved true. Charges are levied against people and are also not wholly substantiated or proven. Both words are unproven claims of wrongdoing. In contrast, the two most common words in the 1975 sample were “indict” and “guilty.” An indictment is merely a formal charge. Still, indict has more legal connotation than does charge, which can be used in many other contexts. One does not hear the word indictment when a person charges someone else with stealing their lawnmower. Indictments are bigger news, and the fact that “indict” shows up more than “charge” is significant. The prevalence of “guilty” in the headlines is also quite interesting. Instead of seeing “alleged” or any other words that suggest guilt but do not say it, the 1975 headlines use a word that is synonymous with wrongdoing: guilty. It is a very negative word and obviously conveys wrongdoing. The keyword prevalence was not specifically focused in any one newspaper either; all three contained the most commonly seen keywords in each sample.
Stronger negative (by negative, I mean more strongly related to confirmation of guilt, scandal, or wrongdoing) keywords were used in the post-Watergate sample, perhaps because the newspapers were more inclined to condemn the government for its wrongdoing, or perhaps because more actual wrongdoing was uncovered. It could be that with the investigative journalism rising, more wrongdoing was brought to light, instead of simply hearing allegations.
This study may help shine some light on the way media began to treat the government in general after Watergate. Yes, it is taught that Watergate made the media more critical (as did the Vietnam War), but this study shows that as little as six months after Nixon resigned, the effects of Watergate spread to other parts of government. The media changed rapidly. It was not a gradual change over time, with the media becoming slightly more negative over a span of 15 or 20 years. It was less than three years and two major print media sources were already doubling the amount of negative coverage of government in their news sections. The rapidity is surprising.
The study has broader implications in terms of media bias towards digging for scandals and covering negative, and often illegal, events or things about government at all levels. Every level was negatively covered in 1975 at some point, from local sheriff’s deputies to governors to the FBI. This trickle down from Nixon’s administration shows how easy it is for media to generalize. The media can cover an event that involves relatively few people and soon, it has become a national search for corruption in government, sparking distrust in people about their elected officials and entire institutions.
Further research on the topic would be greatly helped by full access to many other newspapers across the country. The Washington Post, Chicago Sun Times, Dallas Star, and more would add more reliability to the study, if they too were compared with the three that I used. Local newspapers, too, would be a good source, to really see if this negativity and penchant for covering scandals trickled down to the most local levels of government. Yes, the LAT had stories about deputies receiving bribes, but the more local papers would truly show to what extent Watergate’s impact was felt.
Using network news to evaluate the same effects may be helpful, but measurements and data recording would be much more difficult. Instead of simply looking at headlines and titles, one would have to analyze every story for its wording throughout, seeking out mention of any of the 41 words in the correct context. Still, it would bring balance to the term “media” if non-print media such as television were included.
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