June 17, 1972 forever changed both journalism and politics. A simple botched break-in marked the downfall of President Richard Nixon, and the rise to glory of two obscure young Washington Post journalists: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. While their investigative journalism revealed the truth, their questionable methods and ethics have led to these questions; Do the ends justify the means? Was their behavior ethical and legal?
The Watergate Scandal was a major political scandal during the Presidency of Nixon. Nixon, paranoid and afraid of losing his reelection, employed men to do an assortment of illegal activities intended to place the republicans ahead of the democrats in the election. The activities were not detected until a failed break in of the Watergate building. The corrupt actions were exposed and 43 people were eventually incarcerated, due to the dedication of Woodward and Bernstein in discovering the truth.
Before criticizing Woodward's and Bernstein's behavior, the hardships that interfered with the freedom of press at that time have to be considered. The First Amendment protections offered to journalists were not absolute. Editors and publishers could face legal issues if their articles are considered brutally slanderous towards individuals, blatantly disrespectful to community decency ideals, or distinctly dangerous to national security (Schmoop Editorial Team). The Watergate Scandal was one of the first examples of modern journalism where the government was not exempt from being exposed to the public eye.
Despite the difficulties of their time period, there are certain ethical journalism standards that should not have been breached. The Society of Professional Journalists lists four ethical values that journalists should follow: seek truth and report it; act independently; be accountable; and minimize harm (Society of Professional Journalists, 1996). During different incidents spaced throughout the investigation of Watergate , all four were violated by Woodward and Bernstein.
The first infringement occurred early during Watergate. Bernstein was investigating Miami ties to the Watergate burglars and agreed to trade information (arrests, mental illnesses, history of homosexuality) on a name, for the Dade County, Fl district attorney's knowledge about the connections (Bernstein & Woodward, 1974). It turns out the man investigated was the DA's opponent in the next election. Bernstein never actually gave the DA the research; the DA told him he did not need the information anymore. His crime? Plotting with a prosecutor to investigate a political target (Cook, 2012).
Another ethically objectionable choice was Bernstein illicitly pulling phone and credit card records on Watergate targets (Cook, 2012). He persuaded a source at a telephone company to give him Bernard Baker's (the burglar) records. While not illegal at the time, it is presently a federal offense punishable by up to ten years in prison. Currently, Rupert...