Ethical decisions and repercussions in All The President’s Men

Nixon - Watergate


Nixon - Watergate

One of many infamous Washington Post headlines

Bob Woodward sat in a court room furiously taking notes as five men appeared before a judge for a preliminary hearing. All five were arrested during what appeared to be a burglary attempt on the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. All five of these men were also seen eating lobster together at the hotel the night before according to a source. Interestingly, they each had large sums of cash in their pockets that were mostly sequential $100 bills and were in possession of equipment that indicated they were more interested in bugging the offices than burglarizing it. Were they spies? He sat patiently as each of the men stated their professions as “anti-communists.” But one man, James McCord, Jr., was asked to step forward by the judge and after some questioning revealed that he was retired from the CIA. It was later revealed that McCord was employed by the Committee to Re-elect the President. Suddenly it became evident that these were not just petty criminals caught in the act, these men were hired for something more intricate and sinister. This wouldn’t reveal itself until much later as two reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, investigated the June 17, 1972 break in and the money trail that eventually led them to the White House. Ethical and moral boundaries were crossed by the two reporters during their Watergate investigation documented in All The President’s Men that seem rational considering the aftermath and magnitude of the scandal.

Their investigation led to Senate hearings that resulted in many of the president’s staff receiving felony indictments. Still proclaiming his innocence, on August 8, 1974 President Richard M. Nixon was pressured to resign under the threat of impeachment. The American people and the integrity of the United States Executive Branch owes a huge favor to the efforts of these two reporters. But it is important to note the boundaries that they themselves needed to cross in order to carry out this investigation.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

It is also vital to note the scope of the Watergate incident before considering the impact of their own actions while uncovering the scandal. Roberts and Doss quote Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute for Ethics as saying, “The Watergate scandal provided the impetus for scores of new laws and reams of regulations which have permanently changed the landscape of public service and dramatically improved the integrity of government”(xviii). The ripple effects of their investigative efforts would not end even with the fall of President Nixon and many of his top level staff. The Watergate scandal would lead to sweeping changes in ethics and campaign finance law. Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974 as an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act in an effort to “govern the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.” Then, the National Emergencies Act was passed by Congress in 1976 to help solidify the checks and balances of the Executive Branch and limit any abuse of national states of emergency.

Finally, they would pass the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 which would involve sweeping reform, the most notable being the establishment of the he U.S. Office of Independent Counsel to investigate government officials. This was in response to what the media called The Saturday Night Massacre. President Nixon had fired independent special counsel Archibald Cox, hired by Nixon himself as a symbol of integrity in the investigation, because he subpoenaed tapes of White House conversations. This resulted in the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus in protest.

Ultimately, this became more than just simple misconduct of a President, it erupted a wave of changes in a system many saw as flawed following the Watergate scandal. It should be noted that some scholars continue to debate if journalism even played a role in the ousting of President Nixon; but little doubt exists as to the importance of their impact on journalism.(Feldstein)

In order for these ethical reforms to take place Woodward and Bernstein needed to cross a few lines themselves. Many of these are well documented in All The President’s Men. At one point, Bernstein struggles over the morality of using his contact at Bell to get phone records on one of the men arrested for the break in:

Bernstein had several sources in the Bell system. He was always reluctant to use them to get information about calls because of the ethical questions involved in breaching the confidentiality of a person’s telephone records. It was a problem he had never resolved in his mind. Why, as a reporter, was he entitled to have access to personal and financial records when such disclosure would outrage him if he were subjected to a similar inquiry by investigators? (35)

Following this, Bernstein still decided to use his contact at Bell to confirm a list of phone calls that was printed in the New York Times. Many more ethical considerations would come up as the investigation continued and the reality of its magnitude sunk into the minds of Woodward and Bernstein.

Another point of concern is the use heavy use of unnamed sources in many of their stories on the Watergate scandal. This was due to the large amounts of pressure the upper echelon of the Committee to Re-Elect the President was putting on its staff and even former staff about speaking to anyone at the press, not just The Washington Post. In order to ensure the integrity of their stories, they established a rule to be followed in regards to these unnamed sources: “Unless two sources confirmed a charge involving activity likely to be considered criminal, the specific allegation was not used in the paper. “(79) The caveat to this assurance is that the readers were at the mercy of the reporters as to whether or not this rule was properly respected.

In a study of the Washington Post’s use of unnamed sources, Michael Sheehy notes that the two reporters only made one mistake in their coverage of the scandal:

The Post made only one major factual error in its Watergate coverage. The story reported that the former treasurer of President Richard Nixon’s re-election committee, Hugh Sloan, had testified to a grand jury that Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was one of five people who controlled a secret fund that financed political espionage activities, including the Watergate break-in.(89)

While the Woodward and Bernstein found themselves in a constant gray area when it came to their sources on the story, it is impressive that these late-20s reporters did not succumb to the temptations of sensationalism.

All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Unfortunately, the reporters did show their lack of maturity with their efforts to contact members of the grand jury on Watergate.(Bernstein, and Woodward 207) After meeting with the Washington Post’s lawyers ensuring the legality, they attempted to contact several members of the grand jury. This was a decision that they would later regret and led to them both appearing before Judge John Sirica, presiding over the Watergate trial, who issued a surprisingly lenient verbal reprimand. (222) Thankfully for everyone involved, the jurors they attempted to contact kept their oath and did not divulge information that could jeopardize the case.

When you consider the massive changes in federal government ethical reform and overall change of attitude toward Washington corruption, it is not difficult to forgive these relatively minor ethical transgressions. But if they had been researching a much lesser story, some of their decisions would have been considered unacceptable and even unprofessional. It is easy to make that observation in hindsight; but these reporters and their editors needed to make these tough decisions as they presented themselves.


Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All The President’s Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. Print.
Sheehy, Michael. “Study Examines Unnamed Source Policies at The Washington Post.” Newspaper Research Journal. 31.1 (2010): 84-96. Print.
Roberts, Robert, and Marion Doss. From Watergate To Whitewater: The Public Integrity War. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1997. Print.
Feldstein, Mark. “Watergate Revisited.” American Journalism Review (2004). Web. 25 Apr 2011.




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