Bob Woodward adjusted his microphone as he walked onto the INMA podium Tuesday morning, offhandedly quipping to the audience of 500 news media executives about how the device had probably been installed by Gordon Liddy.
Then he looked out and noted that many in the room were probably too young to have any firsthand knowledge of the dirty-tricks architect under President Richard Nixon.
It was a pretty good stagesetter for his remarks to the INMA World Congress of News Media in Washington D.C. about forgotten lessons of Watergate coverage, which made Woodward the journalistic icon he is today.
The 75-year-old investigative journalist, author, professor and Washington Post associate editor offered two veins of such lessons as they might apply to the news media’s problematic relationship with the current occupant of the White House.
As to how to handle the increasingly convoluted story that is U.S. President Donald Trump, he advised dogged tenacity, listening more than talking, and getting back to the tried-and-true techniques of shoe-leather investigative reporting rather than expecting to find answers online.
“I ask my students, ‘How do you think Watergate would be covered in the Internet age?’” Woodward related. “And a number of them, as smart as they are, say, ‘Oh, you just go Google: Nixon’s secret recordings.’ Hey guys! It’s secret! If there had been an Internet, it would not have been something you could get. You’re not going to find that that way.”
Alternatively, as to what to make of the confusing Trump story, how to understand where it’s going, and what it means as the norms of American politics and media are upended, he collegially counselled time, patience, perspective — and humility.
Case in point: When then-U.S. President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon a month after moving into the Oval Office, many, including Woodward, did not immediately see it as Ford sacrificing his political future to let the country heal and move on. That realisation dawned only later during an interview with Ford, he said.
“What a cold shower,” he recalled. “What a moment of humility. I got it wrong! I thought it was corruption. And then you look at it 25 years later through the lens of history and what’s corruption turns out to be courage? You can’t have that experience as a journalist and not pause about judging, even Trump. We don’t know where this is going.
“And so that lesson: We think it’s this way and we’re so sure of it, and we haven’t had 25 years to look back and to talk to everyone and try to get all the documents and try figure out…. So what about the future? Where’s all this going with Trump? We don’t know!”
Woodward, of course, was just a young reporter for The Washington Post in 1972 when he teamed up with Carl Bernstein and did much of the original news reporting on the Watergate scandal, leading to numerous government investigations and Nixon’s eventual resignation. An experience like that leaves its mark.
“If somebody asks me what’s the biggest thing to worry about in the United States and in the world, my answer to that question is: secret government,” he told INMA. “Government tends always to be secret. It hides how it does things, often unnecessarily. That is the battle. That is the eternal battle we are in. What are the secrets? Let’s find them out. Let’s publish them or broadcast them.”
That’s the basic job of being a journalist or a news publisher, he said.
“I want to go back to a long time ago to the mid-1970s, after Nixon resigned and they were doing a movie of the book Carl Bernstein and I wrote, All the President’s Men, about covering Nixon,” Woodward said.
After reading the script for his portrayal of Post Executive Ben Bradlee, actor Jason Robards complained to the producers that “all Bradlee does is run around and say, ‘Where’s the f--king story?’”
“And they said to him, “That’s what the editor of a newspaper does! That’s his job! To run around and say, ‘Where’s the f--king story?’ Now fast forward to 2018,” Woodward continued. “That’s still the basic job. Find the story.
“But because of the conditions of the media and the political battles and the politicalisation of everything, we have to ask a series of questions in the daily regular pursuit of news. And that is: What is the effing story?
“It’s never crystal clear. I think it’s less crystal clear these days. Once we get the effing story, how do we present the effing story? What format? When do we present the effing story? How do we verify the effing story? It is a series of additional questions that need to be asked.”
Woodward’s response to deep distrust of the news media by many in the public would be to do more depth reporting, he said:
“Trump is a hard case, but not an impossible case. I don’t think it’s the job of reporters, editors, producers, people in television and radio to have an argument with Trump. It is to do better and more thorough reporting. In the end, we’re going to define ourselves by our work, not our rhetoric.”