Bob Woodward, whose 1972 investigation of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post led to then-President Nixon’s resignation, spoke at the Columbia School of Journalism last week. Woodward discussed his most recent book, The Price of Politics, which focuses on budget negotiations and economic debt under the current administration. Woodward shared his thoughts on the “business of journalism” and shared anecdotes from his many in journalism. By the end of the conversation, he left the audience looking past this difficult time for journalism toward his hope for the field, exposing what is hidden from the public.
Lessons from Watergate
Woodward’s speech was directed at an audience of about one hundred journalism students, who are the same age now as Woodward was when he investigated the Watergate scandal. A candid and witty Woodward revealed errors he made as a budding journalist, and how he learned precision, persistence, and reexamination from them.
Woodward responded to the label of having “taken down Nixon” by pointing to his evidence as being as empirical as possible in proving Nixon’s guilt. Days before Nixon’s trial, Woodward stated he had even reexamined the tapes and records, asking himself, “Could he [Nixon] be innocent? What’s the other side here?”
People, documents, and the internet all serve as sources of information, but getting in touch with the main source – such as Woodward’s unscheduled visit to an army general – often times reveals information that might be contrary to what is revealed in more accessible sources. Revealing times when information he received was contrary to real accounts, his suggestion for the potential journalists in the room was to question whether one is on the right track to understanding what is really going on. “And you just have to keep digging… information begets information.”
The current journalist faces a dilemma between using the vast range of sources on the internet and getting information straight from the source of the issue. But despite these troubles, there is a gift to the profession, Woodward noted: “In journalism, you get to make momentary entries into people’s lives when they’re interesting, and then get the hell out when they cease to be interesting.”
Woodward is critical of the fact that today’s journalists cover presidential speeches that represent weeks of work in a matter of minutes with a blog and a tweet. Taking no time to reflect and critically analyze, journalists hastily move on to a new topic after a post on their blog. Instead Woodward believes we should go back and look deeper into what we already have and seek what is hidden.
The nature that drives the current news cycle- the desire for quick, simple information along with infrequent attempts to dig more deeply into an issue – creates a gap of access to more analytic information. As we take time to watch the debates leading up to the presidential elections, we should inquire about the quality of information that is being delivered to us. “Is the business of journalism up to covering the campaign? Is it doing its job well enough? How much do we penetrate? How much of what is of consequence or of interest do we now know?,” Woodward asked the audience to think about this series of questions.
What to Worry about Next?
As the concentration of power of each administration grows, Woodward states, “The government apparatus that tries to control things is natural, but one of the things they [government] don’t want done is a full explanation of the details”.
Woodward left us mulling over the reality of a secret government and a reminder that “democracies die in the dark.”
But, the “business of journalism” is to find out everything. Today’s plethora of online sources and quick access to information may give us the impression that we know all. But an inherent questioning of the value of the information that is included- and a search for that which is excluded- is important to understanding the true functioning of the government. And for the curious one, a persistent, objective, and empirical analysis is the way to reveal the hidden.