‘Truth is our guide’: Watergate reporters bring good, bad news about the future of reporting, country

In one sentence, legendary journalist Carl Bernstein summed up how many feel in the era of the 24-hour news cycle and constant “breaking news” alerts.

“I’m on the damn internet half the day, and I will tell you that it does not bring me comfort,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein and former colleague and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, Bob Woodward, were the featured speakers for Augustana University’s 2019 Boe Forum on Public Affairs hosted by the Center for Western Studies.

Woodward and Bernstein are most famous for their coverage of the Watergate scandal while at the Washington Post. Their reporting was in part responsible for the resignation of former president Richard Nixon.

They spoke at the Elmen Center on Tuesday night on “Power, the Press and the Presidency.”

The hour and a half long event was hosted as a conversation, rather than a speech.

Perhaps the main focus of the night was the importance of good reporting during the Trump administration. President Trump, who has been a vocal critic of the press throughout his campaign and time in office, is seen by Woodward and Bernstein as a force driving the war on news media.

“I remember the first time I heard [Bernstein] say [Trump is a liar] on CNN,” Woodward said. “And I thought, ‘wow, Carl’s really overdoing it.’ But he is right. It is reportorial. It is fact.”

Though President Trump is certainly not the first politician, nor the first president to attack the media—or even Woodward and Bernstein themselves—the journalists said that he is doing it on a level never before seen.

Talking about their coverage of Watergate during the 1970s, Bernstein said that, through much of their investigation, the White House successfully made the conduct of the Washington Post and the conduct of the reporters themselves the issue, rather than the conduct of the president.

Woodward expanded on the topic by discussing Nixon’s war on journalism. He said that President Nixon even went so far as to wiretap at least 17 different reporters.

Both men praised the reporting, especially that appearing in print media, on the Trump administration. However, they were critical of their own profession in many respects.

“There is too much breaking news,” Bernstein said, immediately eliciting a chorus of applause from the audience.

Bernstein also stated that journalists need more time to step back, preferably to have two or three weeks to work on a story rather than a day or two. He also said that pre-election coverage of Trump, especially by TV outlets, “was a great failure.”

“The amount of free air time given to Donald Trump as opposed to the other 17 candidates because of the showmanship, because it was good theatre, was a huge mistake,” Bernstein said.

Woodward, currently an associate editor for the Washington Post, defended campaign coverage, at least that which occurred in print. He pointed to instances of reporters cataloging every lie told by Donald Trump, which he says stands at more than 9,000.

Woodward echoed Bernstein’s sentiment about needing more time to cover a story thoroughly.

He also acknowledged the lower levels of readership that have plagued traditional media outlets for years. Woodward said that journalists are making a product, and they need to make the product more attractive.

Both men also had plenty of advice for aspiring or current journalists.

Bernstein said that the goal of the journalist is to get to the best, obtainable version of the truth, which will serve everyone’s best interest.

Woodward stressed the importance of what he calls, the “Bernstein Method,” which is to go knock on doors without an appointment. He said that silence will most always suck out the truth, so shut up and listen.

Woodward and Bernstein both lamented the decreasing familiarity that they see reporters operating with. They said the fact that many journalists do all of their work via email or, every once in a while, with the “shocking intimacy of the telephone” is discouraging. Woodward said every reporter needs to take the words that his editor once said to him to heart: “get your fat ass out of your chair and go there.”

While Woodward and Bernstein made their name through national reporting, local journalism did receive kudos from the two men both during the press conference and the Boe Forum itself. Though they did acknowledge the decline and sometimes even disappearance of local news outlets.

Bernstein referenced Dominic Gates, an aerospace reporter at The Seattle Times, who brought attention to safety concerns for Boeing airplanes before the crash in Ethiopia that brought it to national attention.

“The situation in regards to local news journalism is disastrous,” Bernstein said. He continued by saying that local news often holds communities together, but he doesn’t see how local media outlets can solve the threats they are facing.

The evening was not only warnings and advice, however. There was plenty of storytelling and laughter as well.

Perhaps Bernstein’s favorite story was the bodily threats made against him and Katherine Graham, then owner of the Washington Post, by Attorney General John Mitchell during the Watergate coverage. The explicit threats were met with laughter by the audience, even if that laughter was accompanied by a few, uncomfortable shifts in seats and glances at the surrounding people to see if it was okay to laugh.

Woodward, referencing the fact that his character was played by the notoriously handsome Robert Redford in the movie All the President’s Men (1976), said jokingly, “you have no idea how many women I’ve disappointed.”

In a private interview with Mirror Editor-in-Chief Jacob Knutson and Edda Co-Editor-in-Chief Kaatje Weiland, Woodward and Bernstein said that they hope they leave the community of Sioux Falls with a sense of what reporting is as well as what is at stake during the “pivot point” in American history that is brought on by the Trump presidency.

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