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Friday, October 28, 2011

Woodward and Bernstein Speak Out: No Safety Plays in Journalism and Politics

A hush fell over the packed rows of seats in Glenn Auditorium Wednesday night as legendary Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took the podium for the 2011 Goodrich C. White Lecture.

After a quick tap on a quiet microphone, Bob Woodward leaned toward the crowd, smiled, and revealed his sharp sense of humor. “We asked Gordon Liddy to arrange the mics – and once again Gordon has failed us.”

As laughter rippled through the audience for the reference to the orchestrator of the Watergate burglaries, the vastness of the contribution Woodward and Bernstein made to the field of journalism remained at the forefront of people’s minds. Just moments before, Emory University’s Vice President and Deputy to the President Gary Hauk described the writing duo’s teamwork as having “indelibly shaped the American consciousness” whose work is synonymous with “fearless accountability.” The team’s investigative reporting while at The Washington Post effectively set the standard for integrity and has been hailed as the most influential body of journalism of the 20th Century.

In breaking the news story of the 1972 Watergate debacle and its ultimate connection to a corrupt Nixon White House, these once young reporters were self-described “outsiders” to political circles in our nation’s capital. With full support of The Washington Post leadership, and using nose-to-the-grindstone methods of solid research, following leads from low-level organizational sources, and plenty of legwork and page-turning in archives and photo libraries, the pair took an all-in personal approach to exposing arguably one of our nation’s greatest political controversies.

Unlike their competition, Woodward and Bernstein fueled their ambition for the truth by relying on gut instinct and audacity, building relationships with sources such as the legendary confidential informant “Deep Throat” (recently revealed as former Federal Bureau of Information Associate Director Mark Felt). To challenge convention, they called on sources at night. When commenting on the entourage that often surrounds politicians during the work day, Bernstein pointed out, “You see the truth at night, and lies in the day.”

With vivid recollection of historical details, the writers shared the discovery process that led to the unfolding story and the ultimate demise of Richard M. Nixon’s presidency. Bernstein recalled the first phone call to the then United States Attorney General John N. Mitchell, placed late in the evening hours before the first story about President Nixon’s secret slush fund broke. After listening to Bernstein’s article, Mitchell verbally threatened the reporter with retaliation and scrutiny.

Woodward points out that this response wasn’t merely an idle threat. At the heart of the issue was the battle between political embarrassment and First Amendment rights. Woodward notes, “That a person in Mitchell’s position would talk that way to a reporter said he thought he was in control.” From that day forward, the Nixon Administration tried to discredit the press and make the overriding issue about journalism. “They thought themselves impregnable.”

Both Woodward and Bernstein staunchly defended their legal right to continue their investigation. Bernstein said, “What was Watergate about? An unconstitutional, criminal presidency that tried to undermine the process of the election.” Woodward agreed, saying “This was a war against history. President Nixon denied wrongdoing and tried to rewrite history.” When referencing the legendary tapes President Nixon made of telephone conversations with his staff, Bernstein comically pointed out that whenever a new tape is released to the public, “They’re the gift that keeps on giving.”

Truth be told, the meticulous investigative work of the inseparable Woodward and Bernstein changed the landscape of American politics forever. “Perhaps Watergate was the last time that all the elements of the American system ever worked together in a significant way.”

The Changing Face of Journalism
In an age where circulation in traditional newspapers is on the decline and information on the Internet seems to grow by the hour, journalists are now driven by an even greater pressure to get it right. As Bernstein said, “The truth is not the thing that drives the Internet.”

Woodward cited the breakdown of true news into “manufactured controversy.” He pointed out, “The media is looking for a gotcha. But there must be a system of accountability rather than coverage built around trivial and gossip-driven topics.” He is quick to admit, “most good stories are hidden” and it is only through developing relationships that real news will emerge. “We are on the edge of a crisis about how we are getting information about our government.”

Woodward also voiced his questions about journalistic integrity today. “How have we come to this point? How much time is dedicated to one story?” he asked. Bernstein concluded to a raucous round of applause with his statement, “When we give up on news and focus on ratings, we’ve abdicated leadership.”

As one audience member so aptly named the prolific authors, these “titans of journalism” hold fast to traditional methods of information gathering and story development. “Follow what you’ve got, and see where it takes you,” Woodward recommends. “Pursue the story.”

“People think the Internet is a magic box that will give truth,” Woodward said, recounting that “We are in an age where extreme news dominates. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make it more relevant.” Woodward spoke strong words about getting to the truth. “When you don’t have smoking gun evidence, hard evidence, you don’t have anything.”

--Michelle Valigursky, EAA Assistant Director of Marketing Communications

--Photos courtesy of Ann Borden, Emory Photo/Video executive director

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