COLLEGE PARK – The men who spent the last 30 years protecting the identity of “Deep Throat,” the source who helped bring down the Nixon White House, said Wednesday that the key to better reporting is still trust between reporters and sources.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting on the Watergate scandal won a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post, told an audience of 850 at the University of Maryland that good journalism is still going on today. But Bernstein said that there is also more of “both the best and the worst.”
“We go around shouting and screaming so often when we really ought to be conducting a conversation and interviewing. People start to look at us, not unreasonably, as mad dogs,” Bernstein said.
He criticized what he called a tendency toward “gotcha” journalism since Watergate, although neither man would say their reporting was responsible for that shift.
But the result is a culture in which “baseball managers are the only public figures who routinely tell the truth,” said Bernstein, who is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Bernstein and Woodward, who is now an assistant managing editor at The Post, appeared Wednesday at the university’s Norman and Florence Brody Family Foundation Public Policy Forum to discuss how Watergate, and government secrecy in the wake of Sept. 11, has affected reporting.
Woodward said “a reporter is an outsider and loves living on the outside.”
“Your job is to hold the government accountable and close the gap between what’s going on and what’s being told by the government,” Woodward said.
But they said that job is sometimes overshadowed by the desire to get news out quickly.
Woodward compared that to the advice he got on deadline one day from former Post Managing Editor Howard Simons, who said “you can’t understand a man in an afternoon.”
“We’ve set up a system where the expectation is . . . we’re not just going to tell you about a man in an afternoon, we’re going to tell you about all men in an afternoon. You can’t,” he said.
Former Post editor Haynes Johnson, who joined the pair on the panel, said the reporting that lead to the Watergate story was the “textbook example” of shoe-leather reporting. Woodward and Bernstein agreed.
“What we did was a very basic kind of traditional non-glamorous reporting that works,” Bernstein said. “Good reporting is the best obtainable version of the truth. That no longer is the bottom line in our business.”
Woodward said reporters “have to have the patience and the time to go to sources and go back and go back again.”
“The fundamental relationship has to be one of trust — developing unofficial sources” who do not mislead reporters or compromise national security. That is as true today, when news of attacks on Iraq is being leaked to news organizations, as it was 30 years ago, he said.
The forum was sponsored by the university’s School of Public Affairs and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, whose students appeared on stage to ask questions of the panel. Segments of the show will air on PBS at a later date.
First-year graduate student Diana Alvear crashed the pre-forum reception to see if she could meet Woodward and Bernstein. Alvear, a devotee who read “All the President’s Men” at age 16, later said she was surprised at how cynical Bernstein appeared to be.
“It’s quite a contrast to Woodward because he’s still in the newsroom and sees the good,” she said. “I just hope I can incorporate a little bit of Woodward and a little bit of Bernstein in the reporting I do. It’s important to get both perspectives.”