Woodward and Bernstein: Could the Web generation uncover a Watergate-type scandal?

April 3, 2012

The gabby, gray-haired grand pooh-bahs of journalism sprang from the back flaps of their book jackets onto a real-life panel Tuesday afternoon in the air-conditioned guts of the Marriott Wardman Park, where the American Society of News Editors was holding its annual conference. The pooh-bahs oraculated, with both good humor and grandfatherly concern, that the Internet — while a purveyor and archivist of Truth — is not the mother of Truth.

“One of the colleges asked students in a journalism class to write a one-page paper on how Watergate would be covered now,” said Bob Woodward, “and the professor — ”

“Why don’t you say what school it was,” suggested Carl Bernstein, sitting to Woodward’s left in a session titled “Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age?”

“Yale,” Woodward said. “He sent the one-page papers that these bright students had written and asked that I’d talk to the class on a speakerphone afterward. So I got them on a Sunday, and I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there.’ ”

“This is Yale,” Bernstein said gravely.

“That somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events,” Woodward said. “And they went on to say the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed, and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate.”

A small ballroom of journalists — which included The Washington Post’s top brass, past and present — chuckled or scoffed at the scenario.

“I have attempted to apply some corrective information to them,” Woodward continued, “but the basic point is: The truth of what goes on is not on the Internet. [The Internet] can supplement. It can help advance. But the truth resides with people. Human sources.”

Just as the U.S. government has been haunted by the specter of Watergate for the past four decades, the profession of journalism has never quite shaken the golden archetype of Woodward and Bernstein, the enterprising young Washington Post reporters who first got word of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee 40 years ago in June.

Tuesday’s panel briefly reunited the pair, whose untangling of the Nixon administration inspired a generation of journalists who have since been laid off or bought out in large numbers. Woodward and Bernstein’s main point was evocative of a previous, plentiful era: Editors gave them the time and encouragement to pursue an intricate, elusive story, they said, and then the rest of the American system (Congress, the judiciary) took over and worked. It was a shining act of democratic teamwork that neither man believes is wholly replicable today — either because news outlets are strapped or gutted, or because the American people have a reduced appetite for ponderous coverage of a not-yet-scandal, or because the current Congress would never act as decisively to investigate a president.

The rest of the panel — Jeff Leen, The Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall and Bloomberg News’s Amanda Bennett — noted that sumptuous investigative work is still a priority for newsrooms and readers and cited the Boston Globe’s epic exposéof the Catholic Church in the early aughts as the closest analogue to Watergate to date.

The ballroom, though, was mostly misty with nostalgia.

“We had a readership that was much more open to real fact than today,” Bernstein said. “Today there’s a huge audience, partly whipped into shape by the 24-hour cycle, that is looking for information to confirm their already-held political-cultural-religious beliefs/ideologies, and that is the cauldron into which all information is put. . . . I have no doubt there are dozens of great reporters out there today — and news organizations — that could do this story. What I don’t think is that it would withstand this cultural reception. It might get ground up in the process.”

The panel, focused on more cosmic topics, skipped a granular point: If Watergate happened today, it would probably involve a hacking, not a burglary. That geeky scenario will have to wait for another panel on another day.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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