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Woodward and Bernstein on the Internet and Politics

Free Media
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Thursday, Aug. 3, 2000; 2:30 p.m. EDT

Back in the days when stories were written on plain old typewriters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein teamed up as metro reporters at The Washington Post and uncovered the Watergate scandal that would ultimately force a president from office. But, at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the award-winning journalists have joined the digital age and are each taking part in Web endeavors at the convention.

Woodward, an author and an assistant managing editor at The Post, has been contributing to a midday roundtable discussion with other reporters, discussing the events of the previous day and what is upcoming via an audio feed which is posted later on The Washington Post's Web site. Meanwhile, Bernstein, an author and contributor to publications including Vanity Fair, has been involved with the massive Web undertaking of Voter.com

Woodward and Bernstein were live online on Thursday, Aug. 3 to talk about politics, media coverage and the future of conventions in the Internet age. The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Free Media: Good afternoon, Bob and Carl, and welcome. Since both of you are working with content for your respective Web sites, you must be familiar with some of the coverage of politics out on the Web. Which sites do you visit?

Carl Bernstein: Obviously, I go first to the coverage at Voter.com, which is where I'm executive vice president and executive editor, and I think we have the dominant political Web site in terms of what we put up and imaginative coverage. We are able to give the best of what's in The Washington Post, the New York Times and papers all over the world, as well as our own contributors, including Ben Stein, P.J. O'Rourke, Elizabeth Drew, Tucker Carlson, etc.
In terms of a general news Web site as opposed to a political site, I do go to The Washington Post first, and the New York Times.

Bob Woodward: This is some self-indulgent advertisement for myself, but I think using the Internet is very much like reading a newspaper; it's a matter of habit. And I see on my bookmarks that I do use The Washington Post, but I find myself bouncing all around if there's immediate news. I think Carl's site has excellent coverage. I use CNN, MSNBC, ABC, the New York Times, and I pay for the Wall Street Journal. Also for my work, I've found the "Welcome to the White House" site very helpful. The Federal Reserve has an incredible archive if you're interested in reading old Alan Greenspan speeches.


Sherman Oaks, Calif.: How has the Internet changed the political landscape in the United States?

Carl Bernstein: The Internet is changing journalism and politics profoundly and at a pace that no one could have envisioned. First of all, political information of any kind is available instantaneously, on any subject. The Internet has no limitations of time or space, such as broadcast journalism and print do. So the user gets to package his own information, rather than being forced to take the product of a producer -- he can pick and choose. In terms of politics, it means on a site like ours, we can list as we do, candidates for office down to the level of state house, what their stands are their voting records, we put them on video, we can find out their full biographies. So that going into the polling place, especially on the local level, you know much more about who you're voting for. The Web is finally going to drive the cost of campaigning down, because candidates can use selected lists for e-mails on issues that interest particular constituents. For advertising, cost is infinitely less than television and their messages can be personalized in a way that can never be possible with television. It seems to me the great hope of the Internet is that we've finally found a way to control campaign spending without waiting for legislation.

Woodward says that's enough.

Bob Woodward: I think Carl's talking about a future that may be around the corner, or may be some distance off. At some point, but it may be years down the road, people are going to do news stories on how the Internet changed votes or gave people information that elected Candidate A instead of Candidate B. Then that's going to be a big deal. As Carl and I have tediously reminded ourselves over the years, we began as reporters covering local politics one way or another. And that newspaper journalism is going to continue for some time. But I am delighted to see that somebody as old as Carl has the imagination and freshness to get into something that is the future.

Carl Bernstein: Thank you, brother Methuselah.

Bob Woodward: What Hebrew I know, I learned from Carl.


Washington, D.C.: There appears to be a great lack of the investigative journalism that you are well known for and which so greatly affected our government in the early to mid 70's. We seem now, in contrast, to have a lot of "beat reporters" covering their agencies/bailiwicks who simply spew forth the opinions and positions of the bureaucrats they interview. Do you share this perspective and, if so, how would you have The Post, other newspapers and media in general return to the serious reporting of the past? Along the same line, do you think that there might be a tendency for Internet reporting in an effort to be more timely to be more shallow?

Bob Woodward: I think there is a lot of excellent investigative reporting being done. It's my view that there's never enough of it. But the Internet has provided so many tools for reporting on issues like campaign contributions. So the Internet is a positive for investigative reporting.

Carl Bernstein: I don't believe the mythology that there was ever a great age of investigative reporting. The great reporting has always been exceptional. And not just in terms of investigative reporting. Today, sadly, too much of the great reporting is being done in books, for complicated economic reasons, among other things. And not enough in daily journalism. And I too hope the Web might stimulate real change.


Raleigh, N.C.: Hello. How would having had the Internet available to you affected or impacted your Watergate coverage? Looking back, are you sorry or glad you had to do things the "old-fashioned way"? Thank you.

Carl Bernstein: Questions about hypothetical comparisons of eras rarely work. But one of the wonderful things about a great newspaper is its restraint. And the careful editing that goes into it. We were the beneficiaries of that. And I think in today's atmosphere, there would have been unreasonable pressures to rush into print. I think we have to find some means of restraint in this new media culture.

Bob Woodward: As Carl and I recall, there were times where we could have the draft of a Watergate story, the editors would ask questions, and we could spend a week or even three weeks answering them before publication. Carl is right about the restraint, but it's also about a process of editors interrogating the journalists. That may be missing now on Internet journalism. But it still exists in good newspapers.


Herndon, Va.: For Mr. Bernstein: Do you have any lingering resentment about whoever came up with the "joint" name for you two as "Woodstein," rather than "Bernward?"

Carl Bernstein: No. There's a certain poetry to "Woodstein" and a terrible awkwardness to "Bernward," which sounds like a Native American ritual.

Bob Woodward: I don't honestly recall who came up with "Woodstein." I think it was a way for a very angry managing editor, then Howard Simons, to find a way to scream two syllables and get us both into his office. It was a purely practical contraction.

In a sense, the new Internet has got a kind of obvious unpredictability to it, but even old timers like myself feel like we're watching the Wright Brothers on the beach, and sometimes the flights only go a few hundred feet. But there is a richness to the dialogue and availability of raw data that makes all of us happy to get sand in our shoes.

Carl Bernstein: And propellers in our nose.


Free Media: That was our last question today for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Thanks so much to Bob and Carl, and to everyone who joined us.



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