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Watergate: Thirty Years Later

June 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: 30 years ago today, a little-noticed break-in at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee began a chain of events that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon two years later. Two young reporters at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, began investigating Watergate.

What was at first characterized as a third-rate burglary grew into much more. Under withering political fire, the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee and its publisher, the late Katharine Graham, helped guide and protect the Post as its reporting gradually exposed abuses of power and a conspiracy to obstruct justice that led directly to the Oval Office. The newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service and secured its place in the annals of American journalism.

TERENCE SMITH: With us now to take a look back at Watergate, and what it has meant to American journalism, are Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, now its vice president at large; Bob Woodward, reporter and an assistant managing editor at the paper; and Carl Bernstein, an author and contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

Gentlemen, welcome. Ben Bradlee, looking back on it with this hindsight of 30 years– we’re all geniuses, right, with 30 years of hindsight. What’s the impact on… of Watergate, of the Post’s coverage of it, on American journalism and particularly investigative journalism?

BEN BRADLEE: I think it can be overstated. I think it attracted a large number of competent and really good young journalists. I think it made politicians more scared of lying, but it sure as hell didn’t stop ‘em. And I think it was very good for the Washington Post.

TERENCE SMITH: Put the Washington Post on the map.

BEN BRADLEE: On the map.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Woodward, what do you think was the impact, especially on investigative journalism?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, there’s a lot more in-depth reporting, but that tradition converges with the Internet and 24-hour television so there’s this sense of impatience in journalism. Get it out right now. And investigative reporting is the opposite of impatience. You have to just wait and slug it out and talk to people. And when you have a news environment of “Let’s be first, let’s get it on the Web site,” Carl and I could work on stories for weeks and Bradlee was impatient, but patient enough to let us chase the needed sources and establish the basics as fact.

TERENCE SMITH: And that wouldn’t happen today?

BOB WOODWARD: Yes, it does happen today at the Washington Post and a number of newspapers. There is a lot of good journalism, but the environment is, “Hey, that’s on CNN. My God, let’s go chase it.”

TERENCE SMITH: Carl Bernstein, what do you think has been the impact?

CARL BERNSTEIN: I wish it had been a much more effective one in terms of better journalism. I think that the real trends in journalism in the past 30 years have been toward gossip, sensationalism, manufactured controversy, and at the same time as we’re doing the dumbing down of most American journalism to the point where we’re losing most of our context, then you have these great newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times and the “Wall Street Journal”, that are doing better reporting in many ways than they ever have.

And, as Ben says, small papers are getting great young reporters. But then they’re going to places that are owned by the conglomerates where the agenda is no longer the best obtainable version of the truth; the agenda is really about sales. That’s the bottom line.

TERENCE SMITH: You know, for years after Watergate and after your experiences, the notion among many young reporters coming on was that they had to do the same thing. They had to, quote, get a president in the common phrase. Was that a good thing?

BEN BRADLEE: It wasn’t bad, because there are editors who can take all that attitude out of — out of a story with a stroke of the pencil.

TERENCE SMITH: What about the mindset?

BEN BRADLEE: The mindset is not bad. I mean, the mindset says probably this guy is not telling me all of the truth, and that makes for better reporting. I wouldn’t worry too much about that.

TERENCE SMITH: Did it sow the seeds of distrust among reporters about government and government officials in your view?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, government and government officials sowed that distrust by their behavior and the repeated scandals and examples. But it was really our former ultimate boss Katharine Graham who set the bar on this when in Watergate we said, you know, we’re doing the stories but we think all the truth will never come out. She said never? She said don’t tell me never. She said get to the bottom of it. And she created an environment and Ben practiced that of, “Come on, guys, there’s a movie about this.” Ben is in there yelling, Woodstein, get your — you know — in here” and that means tell us what’s going on, does it make sense, and never stop. He was not…he didn’t have a foot on the brakes.

TERENCE SMITH: Carl, is there a downside, beyond what you already mentioned, the quality of so much of journalism today, but was there a downside in terms of investigative overkill?

CARL BERNSTEIN: Yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: I mean I’m thinking, for example, the pursuit of Wen Ho Lee and that story of a man accused of…in the papers of spying and ultimately acquitted?

CARL BERNSTEIN: That was actually, I think, some bad reporting. That was bad reporting.

BEN BRADLEE: You can’t blame Watergate for that.

CARL BERNSTEIN: That was just bad reporting, but I think you’re on to something here. I’m going to disagree a tiny bit with Bradlee.

BEN BRADLEE: Very carefully.

CARL BERNSTEIN: Which I’m very reluctant to do and always have been.

BOB WOODWARD: Remember he’s the vice president at large.

CARL BERNSTEIN: That’s right. But I think we have created an atmosphere that has a kind of gotcha environment in which a new reporter comes to the paper and is assigned to go to the county fair and instead of looking at the cows and the exhibits is looking at the cookie jar and somebody with their hand in it. What happens is you lose context so that if you’re covering city hall and what you’re really looking for most of the time is to catch the mayor saying something that’s a little untrue and turning it into a big story when, in fact, the sewer system of the whole city is falling apart and people can’t get their water and they’re getting poisoned, you’re missing the news. And I think that’s a big problem.

TERENCE SMITH: Ben, what do you think?

BEN BRADLEE: You set up an obvious problem. If the water…the people are dying from bad water, you’re not going to spend a lot of time poking around the mayor’s wastebasket.

TERENCE SMITH: But the question is not that Watergate created bad reporting, not at all, but that it created a mindset where you went after the scandal. I think that’s what Carl is saying. That you went after the scandal at the price perhaps of a broader issue.

BEN BRADLEE: I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll worry about that but I won’t worry a whole lot about it. I’ll worry about are they out there? Are they finding out? Are they skeptical? Do they believe everything they say? Do they check what he says? And do we they work, you know, the way the…the kind of hours that these guys worked?

TERENCE SMITH: So you would argue that there’s not even enough of it, of this sort of same aggressive reporting.

BEN BRADLEE: I think whatever ailment he was trying to describe is not a fatal ailment. You can cure that with a little….

CARL BERNSTEIN: Well, with a great editor.

BEN BRADLEE: I didn’t want to say that.

CARL BERNSTEIN: I’ll finish it for you. You don’t have to say it. But what I’m saying is there aren’t many Bradlees around.

BEN BRADLEE: Come on.

CARL BERNSTEIN: No, really. If you look at what the values of so much of our journalistic institutions are today, they are not what we are talking about anymore.

TERENCE SMITH: Not to interrupt this love fest, but Bob, your view.

BOB WOODWARD: But what Ben is saying is we need more digging. We need more energy, more of this focus on, you know, what’s this story really about? There was a time in 1977, I mean, this breaks my heart to tell this story but Bradlee called me in. This is after Watergate. Nixon resigned. I’m still young. And he sits me down in his office and he said, “Wall Street. Wall Street. It’s the big story. Get your ass to New York and go on it.” Or, you know, it may have been more…do you remember this moment?

BEN BRADLEE: Of course I remember it.

BOB WOODWARD: And I did not do it.

BEN BRADLEE: I remember that too.

BOB WOODWARD: How many stories…that’s how much control he had over me at that point. How many stories about…I mean, there have been a sequence almost a plague of stories out of Wall Street and he spotted them instinctively and there’s been a lot of great reporting on Wall Street in lots of things. But in a way it comes from the bottom reporters with the facts but also it has to meet the top with the editors and the owners saying, “Come on. Wall Street. Go.”

TERENCE SMITH: Wall Street certainly a huge story now, and lots to be done there. But let me ask you about the relationship Watergate set up between the press corps and the administration, whichever administration, in terms of…in other words, did administrations become hostile to reporters and to the press or more hostile as a result of Watergate?

BEN BRADLEE: You couldn’t get much more hostile than the Nixon administration was. There haven’t been administrations that liked reporters since Kennedy.

TERENCE SMITH: I understand that. But what I’m getting at is, is there a point where skepticism is replaced by cynicism? You can apply that to reporters too.

BEN BRADLEE: I’ll worry about that too. I think there is but not…that isn’t what’s wrong.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s the least of your concerns as far as you’re concerned. Carl?

BEN BRADLEE: Give me energy and I’ll take care of the cynicism.

CARL BERNSTEIN: That’s right. If you’ve got a good news institution, you can do all that you have to do. What the Nixon White House was successful in doing was to make our conduct the issue in Watergate, not the conduct of the president and his men. It is a technique that every subsequent president has used. Reagan used it extensively and got away with it. Every president has since.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact there’s an article that you wrote in the New Republic in 1992 saying and now we have George Bush, another president obsessed with leaks and secrecy and of course you were talking about George Bush, the father.

CARL BERNSTEIN: Yes, well he attacked the press for not being on the right side when there was a drug bust that his drug people had set up in Lafayette Square that was a total fake. And when it was revealed it was a total fake, he attacked the press.

BOB WOODWARD: And all of these problems you’re asking about are compounded during the war. Now we are in a war. The war on terrorism is really serious business. And we have to be able to find out what’s going on. And at the same time no one wants to publish something that’s going to get somebody killed or an operation blown, so there needs to be some relationship of trust.

There needs to be the person in the White House or in the CIA or in the Defense Department that you can call or go see and say, “Look, we understand this. How do we inform the public and not get someone killed?” Tough.

CARL BERNSTEIN: I think you can set up a situation though where sometimes we’ve been combative without doing our work, and that that has made the atmosphere worse.

TERENCE SMITH: Gentlemen, thank you all. We’ve gotten through another session and you still haven’t identified Deep Throat. It’s your last opportunity but unless you want to do it, thanks very much.