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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

What Watergate did for journalism

* Corrected information

How many thousands of journalists over the past three decades were inspired to pursue journalism as a result of the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein? Even their own children have entered the profession. Tali Woodward is a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Jacob Bernstein is a features editor for W and Women's Wear Daily.

Generations of reporters were called for different reasons. Some found the celebrity and its accompanying power intoxicating. For others, the magnetism was speaking truth to power.

There’s not much that’s revelatory in Alicia C. Shepard’s new book, “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” published by Wiley. But she does provide a context for how the dynamic duo changed journalism.

“…These two men influenced the modern history of journalism by exploring the advent of celebrity journalism, the controversial use of anonymous sources, the media’s relationship with the public and the executive branch, the importance of the reporter-editor bond, and the role of investigative reporting,” she writes.

The two gave us words that are permanently ingrained in journalism vernacular—reliable source, deep background, off the record, confirm or deny. Watergate legitimized anonymous sources, something that for good or bad has become a Washington staple. And it presented the great perils of superstar journalism, when the reporters become part of the story.

Out of the starting gate she sets the stage for her narrative demonstrating the dichotomy of personalities and the unlikelihood of them ever coming together as friends, let alone as colleagues.

* She draws from her extensive interviews with them for a 2003 Washingtonian article and from other key players—including Case journalism professor, former Washington Post reporter and prolific writer, Ted Gup—and to pull from strong interviews with the pair over the past 30 years.

She also had the enviable opportunity to pore through the archives at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. That included 75 boxes filled with 250 reporter notebooks, interviews, book galleys, typed notes, handwritten notes, memorabilia and two feet of fan mail, some of which is delightfully excerpted throughout.

Woodward said that his early fascination with The Washington Post stemmed from its coverage of Vietnam, something as a naval officer he considered a “lifeline.” “That propelled me into the newsroom,” he said. “The sense of immediacy in a newsroom and the newspaper was overwhelming to me.”

Over time, Woodward would look at the Post as his home and to Editor Ben Bradlee and Publisher Katherine Graham as his parents. “It was home,” Woodward said.

“There would always be exceptions made for Woodward not afforded to other Post reporters,” Shepard writes, and that is a great pitfall of celebrity journalism.

Bernstein was the cocky college dropout, the “newspaper urchin” who had a strong knack for writing human-interest stories that weren’t common at the time. But while he could be genius in his writing, he was also sporadic, anti-establishment and not altogether trustworthy. Woodward, by contrast was the steady, loyal, focused Midwesterner. While he was clean cut, Bernstein was a chain-smoking, longhaired eastern liberal. Woodward is a workaholic and Bernstein could quickly lose interest. Woodward wanted to please editors; Bernstein lived to piss them off.

But against all likelihood, these two came together when handed the Watergate story by the overnight cops reporters. Without the burden of family commitments, they were able to spend extraordinary hours working the story. While Bernstein was the better writer and able to grasp the big picture more quickly, Woodward used his killer instinct and laser-like focus on reporting. The two shared an intense respect and suspicion for all things powerful.

Along with a cadre of other reporters and many editors, led by “Boston Brahmin” Ben Bradlee, the two were able to accomplish reporting that had never been seen at the time. The White House Press Corps was complacent and lazy, regurgitating official statements. The two hotshots with nothing to lose permanently shook them from their collective malaise and changed how the Press Corp interacts with power.

Although he is incorrectly given most of the credit for the Watergate reporting thanks to Robert Redford’s movie, “All the President’s Men,” Ben Bradlee does deserve credit for creating the atmosphere in which such reporting could occur. He pushed the Post to become a national newspaper and put a premium on creative, solid journalism over cost cutting. He gave Woodward and Bernstein the twin luxuries of time and flexibility.

But at the same time, Bradlee also enforced a strict work ethic and standards and pushed reporters to get off their asses and report their stories. So the time and circumstances were ripe for collaborative, investigative reporting.

There’s a tremendous focus in the book on Woodward and Bernstein's relationship with Robert Redford and how the movie created from their book helped to explain a news operation to a public that was largely ignorant of its methods.

Shepard’s book also shows how media content has changed since “All the President’s Men.” Simon & Schuster had issued an embargo on the book prior to its publication. But Women’s Wear Daily broke the embargo in a rollout that resembles Woodward’s most recent book launch. The book was reviewed by Dan Rather in Rolling Stone and it was excerpted in Newsweek, but also in Playboy, then considered a slightly more serious publication, where Deep Throat first appears.

My favorite passages involved their interaction with then-New York Times now New Yorker “sartorially challenged” reporter Seymour Hersh. Now he’s someone who should be the subject of a book. Here’s his note to Woodward and Bernstein following the publication of “All the President’s Men.”

Just wanted to say that I read the excerpt (Part 1) in Newsweek just now and it was terrific; I wished I had written it (which as I told David Obst, is the ultimate compliment anyone can get from me) … the last book I daydreamed about writing was Humboldt’s Gift.

And keep out of Las Vegas. Sy

Shepard’s narrative moves quickly over the years 1976-2005 but includes the more salacious details of Bernstein’s personal life, which is frankly more interesting to read (though hardly new) than Woodward’s more cardboard existence. The exception is a quick run through Woodward’s attempts at management, which (with the support of many others) went down in flames thanks to one reporter who invented a story that caused the Post to have to return a Pulitzer.

Throughout the years, we see the development and now very familiar Woodward style of “instant history.” His books are characterized by saturated reporting, little context and use of omniscient narrator and while he continues to be roundly criticized for his approach by some, it’s also brought him professional and financial success. Woodward's books, for better or worse, continue to be news events.

Interestingly, some of what the duo accomplished early on is now being called into question. The use of anonymous sources has plagued reporting largely because its use prohibits accountability. Until fairly recently, the White House Press Corps had again sunk into a malaise that left an Administration largely unchallenged, and in this era of cost-cutting most newspapers can no longer afford the luxury of time and flexibility for reporters pursuing investigative stories.

Shepard’s book ends anticlimactically with the revelation of Deep Throat’s identity as Mark Felt, which lacks freshness given that it was so recently and thoroughly reported. The end of the Watergate story came when current Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said, "Bob, it's over."

She writes: “A thirty-three-year-old secret ended with the push of a ‘send’ button from” when “decades of secrecy and denial evaporated in a mere seven hours and forty-two minutes.”

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