Woodward & Bernstein: We're Not Fake News
Two of the greatest journalists of the 20th century have a message for political reporters—and for President Trump.
The following speeches were delivered by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward at the 2017 White House Correspondents' Dinner:
Shortly after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Bob and I were asked a long question about reporting. We answered with a short phrase we’ve used many times since to describe our reporting on Watergate and its purpose and methodology: we called it the best obtainable version of the truth.
The best obtainable version of the truth.
It’s a simple concept, yet something very difficult to get right because of the enormous amount of effort, thinking, persistence, pushback, logical baggage and, for sure, luck that is required, not to mention some unnatural humility.
Underlying everything reporters do in pursuit of the best obtainable version of the truth, whatever our beat or assignment, is the question “what is news?” What is it that we believe is important, relevant, hidden, perhaps, or even in plain sight and ignored by conventional journalistic wisdom or governmental wisdom?
I’d say this question of “what is news” becomes even more relevant and essential if we are covering the president of the United States. Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate, instead of the conduct of the president and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the reporting speak.
During our coverage of Watergate and since, Bob and I have learned a lot from one another about the business of being reporters.
Let me list here a few of the primary elements of Bernstein’s repertorial education from Woodward: one, almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. And when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us.
Yes, follow the money, but follow, also, the lies.
Two, sources are human beings whom we need to listen to and empathize with, and understand—not objectify simply as the means to get a story. We need to go back to our sources, time and again, over and over. The best obtainable version of the truth is about context and nuance, even more than it’s about simple existential facts. The development and help of “Deep Throat,” Mark Felt, as a source was a deeply human enterprise.
When we were working on our second book, The Final Days, Woodward did 17 interviews with Richard Nixon’s White House lawyer. Sustained inquiry is essential. You never know what the real story is until you’ve done the reporting, as Woodward says, exhaustively. Gone back over and over to our sources—asked ourselves and them, what’s missing? What’s the further explanation? What are the details? What do they think it means?
Our assumption of the big picture isn’t enough. Our preconceived notions of where the story might go are almost always different than where the story comes out when we’ve done the reporting. I know of no important story I’ve worked on in more than half a century of reporting that ended up where I thought it would go when I started on it.
The people with the information we want should not be pigeonholed or prejudged by their ideology or their politics—almost all of our sources in Watergate were people who had, at one time or another, been committed to Richard Nixon and his presidency.
Incremental reporting is essential.
We wrote more than 300 stories in Watergate. Whenever I’d say “let’s go for the big picture, the whole enchilada” or whatever, Bob would say, “here’s what we know now, and are ready to put in the paper.”
And then, inevitably, one story led to another and another, and the larger talk expanded because of this reportorial dynamic. The best obtainable version of the truth became repeatedly clearer, more developed and understandable.
We’re reporters—not judges, not legislators. What government or citizens or judges do with the information we’ve developed is not part of our process, or our objective. Our job is to put the best obtainable version of the truth out there, period. Especially now.
Reporting is about human connections—finding the people who know what is hidden and establishing relationships of trust.
That was the first lesson, from Carl, in 1972. He obtained a list of people who had worked at Nixon’s reelection campaign committee. Not surprisingly, from a former girlfriend.
He’s finally embarrassed.
No one would talk. Carl said, “here’s what we have to do”—launching the system of going to the homes of people, knocking on doors when we had no appointment. We later wrote, “the nighttime visits were, frankly, fishing expeditions.” The trick was getting inside someone’s apartment or house. Bits and pieces came; we saw fear, at times. We heard about document destruction, a massive house-cleaning at the Nixon reelection committee, a money trail, an organized, well-funded coverup.
Clark MacGregor, then the Nixon campaign manager, called Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, to complain., MacGregor reported, “they knock on doors late at night and telephone from the lobby. They hounded five women!”
Bradlee’s response: “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard about them in years!”
And he meant, maybe ever.
In 1973, I recall standing on Pennsylvania Avenue with Carl after a court hearing. We watched three of the Watergate burglars and their lawyer filling a cab, front and back seats. Carl was desperate—desperate that he would lose them and this opportunity., He was short on cash and didn’t know where he might be going. I gave Carl twenty dollars.
There was no room in the cab, but Carl, uninvited, got in anyway, piling in on top of these people as the door slammed. He ended up flying with the lawyer to New York City and came back with another piece of the puzzle.
I never got my twenty dollars.
The point: very aggressive reporting is often necessary. Bradlee and the editors of the Washington Post gave us the precious luxury of time to pursue all leads, all people who might know something—even something small.,
Now, in 2017, the impatience and speed of the internet and our own rush can disable and undermine the most important tool of journalism: that method that luxury of time to inquire, to pursue, to find the real agents of genuine news, witnesses, participants, documents, into the cab.
Any president and his administration in Washington is clearly entitled to the most serious reporting efforts possible. We need to understand, to listen, to dig. Obviously, our reporting needs to get both facts and tone right. The press, especially the so-called mainstream media, comes under regular attack, particularly during presidential campaigns like this one, and its aftermath.
Like politicians and presidents, sometimes, perhaps too frequently, we make mistakes and go too far. When that happens, we should own up to it. But the effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith.
Mr. President, the media is not fake news.
Let’s take that off the table as we proceed.
As Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Post, said in recent speeches, reporters should display modesty and humility, bending over backwards and sincerely, not only to be fair but to demonstrate to people we cover that we intend and will be fair.
In other words, that we have an obligation to listen.
At the same time, Marty said, “when we have done our job thoroughly, we have a duty to tell people what we’ve learned, and to tell it to them forthrightly, without masking our findings or muddling them.”
Journalists should not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth. The indispensable centrality of fact-based reporting is careful, scrupulous listening and an open mind.
President Nixon once said the problem with journalists is that they look in the mirror when they should be looking out the window. That is certainly one thing that Nixon said that Carl and I agree with.
Whatever the climate, whether the media’s revered or reviled, we should and must persist, and, I believe, we will
We also need to face the reality that polling numbers should that most Americans disapprove of and distrust the media. This is no time for self-satisfaction or smugness. But as Ben Bradlee said in 1997, twenty years ago, “the most aggressive our search for truth, the more some people are offended by the press. So be it.”
Bradlee continued: “I take great strange knowing that in my experience, the truth does emerge. It takes forever sometimes, but it does emerge, and that any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.”
Carl and I are grandfathers, perhaps great-grandfathers in American journalism, but we can see that the three journalists that we are recognizing tonight are some of the finest examples of that craft of persistence.