At this year’s Media Fest, media legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein provided a new generation of journalists with a glimpse of how they broke one of the biggest stories in news history and brought down the Nixon White House. The Friday keynote address helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break in and the subsequent reporting the Washington Post duo undertook to unravel the “Dirty Tricks” campaign the president and “all his men” engaged in prior to his reelection.
The most fascinating thing about these two men was not the lengths to which they went to find the truth or the volume of stories they wrote on this topic between the break-in and Nixon’s resignation two years later. Instead, it was the way in which they plied their trade in a fashion that any student journalist in that audience could mimic in at any student media outlet in the country.
To that point, here are five basic reporting axioms they followed that can make you successful as a beginning journalist:
GRAB THE OPPORTUNITIES WHEN THEY COME: The legendary story of Watergate began with a simple break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters. Five men were arrested on June 17, 1972 and going to be charged with burglary and wiretapping the next day, a Sunday.
The editors at the Post knew someone needed to cover that story and they chose Bob Woodward, but not for the reason you would think.
“(People in the newsroom asked) ‘Who would be dumb enough to come in today?’ and the editors thought of me,” Woodward said.
At the time, Woodward was 28 years old and had about two years of journalistic experience under his belt. Instead of complaining that he had to come in on a Sunday or that it was the kind of garbage story that would be lucky to yield a byline, Woodward went to court where he noticed something amazing: The men accused of the crime were all dressed in suits.
“I’ve never seen a well-dressed burglar,” Woodward said Friday.
His curiosity got the better of him and he began down a two-year road that would turn him into a household name. It all started with taking the opportunity he received from people who thought lesser of him.
When it comes to opportunities, don’t let them pass you by.
SHOW UP: Woodward and Bernstein repeated this mantra Friday throughout their keynote, which actually felt more like two old friends shooting the bull over a couple beers. As they recalled key moments throughout the evolution of their reporting, they kept noting how they got the stories by going places and meeting people.
Bernstein said the biggest break in the early days was finding a bookkeeper for the slush fund used to pay the Watergate conspirators and finance the dirty tricks. He went to her house and knocked on her door, only to be met by the woman’s sister, who wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible. Still, he persisted:
“I sort of kept my foot in the screen door,” he said. “(The bookkeeper) said ‘Don’t let him in,’ but she eventually let me in. The bookkeeper was intimidated but wanted to talk.”
From there, Bernstein hung with the bookkeeper and kept asking questions until he managed to get a big piece of the puzzle. Had he called her instead of showing up, it would have been much easier to get rid of him, but since he was literally face to face with her, the bookkeeper acquiesced.
That lesson stayed with the pair over time. Woodward said he realized he had “gotten lazy” during his later years as he was tracking down sources for one of his more recent books. After repeated attempts to reach a military official who had successfully evaded his requests, Woodward came to a simple realization:
“We’re not showing up enough,” he said.
Thus, he went to the general’s door at 8:17 p.m. on a Tuesday (“the perfect time” to get a source to talk, he noted) and knocked. The general answered the door and asked Woodward the first question of what would be an in-depth interview:
“Are you still doing this shit?”
Yes, he was, and apparently, it still works.
As much as it seems easier to shoot a text or an email to a source, it often isn’t as effective when you really need to get the bigger story. I know that I have leaned a little too much on the phone or email while I’m blogging, as opposed to going to someone’s place of business or knocking on an office door. However, I also realized that if I REALLY wanted to get something done, I had to physically go somewhere and be in someone’s presence. That still yields the best results, whether I’m trying to find out if someone got fired or if a person actually will be fulfilling my request to approve an HR document.
As uncomfortable as it might feel to go and “bother” someone, it feels much more uncomfortable for that person, which means they’ll usually give you what you want just to get rid of you.
WHEN IT COMES TO SOURCES, GO LOW: During their collaboration, the pair developed a solid working relationship, drawing from each other’s journalistic strengths and experiences. Woodward said the most important thing he learned from Bernstein was what kinds of people made for the best sources:
“Find people at the lower level,” Woodward said. “That’s what Carl taught me. We can’t go to the White House and ask people about this so we have to knock on doors and that’s the Bernstein method.”
In the early days, the sources who let the cat out of the bag were the desk workers, low-level employees and other people who weren’t in the positions of power. They were the people who knew what was going on because they were the ones who had to do the banal work of typing up documents, filing forms and moving information from one important person’s desk to the next.
It warmed my heart to hear this, because I’ve always found that my best contacts were the people who weren’t really high on the food chain. I knew the night-time deputy coroners, the secretary at the police department who kept trying to set me up with her grand-daughter, the janitor at the city-county building and other folks like that. At first, I figured it was because I wasn’t much of a reporter, so those “more important people” didn’t need to bother with me. I later realized what Woodward and Bernstein knew all along: These are the people who know everything and are more willing to tell you about it.
That’s the reason I tell my reporting students, “Never diss a desk jockey. They’re the folks who run the world.”
BE HONEST AND FAIR IN YOUR WORK: When the moderator introduced these two titans of journalism, she listed two resumes that would be the envy of anyone in the room: Multiple books, Pulitzer Prizes, important jobs at major publications and more. However, when they started working the Watergate story 50 years earlier, they were a couple unknown “kids” in the newsroom.
Each story they wrote contained unnamed sources, claiming the president and the people around him had done things no one in that office had ever been accused of doing before. The editors in the newsroom had faith in them, but many of their colleagues weren’t as sure.
“Who are these two kids?” Bernstein said, recalling the popular newsroom sentiment at the time. “This stuff can’t be true. Nixon is too smart. There was skepticism about us in this newsroom.”
As the White House continued to deny the allegations and assail the Post with criticism, the men kept at the story because they knew they were right.
“There comes a moment if you’ve done your reporting right, you understand the dimensions of the story you are working on,” Bernstein said.
However, they realized the most important thing about telling the story was that they had to make sure they weren’t trying to make reality fit what they thought was going to happen. At one point, even amid the nay-sayers around them, they figured out that this whole thing was leading on the path to Nixon likely being impeached. In explaining this to the crowd on Friday, they said it was crucial that they keep their reporting above board and not jump past where they facts had led them.
“People can’t think you have an agenda,” Bernstein said.
In today’s media, that statement might seem as quaint as if he said you needed to make sure your typewriter ribbon was fresh before starting a story, but it really shouldn’t. Journalistic fairness isn’t about finding fake balance, like publishing a story about how the moon isn’t made of green cheese but only after you find a “lunar cheeser” source to provide “the other side” of the argument. It’s about going into a situation well prepared and yet open minded.
The goal both of these guys had for their reporting wasn’t, “Let’s go get Nixon and stick it to The Man!” It was to draw the truth out of the people who knew it and present that information to their audience. When they stuck to that, they were able to tell the stories more effectively.
When you decide to cover anything at all, try to start with that idea of being open minded about your topic and your source. That should be guided by your research that prepared you for the piece. If you think the whole goal of the parking department on your campus is to fleece college students out of their hard-earned money, OK, fine. However, when you go in to interview those folks, actually keep an open mind and listen to what they have to say. They might change your mind, or they might not, but if you go in there with an agenda, nothing good is going to happen.
STAY HUMBLE: These two guys basically ended a presidency, took home every conceivable accolade in journalism and became journalistic nomenclature for exceptional reporting. Every journalist in that room, and all the overflow rooms, would give any body part they had to be 1/10th of what these guys have become. However, both in their demeanor and their presentation, Woodward and Bernstein never seemed to smack of ego or self-importance.
Woodward said the most important thing he learned throughout the Watergate saga was being humble and remaining the person he was before all of this happened. He said that Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, helped him keep himself grounded after the Watergate scandal had ended:
“I got a note from Katharine Graham… It said, ‘Don’t start thinking too highly of yourself. Beware the demon pomposity. That demon wanders the halls of too many institutions,'” he said.
If Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein can keep their egos in check, it’s safe to say any of the rest of us should be able to manage it as well.