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What the legacy of Woodward and Bernstein means for journalism today

HUFFINGTON POST, 05 / 01 / 2017

Like a good number of folks who’ve worked in journalism over the years, for me, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein continue to be heroes. Genuinely authentic heroes. I know it sounds corny. But it’s true. Or, as Bernstein said on Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (also known as “Nerd Prom”), it’s “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

Sure, Woodward’s unbearably slow, staccato presentation on television drives me crazy. And Bernstein’s pompous style on the same shows can be just as tough to absorb. But those are just observations of the superficial. Even if their styles were the stuff of brilliant performance, that’s not what makes heroes. It’s usually traits like persistence, perseverance, integrity, grace under pressure, overcoming the odds, and exhibitions of courage. A lot of epic mythology surrounds what Woodward and Bernstein did when they broke Watergate. But here’s the thing: it’s all true. And they exhibited all of those traits in their pursuit, and finally, their full reporting of the best obtainable version of the truth about Richard Nixon’s criminal subversion of the U.S. Justice Department and Intelligence Community.

I was born the year before Richard M. Nixon finally won the presidency in 1968, so I was just a child when all of this was going on. And politics was never talked about in my family as I grew up in the 70’s. But when I was 19 years old, for some reason I became fascinated with Watergate. I was a broadcasting major at the time, with no real interest in the politics of the day, yet I remember savoring the details of every page of The Final Days, Woodward and Bernstein’s sequel to their first book on Watergate, All The President’s Men. Thirty years later I remember even the little things from that book, right down to Nixon’s difficulty and frustration with opening bottles of aspirin.

The same year that “WoodStein” were writing The Final Days, 1976, Robert Redford was producing and starring in the feature film version of All The President’s Men. Redford and Dustin Hoffman costarred as Woodward and Bernstein, and under Alan J. Pakula’s direction, they somehow made an incredibly compelling film that was set in a newsroom, covered an incredibly complex subject, and had no discernible love story or substantive friendship. Pakula spent less than $2 million to make a movie that grossed over $70 million, won four Academy Awards and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation by the National Film registry.

Beyond its deft direction and acting, the real reason that the film made such a broad impact and why it holds up to this day is because at the heart of the drama is a true story of two young reporters who forced the most powerful person in the world to face the consequences of his criminal actions ― by getting to the truth. They dug, cajoled, badgered, intruded, and took great personal and professional risks to investigate and eventually uncover things that unwitting Americans thought unbelievable at the time. Even David Gergen, a presidential adviser in four White Houses, said that he ultimately realized it was WoodStein who were telling the truth ― not the people he was working with right inside the Nixon administration.

Fast-forward 40 years to Saturday night, where Woodward and Bernstein were both set to make remarks and hand out awards at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD). But an hour before they did, the president of the United States, who had broken with tradition in declining the invitation to speak at the WHCD, instead revved up his supporters at a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The president began his 50-minute speech with a sustained attack against the press. Contrasting his rally attendees to the reporters assembled back in Washington, President Trump told his folks that they were “much, much better people,” and then declared, “if the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, then I think we would all agree the media deserves a very, very, big, fat, failing grade. Very dishonest people.”

The crowd went nuts, of course. This should surprise no one, as the performance was more of a reprise. The president has already proven what works with his people. And on Saturday night, he drilled it in once again.

An hour later, Woodward and Bernstein spoke to a sold-out crowd at the WHCD event. In black tie, sitting up on a dais overlooking a Hilton ballroom in the nation’s capital, the visuals couldn’t have been a starker contrast from the earlier images broadcast out of Harrisburg. If ever there was an opportunity for Trump supporters to apply the newly popularized “elitist” tag to the journalism community, this was it. And, of course, cable panelists in the president’s corner predictably communicated versions of this refrain after the two events had ended.

In a way, this has become the new “us versus them” political split that used to just be dominated by the partisan battle of left versus right. Democrat versus Republican. Liberal versus conservative. Now we have the added split of “elitists” versus “regular folks.” Or you can choose whichever euphemism you prefer. “Euphemism” – what an elitist word. These days, just the choice of a word in written expression or conversation can earn you a pejorative characterization. There I go again.

But despite the president’s attacks on the media as “dishonest people” who are producing “fake news,” the press’s responsibility to find the “best obtainable version of the truth” is still just as important as ever. Some would argue more so. And this is what Carl Bernstein focused on in his remarks on Saturday. Without making a direct comparison between the Nixon administration and the Trump administration, Bernstein did make clear that there are important clues that investigative journalists must both take note of ― and go after:

”Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. When lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good road map in front of us…. Yes, follow the money, but also follow the lies.”

The president almost certainly doesn’t believe that most of the news reported by the “mainstream media” is fake. It’s a game he plays, very well. Due to a model where news organizations are for the most part businesses, Trump knows he’s got the media on the end of his yo-yo. He knows that no matter how outrageous or factually inaccurate his tweets or statements, the media must repeat and report it. He is the president. They have no choice, except for the how they report it and to what degree they repeat it.

This is the advantage the president has in this equation. But the equally powerful edge that journalists will always have in American democracy is the ability to dig deeper, find the facts that exist behind all of the superficial bluster and concealment, and actually obtain that best obtainable version of the truth. While it’s ultimately true that voters will always get to decide what to do with that information, the final product is no less important than it ever was. And if the remarks and reactions at Nerd Prom on Saturday were any indication, the disliked, unsung heroes that make up the Fourth Estate in the United States will continue to pursue these goals undaunted. The endeavor to search for and report out the truth about the powers that be is not an elitist concept. It is journalism.