In a year when the media have been cast as untrustworthy villains in the tank to candidates of both major parties, Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle’s belief that the press — what he called the Fourth Estate — is as vital to the functioning of democracy as government itself can sound naïve and antiquated. But there are still plenty of true believers who take the media’s public responsibility as an inviolable and sacred duty.
Many of the country’s most accomplished truth-tellers will be on campus this weekend (Sept. 10 and 11) as the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard hosts a two-day celebration (click here for tickets) marking the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. The prize recognizes outstanding achievements in journalism and the arts and is among the most prestigious awards given to reporters, photojournalists, critics, authors, poets, playwrights, musicians, and news organizations.
The event will feature past and present winners, including legendary biographer Robert Caro, a 1966 Nieman Fellow; documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who aided the publication of documents stolen by Edward Snowden that disclosed a national surveillance program; musician Wynton Marsalis, whose “Blood on the Tracks” was the first jazz composition to win a Pulitzer; and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 2015 winner, in a recorded presentation riffing on the theme of accountability and abuse of power.
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who shared the 1973 Pulitzer with reporter Carl Bernstein for the investigation into the Watergate hotel break-in that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, and who won again in 2002 for his work leading The Post’s 9/11 coverage, will lead a panel discussion with Poitras and Dean Baquet, The New York Times’ executive editor, on journalism’s ongoing role in keeping governments honest.
With the mainstream media shrinking, Woodward spoke with the Gazette about the state of watchdog journalism and whether the political press has done a good job in deeply scrutinizing the 2016 presidential candidates.
GAZETTE: Awards founder Joseph Pulitzer’s populist, sensational style of journalism would fit right into today’s media environment. What’s the state of watchdog journalism today, and how does it compare to, say, 50 years ago when you started, or at the creation of the Pulitzers a century ago?
WOODWARD: There’s a lot of great work in journalism being done. The problem is the message managers in government, business, and everywhere — even the message managers/spokespeople in the media — have greater and greater power, so they assert that power by curtailing disclosure, limiting transparency. We know less and less about what really goes on. You have to dig and find people and records and documents, and it takes a long time. I was at a dinner sitting next to Al Gore, the former vice president. This was 10 years ago or so; he was out of office. I asked him how much we know about what goes on that’s of consequence? And he said, “One percent,” and I kind of died. I asked, “Well, suppose you wrote a memoir that told all, what would we know then about what goes on of consequence?” And he said, “Two percent.” Lots of institutions have gone through a public airing. Certainly the White House; we did a book on the Supreme Court in 1979 (“The Brethren”), and the reaction was to button up. Same with the intelligence agencies: “Button up, tell less, and explain only when absolutely necessary.” The impulse is to conceal and hide and not answer rather than to be forthright and come clean. They feel burned, they feel, “Gee, we can muscle our way through this.”
The second part of this, which compounds it, I think, is the Internet, which is all impatience and speed most of the time. Everything comes and goes. Great stories that news organizations have done just go up in the ether. There’s so much out there, how do you pick? What does it mean? And disclosures that really tell us about character — take Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — that are important, that don’t lead to investigations or grand juries or FBI inquiries or SEC actions, come and go. So there’s this focus on, “Does it lead to an investigation?” Well, some of the things that lead to investigations are nonsense, and some of the things that don’t are really essential to understanding who these people are.
GAZETTE: The political media has been roundly criticized this election season for its relatively toothless coverage during the primaries, particularly around Trump’s unlikely rise and a habit of proffering false equivalence or “he said/she said” about candidates’ statements and actions. Now, we have instances of media figures working for or openly advocating for Trump (such as editor Matt Boyle of Breitbart News advising and writing speeches for him, and former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes advising Trump behind the scenes). How do you grade the coverage thus far, and should the profession do its own “autopsy” after the election to reconsider what it’s doing, and how?
WOODWARD: I would disagree that it was toothless. There was a lot of serious reporting during the primaries. At the end of March, Bob Costa, a reporter at the Post, and I interviewed Trump and we published the transcript and there are all kinds of things in there. For instance, he says, “I bring out rage in people,” and he’s proud of it. He forecast a giant recession, he was very pessimistic about the economy, and since then it’s only done better. He was asked, because he was running in the primaries in the Republican Party, a party that contained Lincoln and Nixon, “Why did Lincoln succeed?” And Trump’s answer was, “He did some things that needed to be done.” [We then asked,] “Why did Nixon fail?” “Because of his personality.” And we had to say, “Yeah, but his criminality was part of it.” And Trump said, “Oh, yeah.” It tells you who he is.
The same with Hillary Clinton. There were just voluminous stories on her. Let me give you an example from The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2016, a two-part series they did on Hillary’s role in Libya. It explains her role, exactly what she wanted to do. At one point, after [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi’s death, it quotes her saying to some of her staff, “We came, we saw, he died.’ There was a series of spectacular Post stories about the Clinton Foundation, about her time at the State Department, and so forth.
[Woodward digs into a file folder he keeps of recent Post stories on the Clintons and cites more than a dozen stories.]
Incredible, important stories that are well-documented. Really great work, things done in 2014, 2015, and early this year. I could give you a similar file on Trump, an amazing number of stories that are in the book “Trump Revealed” [by The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish].
[Amazon CEO and Post owner] Jeff Bezos has these conferences. Last fall, I gave a talk about Nixon and the latest book I had done, “The Last of the President’s Men,” about thousands of documents from the Nixon White House that aide Alexander Butterfield escaped with and Butterfield’s experience with Nixon, which we didn’t know about. Afterward, Bezos came up and said, “Could we have known about Nixon before he became president?” And I said, “I think we could’ve done a better job.” And he said, “OK, what we need to do is, when it gets down to two candidates, make sure we do the stories in the Post or do a series or do a book or whatever so no one can go into a voting booth in November and be able to say, ‘I couldn’t find out who these people were.’” I think we could always do better and we could always do more. I wouldn’t worry about the criticism. Look at the record: It’s remarkable but never sufficient.
GAZETTE: With ongoing efforts to delegitimize the press by politicians and others, in this post-factual world, is truth-telling or speaking truth to power as relevant or as effective as it once was, especially when many people now choose their own facts and seek out media outlets that confirm their views?
WOODWARD: There’s been a lot of criticism of the press, some of it legitimate, some of it not legitimate, but I don’t think anyone’s succeeded in delegitimizing the press.
GAZETTE: Even though public opinion polling shows people say they trust the press as little as they ever have?
WOODWARD: But they always say that! (Laughs.) Go back to Nixon and Watergate. It was an overwhelming disbelief that this could have happened, that this was true. So skepticism, dislike of the press, that’s something we should try to counter by being more factual, by doing a better job. But I wouldn’t get tangled up and lose our emotional poise because there’s some criticism. It just does not amount to delegitimizing the media, in my view.
GAZETTE: What I mean is that we know there’s a sizable portion of people who believe that the press is illegitimate or that it’s biased in favor of one side or another.
WOODWARD: There’s a lot of that, there’s no question. You’re coming in very hard on this idea that it’s over for the media. It’s not over for the media. Look at the whole business about the email server. It was a combination of Congress and the media establishing what happened here — the State Department releasing stuff, and lawsuits, with judges involved. There’s a whole phalanx of individuals and institutions working to get stuff out. In this case, it seems to be succeeding.
GAZETTE: Are you at all concerned about how the press will be treated in a Trump administration, given his practice of threatening and retaliating against news outlets, including The Washington Post, whose coverage he doesn’t agree with, or his use of nondisclosure agreements to prevent aides and others from talking?
WOODWARD: No. They always say, “Oh you can’t find out what goes on in the CIA, you can’t find out what goes on in the White House.” As I say, it’s harder and the message managers have more power and authority, but you can still do it. If he has nondisclosure agreements, working hard you can get around those things.
GAZETTE: Do you think the heroic success you had with the Watergate investigation or your subsequent career …
WOODWARD: Delete “heroic.” (Laughs.) We made mistakes, we were lucky, we had a publisher and editors who were willing to support us. They were the ones taking the risks. And if the Senate and the House impeachment investigation, the independent counsel — if you didn’t have those, it would have died.
GAZETTE: Do you think your Watergate experience and then your career writing about the powerful improperly motivates young reporters to focus on unearthing sexy, career-making scandals rather than chasing stories like last year’s Pulitzer-winning series by the Associated Press about enslaved seafood workers in Southeast Asia that led to saved lives? Few would have thought of fish-processing companies as powerful before that investigation.
WOODWARD: It turns out they were powerful and in control of people’s lives in a shocking way. I thought that was a masterful piece of reporting. I try to write about presidents because they have extraordinary power. It makes a difference who is president. It’s going to make a big difference whether Trump or Hillary Clinton is president — a defining difference, and it may define an era, quite likely.
GAZETTE: You’ll be talking with filmmaker Laura Poitras and New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet about journalism’s role holding governments accountable. Who or what entity merits greater scrutiny than they’ve received thus far?
WOODWARD: Anything that has power. I’ve tried to write about the White House, the CIA, the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, Congress, the intelligence agencies, and those at the government power centers. All of those deserve a very good look. The process of examining [Fox News chairman] Roger Ailes by that reporter from New York magazine, Gabe Sherman, the [sexual harassment] lawsuits, and other media scrutiny, led to the departure of Ailes.
The opposite side of this is, at times, there’s a feeling of self-satisfaction, self-congratulation in the media. “Wow, look, we did that; we really got that right.” There shouldn’t be self-satisfaction because it’s ongoing [work]. That, I think, triggers a lot of the public hostility to the press. They see people on these cable news shows sitting around, basking in self-love, in each other, and making declarations about politics and candidates and other things.
People look at that and say “What do they know? Who are they to say?” So it requires careful navigation between the points of being very aggressive and trying to be thorough and also not getting in a mode of high-fiving each other around the newsroom. Sometimes it is done right, sometimes not.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.