Fifty years ago this May, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities — aka the Senate Watergate Committee — began its televised hearings into the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters.
The must-see-TV broadcasts turned the likes of E. Howard Hunt, John and Martha Mitchell and G. Gordon Liddy into household names. For those who had been following the true-life drama, though, there were two names that emerged in a much more positive light — reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Thanks to the team’s investigative work, readers of The Washington Post had been following the saga for months. Beginning with the headline “GOP Security Aide Among Five Arrested in Bugging Affair” on June 19, 1972, Woodward and Bernstein demonstrated the value of shoe-leather journalism, working the phones and cultivating sources, leading to dots connected between the burglary and former President Richard Nixon’s campaign funds.
Details of Woodward and Bernstein’s work reached wider audiences with the bestseller “All the President’s Men,” published in 1974, and the subsequent hit film adaptation released during the U.S. Bicentennial year. (It stands at #2 on Quill’s list of top journalism movies. See the still-evolving list at Quillmag.com.)
Half a century later, Woodward and Bernstein remain among the best-known journalists in the country. And their investigation into the Watergate break-in and its aftermath continues to be an inspiring lesson in the importance of first-rate reporting.
At the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention, MediaFest22, in Washington, D.C., both men shared the stage — and their stories and insights — with then-incoming SPJ National President Claire Regan.
Here are some highlights from their conversation, which covered not just Watergate, but also the challenges of journalism today.
The following has been lightly edited and organized for clarity. Regan’s first question took them back to their first hint of the Watergate crimes.
Woodward: I was asleep and the city editor at The Post called me. June 17, 1972, was one of the most beautiful days in Washington, ever. The editors sat around and said, “Who would be dumb enough to come in and work today?” And they immediately thought of me and sent me to the courthouse. … The five burglars came in in business suits. Now, in nine months I had never seen a burglar in a business suit. As a matter of fact, I had never seen a well-dressed burglar. But there they were and the judge asked the lead burglar, “Where did you work?” and he said, “CIA” and I blurted out “Holy shit!”
Bernstein: At the time, I was the chief Virginia reporter for The Washington Post … I was in the newsroom doing a story about a gubernatorial candidate and there was this commotion around the city desk. I went up to the desk to ask what was going on and the assistant city desk editor said, “Well there’s been a break-in overnight at Democratic National Headquarters.” So I just said, “I’ll make a few calls.” It seemed like a better story than what I was working on. I started making calls down to Florida to the burglars’ wives — some of it in pigeon Spanish because they were Cuban — and by the end of the day, I had established through them that a good number of the burglars also were associated with the CIA. And both of these things ended up in the first-day story, (which did not carry our names.)
Woodward: We were among a mob of about seven people who worked on it. But the next day was Sunday and two people came in to work, Carl and myself, so we did the first story together about James McCord who not only worked for the CIA, he had been director of security at the CIA and he had been Nixon’s campaign chief security officer and so forth. So Carl and I kind of sat around and did that story and exchanged “holy shits.”
Bernstein: Common sense has a lot to do with it. We needed to find out who worked for Richard Nixon…. We managed to get a list of all of the employees.
Woodward: We managed to get? You got a list from an old girlfriend.
Bernstein: It’s true…. First, we had this list. We knocked on doors. And the first big break [happened] in terms of sources who had some real knowledge of the inner workings of the Nixon reelection campaign and some real knowledge of the dirty tricks and how they were funded by the Nixon campaign. One of those on the list was the assistant — the bookkeeper, really — for the campaign. I went out and knocked on the door, someone answered, it was her sister, and I kind of kept my foot in the screen door.
Woodward: Now, wait a minute. How do you “sort of” keep your foot in a screen door?
Bernstein: … her sister said don’t let him in, but I kept talking and finally she let me in. How many of y’all have seen the movie of “All the President’s Men?” Because the scene is in there and it’s quite accurate. Most sources are not at the level of the person in charge of an investigation. You might get there eventually and you might by virtue of previous stories have worked your way to that level. We did more than 200 stories in the first year and a half of Watergate. There’s not a single named source in any of those stories. Why? Because the people we were getting information from were all people who worked for Richard Nixon or knew him or were associated with him in some capacity. We had virtually no sources who were Democrats.
The subject turned to more recent events in Washington and the increase in disinformation, including information Woodward shared in his recent book “The Trump Tapes” created from interviews with former President Donald Trump.
Bernstein: Despite what you heard, we don’t have a crystal ball. What we’ve been talking about is what reporting is. Woodward and I came to use the term “the best obtainable version of the truth” while we were covering Watergate. I think one of the amazing things that’s happened and will continue to happen given what we know about Donald Trump is the assumption that there are no rules. There are no restraints. That there are no untruths that will not be told. On CNN, I said “the president of the United States is a serial liar.” It sounded pejorative to the point where I was kind of shocked I said it. And I said this is what Republicans on Capitol Hill are saying privately. They knew he was a serial liar. We now know from this great investigation by the Jan. 6 committee what he did and where he’s willing to go in terms of elections.
Woodward: Trump was a seditious president and the Jan. 6 committee has proven that to any objective observer. We’ve covered lots of presidents. Ten presidents going back to Nixon. On Nixon’s tapes you hear things, but [in reference to an interview with Trump] I’ve never heard a president say “everything is mine.” The whole foundation of democracy — the whole foundation of separation of powers — is that no one has everything.
Bernstein: On those tapes, he doesn’t say anything about the national interest of the United States of America. It’s all about “mine.”
Woodward: In eight hours, in 20 interviews, [Trump] mentions the American people once. A hundred times he mentions himself. This is the connective tissue between Nixon and Trump. Nixon won reelection, he’s at the top of the mountain and this later came out in a tape recording he had. He’s in the oval office with his aides, it’s December 1972, and he says to his top aides, “Remember, we’re going to be around and outlive our enemies. And also never forget the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard a hundred times and never forget it.” Now, who else talks like this? Not just Richard Nixon but Donald Trump.
And then they addressed some of the challenges facing journalism today…
Bernstein: It’s hard to generalize [but] I think we know a great story – whether it’s about New York City or about your community – is the result of putting in the time. But I think there’s a myth that, one, so-called “investigative reporting” is on the decline or has been on the decline. I don’t buy it. I think maybe where that time is not available is in the hectic newsrooms and the idea that you have to keep producing and producing and producing for that next little wrinkle without the advantage of time that Bob and I were talking about. But something else is happening.
Woodward: You also have … the impatience and speed of the internet. “Give it to me in a sentence.” “Simplify.” And I think lots of us have thought, well, that’s a barrier to doing serious long-term work. It actually is not.
Bernstein: Even with the death of newspapers and news organizations, there are nonprofit news organizations in this country and abroad that are doing fabulous reporting. Bob and I were just in Austin, Texas, and there’s a news operation there called the Texas Tribune. It’s non-profit and [they’re working to] set this up systematically in every state. But [there are] great stories all over the world, not just in this country, that are being produced by teams of reporters and by collaborations…
Near the end of the session, Regan asked why Watergate still fascinates.
Bernstein: Because we had a criminal president of the United States of America. Because the system worked. The criminal president of the United States had to resign because all of the institutions of American democracy worked. The press, the legislative branch, the executive branch — maybe in the justice department — and the Supreme Court of the United States.
Woodward. And it was breathtaking what we now know Nixon and his people did. They destroyed the process of nominating and electing a president so Richard Nixon was able to actually decide who he was going to be able to run against … . So we better think hard about the vulnerability of that system and the system that the Jan. 6 committee has exposed. It is not a guaranteed thing as George Washington told us in 1796. And so for everyone here, there is a lot of work to do. Write that on the blackboard a hundred times and never forget it.
Featured photo: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took to the stage on Oct. 28, 2022 at MediaFest22 hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Collegiate Press and the College Media Association, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chris Ferenzi)