History Lesson

The Watergate Papers

Debating Woodward and Bernstein’s legacy.

The Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, one of the world’s leading manuscript archives, paid $5 million in 2003 for the Watergate papers of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—74 boxes, six oversize boxes, three oversize folders, three galley folders, and 21 bound volumes that contain, for the most part, interview notes and memos they wrote as they pursued the Watergate story for the Washington Post. Last Friday, those papers were opened.

That afternoon Watergate buffs packed the university’s Hogg Auditorium to hear Woodward, Bernstein, and eight other Nixonologists—Nixon biographer Richard Reeves, historians Stanley Kutler and Joan Hoff, Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, CBS Evening News anchor-designate Bob Schieffer, former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, Nixon library director John Taylor, and me—debate the nature of Woodward and Bernstein’s achievement.

Not present (to anyone’s knowledge) was that legendary garage-dweller, Deep Throat, whose identity remains a secret—Texas is releasing only interviews with deceased sources. Early in the first panel discussion, it appeared that the discussants would be spared a round of idle conjecture when Joan Hoff—whose book Nixon Reconsidered (1994) argues that Nixon’s presidency should be remembered foremost for domestic policy, next for foreign policy, and last for Watergate—insisted that all the questions about Deep Throat’s identity were a “diversion” from more important issues. (In 2003, Kutler made a similar argument in Slate.) But Hoff then jumped into the national parlor game herself, speculating that Throat was someone who thought Nixon’s foreign policy too dovish and wanted to weaken him—probably a “neocon” such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, or Richard Perle.

Where the first panel focused on Nixon’s presidency, the second panel (on which I joined Bernstein, Schieffer, and Lewis) dealt with the press during and since Watergate. Lewis, spry and provocative at 77, tossed the biggest firecracker of the day into the proceedings, delivering an electric indictment of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 record on civil liberties and executive secrecy. Lewis argued that during the Bush presidency, journalists have neglected to employ the aggressiveness and skepticism that had supposedly been Watergate’s cardinal lessons. Whether in failing to challenge the administration’s false claims about Saddam’s weapons stockpiles or in neglecting to direct attention to the inhumane treatment of our POWs, Lewis said, the press has not been much of a watchdog lately. His remarks got the biggest applause of the day.

It fell to Bernstein to defend today’s journalists—a bit improbably, since recently he has criticized what he called in a 1992 New Republic cover story “the idiot culture” of Geraldo-style journalism. But at the symposium Bernstein insisted that many reporters continue to do their jobs well; after all, the 1,200-strong audience was hardly uninformed about the torture going on in American military prisons. What’s changed since Watergate, he noted, was the explosion of “news” outlets devoted to quick entertainment and simplistic conflict, with no interest in investigative reporting or patient analysis. The problem, he suggested, was how to cut through the cacophony of talk radio and cable news shows and reach the rest of the people. Lewis joked that perhaps the solution was the one Bertolt Brecht proposed after the failed 1953 workers’ uprising in East Germany: electing a new people.

For my part, I said that the notion of simply being more adversarial toward authority doesn’t entirely capture what we admire in Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting. After all, when we’re not faulting today’s press for being too deferential to authority, we’re blaming it for manufacturing gaffes and scandals; aggressiveness often seems too much in evidence among Washington journalists. What Woodward and Bernstein really managed to do was reconcile two professional imperatives that journalists hold dear but that usually seem to be at odds: objectivity and muckraking.

During the Nixon years, the Washington press corps was coming into its own as a full-fledged institution. As the government grew increasingly adept at managing the news, journalists felt a newfound need to strike an adversarial stand, redoubling their efforts to resist manipulation. Given the political spirit of times, many also began to recall the dogged, politically charged muckraking of the early 20th century, and openly left-wing reporters, such as Seymour Hersh, and scribes for opinion magazines and underground newspapers tried to play just the sort of watchdog role that Lewis described.

One problem with the new adversarial spirit was that the deliberate effort to resist White House spin put reporters in the position of counter-spinning. Editorializing, opinion, and most of all a snide attitude crept into news stories, into journalists’ questions at press conferences, and into the general tenor of news coverage and have remained there ever since. Nixon cannily set out to exploit this new tone by tagging the mainstream media as liberal and hostile to him. His browbeating—including Spiro Agnew’s famous tirades against the media—led journalists to bend over backward to prove their fairness. For despite the muckraking revival, most reporters held fast to the ideal of objectivity. They continued to believe they did their job best—and could maintain credibility with their audiences—only by accurately and fairly reporting the facts and keeping bias in check.

These two professional imperatives were—and remain—in tension. One requires summoning a robust skepticism toward official pronouncements; the other means not letting that skepticism overwhelm your reporting. This dilemma provides some context for understanding Woodward and Bernstein’s work. Their signal achievement may have been to aggressively investigate the White House while remaining old-fashioned empirical reporters. They harmonized two key professional imperatives that had seemed irreconcilable—and today again seem at odds, as journalists struggle to be tough on the Bush administration and fair at the same time.

It’s often said that journalists since Watergate have aspired to “bring down a president.” I don’t know any reporters who want to do that. Rather, the achievement of Woodward and Bernstein’s that their successors seek to emulate, I believe, is their ability to align muckraking and objectivity. As Woodward once said, “We didn’t go after the president. We went after the story.”