Being Bob Woodward
Celebrity status can interfere with a journalist doing the job, but when Robert Redford has portrayed you in a major film, there is no turning back. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, who was in Reno to speak to a Western Industrial Nevada scholarship dinner, lives with that complicated career problem and does it in a time when newspapers themselves are facing an identify crisis.
Where will newspapers be in five years?
Well, they’ll exist. It may be mostly on the web, of course, but I’m really a believer in newspapers. I think newspapers matter and I think people have forgotten that newspapers do things that no one else does, that they have the tradition of digging into things. They have a method of doing it. The Post will turn people loose for months or even a year or more to work on something. There is that willingness to kind of stand up to authority, which I think is critical. Eric Schmidt, who is CEO of Google, is a friend of mine and I’d say to Eric, I say, “You’re taking all of our money.” And he said, “Well, it’s not your money,” which is true. But I said to him, “You are going to have on your tombstone, ‘Google killed newspapers’.” And he said, “No, no.” And I said, “Well, yes, yes. And don’t sit on the sidelines. You’ve got all this money and the institution of independent inquiry … the newspaper’s been traditionally the vehicle.” But maybe it’ll be on the web, but it’s got to be someplace and you have to take people who have a lot of experience and are willing to spend time against the problem. And this lowest common denominator news doesn’t tell you anything except a sentence or two while the really good and important stories of the last fifty years have been where people have been digging into things and trying to find out what’s really going on. So the tradition in some form will continue. Whether it’s on printed paper or not, I don’t know.
But there’s that famous scene where the people playing you and Carl Bernstein are at the Library of Congress going through sheet after sheet after sheet. In most markets, to be given time to do something like that would be absurd these days. That kind of reporting that you’re referencing doesn’t happen.
Well, it still happens at the Post, it happens at lots of big newspapers, happens at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times. I hope it happens here.
That’s what I’m saying. Outside of the big urban markets, it doesn’t happen.
Well, but if you have a really good story and go to an editor and say, “I need a month and this’ll really be important,” can’t you get time? No?
Not in daily journalism.
You know, I live in a bubble but at the Washington Post I’ve never seen an editor turn down a good story.
In the 35 years since Watergate, it’s hard to make the case that there’s less deception in Washington than—
And it’s also hard to make the case that there’s more scrutiny of it by the press.
Well, take the first part of that. It’s not necessarily always deception. What the government has done is they’ve developed this apparatus of public relations and spinning and putting a positive turn on everything and they have a whole group of people who devote their lives to doing that, and they’re better than they were 40 years ago. And so the barriers to getting around the public relations apparatus are higher and thicker. But I think there’s an awful lot of scrutiny going on. I think there should be more, and I think it should be tougher, but there’s a lot.
It’s said fairly commonly in journalism circles that people actually died in Iraq because reporters did not do their jobs. Do you believe that?
In what way?
There were sources out there who could have been tapped to find out about weapons of mass destruction, about things like that, and it didn’t happen.
Well, it did happen and it was really hard and—[pause]
For example, you guys didn’t find what Knight Ridder folks found.
Yes, but if you go back and look at those stories, it’s not clear what they had. And I fault myself mightily for not being aggressive enough on that. But I had sources who told me the evidence on WMD is skimpier than they say and we were going to do a big story about it, and I went back to the sources and I said, “Okay, the evidence is skimpier, but do you still believe that there is WMD in Iraq?” “Oh, yes.” They all—all the sources believed it. They didn’t say it didn’t exist, they said the evidence is skimpier. Now. And I ran a story before the war on the front page of the Washington Post saying there’s no smoking gun evidence of WMD. Now, I should have known, if there’s no smoking gun, you don’t have it. Should have been more aggressive. But how do you penetrate that without going to Iraq under Saddam, knock on—you know, and say, “Hey, I’d like to investigate your WMD.” Not going to get very far.
But there were people who were. They were arms inspectors and they were disdained by the press back here.
No, that’s not true. I mean, we ran stories on it and Hans Blix, who was the chief weapons inspector for the U.N., said before the war he had inspected 300 sites and found no WMD, but he could not yet say there was not [WMD].
You’re a news gatherer. Here [in Reno] you’re being a newsmaker. Does it become difficult to figure out where the journalist stops and the celebrity begins?
That’s a good and fair question. I mean, what I’m going to talk about [at the WIN dinner] is the same things I talk about at other places, such as journalism classes.