During a visit to Poynter on Tuesday, Bob Woodward talked about Watergate’s original code name, why he likes his iPad, and the best time of day to access hard-to-reach sources.
Below, I’ve highlighted his thoughts on these topics and others. The quotes are drawn from two talks Woodward gave at Poynter and a one-on-one interview I had with him.
On Google’s role in journalism
Woodward, who knows Eric Schmidt, said the Google CEO’s tombstone should say, “I killed newspapers.”
“There’s going to be something we’re going to miss in journalism that will be very regrettable. I hope the young people who have developed Facebook and Google will say, ‘We need to fix the information system and we need to get information to people that’s well-researched and investigated.’ ”
Search engines, he said, “are not going to have meaning if we have a screwed up information system.”
On Watergate, Deep Throat and hidden information
“It’s odd that the scandal got called Watergate. It turned out the secret code word for the operation was ‘gemstone,’ but we didn’t know that for a long time.” Woodward said. If they had, the suffix for big breaking stories would have been “stone,” like “Monicastone,” instead of “Monicagate.”
“The really important information on Watergate or any of these stories was not on the Internet. You could not find out about Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica on the Internet until the news broke, and then you could, but the kind of important confidential human sources don’t go on the Internet and say, ‘Reporters, ask me questions.’ ”
“Mark Felt, who was Deep Throat, didn’t have a Facebook account. He wouldn’t have had one. The news of Watergate came from human beings who were reluctant to talk. And the information was not on the Internet. You talk to college students and they say, ‘Instead of two years before Nixon resigned, it would have happened in a week.’ And I say, ‘Why?’ And they say, ‘Because, people would have gone to the Internet and found it.’ But I say, ‘It wasn’t there. Even if there was an Internet, the information would not be available.’ ”
“So much is hidden. I get up in the morning and I ask the question: ‘What are the bastards hiding?’ Not as a cynical reporter, but as a realistic reporter. People are always hiding things.”
Gaining access to sources
“You get the truth at night, the lies during the day,” Woodward said.
The perfect time to visit someone, he told students, is after 8 p.m. “They’ve eaten. And if they’re home, they probably haven’t gone to bed.”
“You gather pieces of data and try to get the whole story, and then once you have information, the power is in the information. You say, ‘I know what happened on the meeting on the 17th; the CIA director said the following. …”
“I have the time. I don’t carry a partisan flag. … People have accused me as being a liberal, a conservative. You know what the truth is? I don’t really have them, simply because I’ve seen true beliefs from the left, the right, the center, and sometimes true belief gets in the way of facts.” If he were teaching a class in journalism, he’d teach empiricism, he said.
Some of the Post staffers used to have “FAA” stickers on their computers, Woodward said. That stood for Focus, Act Aggressive. “If you’ve civil about it, and persistent, you can go to the limit with people. Don’t be rude or obtrusive.”
Using anonymous sources
“There has always been doubt about unnamed sources, and there should be,” Woodward said. “But you’re not going to sit down with people who are in sensitive positions and say ‘I’d like to talk on the record.’ They’ll say, ‘Were you born yesterday?’ It just is not going to happen. That puts pressure on the reporter or author to make sure [the information] is right and validate it and be very careful.”
“There is a validation that takes place over time. The anonymity tends to maybe not evaporate — that’s too self-serving — but it goes to the background.”
Verifying what’s “off the record”
“Katharine Graham, the [former Washington Post] publisher, would have dinners and lunches and receptions and occasionally invite journalists and say, ‘This absolutely cannot be used. It’s off the record.’ I believed this until she called me and said, ‘The secretary of defense was here for dinner last night and he had the most interesting things to say. Wait a minute while I go get the notes I wrote out before I went to bed.’ And then she did a complete dump that turned out to be accurate.
“You know that ‘off the record’ means you can’t use it unless you get it from someone else. Well, if it’s good information and it’s coming from the secretary of defense, there are other people you can call to verify and make sure it’s right. So I used to joke with Mrs. Graham that we had the ‘Graham modification’ of ‘off the record’ — and that is you totally and absolutely cannot use it unless it’s really good.
“I think if somebody tells you something off the record, some people think that you can lock it in a box by saying ‘off the record’ and it will never appear in print. If that were the case, you’d have people like Nixon saying, ‘Off the record, I did it all,’ and then you could never use it. It would be absurd.”
How much do we really know?
“How much do we know about what really goes on in government, particularly in the White House? Do we get it? In the case of the Nixon administratoon with the tapes, I think we know 90 percent, but I don’t think we know everything.
“Six years ago I was at a conference and wound up sitting next to Al Gore at dinner. … We got to the question of, how much do we know about what went on in the Clinton White House? I said, ‘You were there, powerful vice president, so let’s put a percentage on it. Take everything that happened that’s of importance and interest that occurred in the Clinton White House. What percentage now, five years later, do we know?’ And he said ’1 percent.’ ”
“I said, ‘Suppose you wrote a tell-all memoir. Then what percent would we know? And he said ’2 percent.’ Now he was just being ornery. … But how do you move that percentage up? And my answer for the business of journalism or book writing is, you have a method. You interview people, you go back, you seek documentation, you figure out intuitively what your threshold is.”
“In the case of Bush or Obama, I sent them long memos and said, ‘This is what I understand happened. What do you want to respond to?’ I remember sending Bush a 21-page memo. … The next day, Condoleezza Rice called me and said, ‘The president read it, I read it, and you’re going to write this book and these stories for the Post whether you talked to the president or not.’ I said, ‘Of course I am.’ She said, ‘He’ll see you tomorrow.’ ”
Building trust, being humble
“The key is to take sources as seriously as they take themselves and show a genuine interest in them, what they’ve written, what they’ve said, and jobs they’ve had before. There are three other keys: listening, listening, listening.”
“Journalism teaches you humility. There’s always a lot more you don’t know. There’s even more that’s not known. Carl Bernstein and I developed the best obtainable version of the truth. You have to make sure that it’s true and that it’s the best, but it’s got to be attainable. It’s not something somebody would imagine or speculate; it’s got to be empirical if it can be. I think those are the kinds of stories that matter — stories that explain things to people.”
“I think some of that information is important, but it’s oversold. It’s not a deep revelation about high-level decision making, but it’s got some good stuff in it. … To The New York Times’ credit, I think they persuaded WikiLeaks to not just dump everything out but to vet it and see if it was going to do damage, get people killed …”
On James O’Keefe and “entrapment journalism”
“I don’t think [what O'Keefe did] is the highest form of journalism, and I wouldn’t do it. There are laws against entrapment, and I think there’s not only a legal basis for that but a moral basis that you want to represent who you are and get it clean.”
“In the Watergate investigation, Carl Bernstein and I went to talk to grand jurors. We had legal advice saying we could do it.”
“It was very risky. It’s something I’m not sure I’d do all the time, but when you’re convinced the system of justice has collapsed, I think you have to be very aggressive. But we didn’t say we were from the U.S. attorney’s office. We identified ourselves as Washington Post reporters — and we got nothing from the grand jurors.”
Avoiding political bias
“What happens, and particularly in television, is there is a spin to the English language, and it’s hard to be neutral. You get these people on television who — with just with a little nuance, or expression, or a grimace of skepticism — convey judgment. I think you have to be real careful about that on television.”
“Does it come across as liberal? I think somewhat, particularly in picking stories and subjects in lots of big newspapers.”
“It’s spun out of control to the left and the right. I think a lot of people say, ‘I’m going to tune out the news. Let me know when my 401(k) crashes.’ You can understand some of that sentiment.”
The ‘news bubble’
“We have the housing bubble and the dot.com bubble, and in journalism I think we have a news bubble.
“I think there’s too much emphasis on speed and feeding the impatience people have. … In many ways, journalism is not often enough up to the task of dealing with the dangerous and fragile nature of the world, or the community, or anything you might try to understand.”
The world requires “high quality, probing journalism. And there’s just been not enough of it.”
Long-form journalism and books
“Some people who write books now talk about self-publishing and selling it on Amazon,” said Woodward, who believes the future of long-form journalism lies in nonfiction books, not in newspapers or online.
When writing books, Woodward works with two people who help him get documents, transcribe notes, review drafts and more. “I could not do it without them,” he said. “Reporters who are working on serious subjects … should have help. It provides discipline.”
A fan of the iPad, but not social media
Woodward, whose number is listed in the telephone book, said, “I tell people, ‘I hope I’m the most the accessible person around.’ ”
Still, he doesn’t use Twitter, and though he has a Facebook page, his assistants maintain it for him. “All the blogs and Twitter and Facebook are all part of a conversation and a discussion, and by and large I think it’s good and it’s healthy. People will sort out the information they’re going to use and need. But I’m not sure that being connected every minute is a good thing.”
Woodward said he has tried to take an “Internet sabbath” on weekends, similar to what William Powers talks about in his book, “Hamlet’s Blackberry.” But it’s hard to break away from technology, said Woodward, who was in a Washington Post commercial about the iPad.
Woodward has a laptop, iPhone and iPad, which he uses to read The Washington Post and The New York Times. “I have a bridge game I play on it, too,” he said. “It keeps an old man’s mind functioning.”