Before comedian Hasan Minhaj got up to poke fun at the assembled White House press corps last night, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein got up to celebrate it.
The legendary Watergate duo gave a speech evoking their investigative reporting of the Nixon administration and calling on the current generation of journalists to practice careful, thorough and relentless reporting on the current White House.
Below are their remarks, transcribed as delivered:
Shortly after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Bob and I were asked a long question about our reporting we answered with a short phrase that we’ve used many times since to describe our reporting on Watergate and its purpose and methodology. We called it the “best obtainable version of the truth.” The best obtainable version of the truth. It’s a simple concept for something very difficult to get right because of the enormous amount of effort, thinking, persistence, pushback, removal of ideological baggage and the sheer luck that is required, not to mention some unnatural humility.
Underlying everything reporters do in pursuit of the best obtainable version of the truth, on every beat and assignment, is the question: “What is news?” What is it that we believe is important, relevant, hidden, perhaps, or even in plain sight and ignored by conventional journalistic wisdom or governmental wisdom?
I’d say this question of “what is news” becomes even more relevant and essential when we are covering the President of the United States. Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate instead of the conduct of the president and his men.
During our coverage of Watergate and since, Bob and I have learned a lot from one another about the business of being reporters. Let me list here a few of the primary elements of Bernstein’s reportorial education from Woodward. One: Almost inevitably, government secrecy is the enemy. It’s usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. And when lies deny the secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us. Yes, follow the money, but follow also the lies.
Two: Sources are human beings we need to listen to and empathize with and understand. Not objectify simply as the means to get a story. We need to go back to our sources time and again, over and over. The best obtainable version of the truth is about context and nuance. Even more than it’s about simple, existential facts. The development and help of Deep Throat, Mark Felt, as a source, was a deeply human enterprise. When we were working on our second book, “The Final Days,” Woodward did 17 interviews with Richard Nixon’s White House lawyer.
Sustained inquiry is essential. You never know what the real story is until you’ve done the reporting, as Woodward says. Exhaustive, going back over and over to our sources. Asking ourselves about what’s missing. What’s the further explanation? What are the details? What do they think it means? Our assumption of the big picture isn’t enough. Our preconceived notions of where the story might go are almost always different then the way the story comes out when we’ve done the reporting. I know of no story that I’ve worked on in more than half a century of reporting that ended up where I thought it would go when I started on it.
The people with the information we want should not be pigeonholed or prejudged by their ideology or their politics. Almost of all of our sources in Watergate were people who had, at one time or the other, been committed to Richard Nixon and his presidency. Incremental reporting is essential. We wrote more than 200 stories in Watergate. Whenever I’d say, “let’s go for the big enchilada” or whatever, Bob would say, “here’s what we know now and are ready to put in the paper.”
And then, inevitably, one story led to another and another and the larger tale expanded because of this reportorial dynamic. The best obtainable version of the truth became repeatedly clearer. More developed and understandable. We’re reporters. Not judges. Not legislators. What the government or citizens or judges do with the information we’ve developed is not our part of the process nor our objective.
Our job is to put the best obtainable version of the truth out there. Period. Especially now.
Thank you. I am honored to be standing here with Carl who has, over the decades, taught me so much about journalism. As he says, reporting is about human connections, finding the people who know what is hidden and establishing relationships of trust. That was the first lesson from Carl in 1972.
He obtained a list of people who worked at Nixon’s re-election campaign committee — not surprisingly from a former girlfriend. He’s finally embarrassed. No one would talk. Carl said, ‘here’s what we have to do,’ launching the system of going to the homes of people, knocking on doors when we had no appointment.
The nighttime visits were, frankly, fishing expeditions. The trick was getting inside someone’s apartment or house. Bits and pieces came. We saw fear at times. We heard about document destruction. A massive house cleaning at the Nixon re-election committee. A money trail. An organized, well-funded cover-up. Clark MacGregor, the Nixon campaign manager, called Ben Bradlee, the editor of The Washington Post, to complain. MacGregor reported: “They knock on doors late at night and telephone from the lobby. They hounded five women.” Bradlee’s response: “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard about them in years!” And he meant, maybe, ever.
In 1973, I recall standing on Pennsylvania Avenue with Carl after a court hearing. We watched three Watergate burglars and their lawyer fill a cab, front and back seats. Carl was desperate — desperate that he would lose them and this opportunity. He was short on cash and didn’t know where he might be going. I gave Carl $20. There was no room in the cab, But Carl, uninvited, got in anyway, piling in on top of these people as the door slammed.
He ended up flying with the lawyer to New York City and came back with another piece of the puzzle. I never got my $20. The point: Very aggressive reporting is often necessary.
Bradlee and the editors of The Washington Post gave us the precious luxury of time to pursue all leads, all people, who might know even something small. Now, in 2017, the impatience and speed of the internet and our own rush can disable and undermine the most important tool of journalism: That method, that luxury of time — to inquire, to pursue, to find the real agents of genuine news. Witnesses, participants, documents: to dive into the cab.
Any president and his administration and Washington is clearly entitled to the most serious reporting efforts possible. We need to understand, to listen, to dig — obviously our reporting needs to get both facts and tone right. The press, especially the so-called “mainstream media,” comes under regular attack, particularly during presidential campaigns, like this one and its aftermath. With politicians and presidents sometimes, perhaps too frequently, we make mistakes and go too far. When that happens, we should own up to it. But the effort to day to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith.
Mr. President, the media is not fake news.
Let’s take that off the table as we proceed. As Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Post said in recent speeches, reporters should display modesty and humility, bending over backwards and sincerely not only to be fair but to demonstrate to people we cover that we intend and will be fair. In other words, that we have an obligation to listen.
As the same time, Marty said, quote, “when we have done our job thoroughly, we have a duty to tell people what we’ve learned and to tell it to them forthrightly without masking our findings or muddling them.” Journalists should not wag the dog in the political fight except to find the best obtainable version of the truth.
The indispensable centrality of fact-based reporting is careful, scrupulous listening and an open mind. President Nixon once said, “the problem with journalists is that they look in the mirror when they should be looking out the window.” That is one thing that Nixon said that Carl and I agree with. Whether the media’s revered or reviled, we should and must persist. And, I believe, we will.
We also need to face the reality that polling numbers show that most Americans disapprove of and distrust the media. This is no time for self-satisfaction or smugness. As Ben Bradlee said in 1997, 20 years ago, “the more aggressive our search for truth, the more some people are offended by the press. So be it.” Ben continued, “I take great strength knowing that in my experience the truth does emerge. It takes forever sometimes. But it does emerge. And that any relaxation by the press would be extremely costly to democracy.
Carl and I are grandfathers, perhaps great-grandfathers, in American journalism. But we can see that the three journalists that we are recognizing tonight are some of the finest examples of that craft of persistence. Thank you.