Advancing an 'Agenda of Truth'

Watergate reporters share stories

Carl Bernstein (right) to Emory journalism students: "If you think the Internet is a magic box that is going to give you the truth, you get an F. . . . The truth is not the thing that drives the Internet."
Kay Hinton

Bob Woodward warns against today's "manufactured controversy."

Kay Hinton

A few years ago, Bob Woodward was seated next to former Vice President Al Gore at a dinner. Just for kicks, Woodward asked him, “How much do we really know about what went on in the Clinton White House?”

Gore considered. “One percent.”

“My first thought was, is it possible there are that many women we don’t know about?” Woodward quipped to the crowd gathered in Glenn Memorial Auditorium in October. It was one of many times the audience laughed that evening, but the theme was serious during the talk by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the fabled pair of reporters who broke the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post forty years ago.

Woodward and Bernstein took turns describing how they sought to bring more than “1 percent” of the truth about the corrupt Nixon White House to light. First, they said, they worked at night, calling sources and knocking on doors after hours when they might have their guard down. “You see the truth at night and lies in the day,” Bernstein said.

It was a powerful reminder of a pre-Internet media when reporters relied on phone and in-person interviews to get their stories and networked their way to the right sources through friends of friends, ex-girlfriends, offhand tips, anonymous whistle-blowers, and dogged instinct.

The duo also recalled the arrogant assumptions they encountered in members of the Nixon administration, who seemed to have adopted the president’s attitude that the American people were rubes who existed on a need-to-know basis only. “They thought themselves impregnable,” Woodward said. “They thought they could control every aspect.”

Now, reporters face different challenges, including a ravenous 24/7 news cycle that feeds on what Woodward called “manufactured controversy.”

“We can’t separate journalistic culture from the rest of American culture,” he said. “We are feeding them the lowest common denominator, and they are eating it up. When we surrender our agenda of truth to the desire to capture the greatest number of viewers, we have abdicated leadership, and that is part of the leadership vacuum in this country.”

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