Woodward tells Union audience diligence by press still essential
Updated 7:45 a.m.
SCHENECTADY Journalist Bob Woodward believes war, the economy, health care or the environment aren’t the nation’s biggest problems.
“What we should worry about the most is secret government. All of the other problems — immense and giant and seemingly insurmountable as they are — pale in comparison to the problem of secret government,” he said Thursday before about 200 people at Union College.
Woodward helped uncover the Watergate scandal that began in June 1972 when burglars broke into the Democratic office at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C., as part of Republican plan to spy on political enemies. The reporting by Woodward and Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein eventually helped lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 and indictment of top Nixon officials.
Woodward currently serves as associate editor of The Washington Post and has written numerous books about national policy. He recalled a conversation he had with the late Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, when the newspaper had just started reporting on Watergate and the paper was under considerable fire. He said people didn’t believe the stories about a criminal conspiracy leading all the way up to the president.
Graham asked him at what point would all the information about Watergate would become known. Woodward said never.
She responded, “Never. Don’t tell me never!” Woodward said. He said, “It was a statement of purpose.”
Woodward said the task for reporters is to be diligent in talking to sources multiple times to try to peel back the layers of what is gong on. He believes his most recent book “Obama’s Wars,” which is about the president’s decision-making regarding the Afghanistan conflict, showed diligence. A White House staffer told him that it was the only book he read about Obama where he learned things he didn’t know.
However, in this 21st century, rapid-fire media age, lengthy investigations are not always possible.
“We obviously don’t have enough time to dig into things that often. I think it cripples us. I think it disfigures the information we give people,” he said.
Woodward said the presidential campaign is going to be negative. The so-called Super PACs will be spending hundreds of millions on advertising — nearly all of it negative — because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United letting corporations make unlimited contributions. It makes it a tough job for the media.
“Can we collectively sort through and present authentic pictures of who these candidates are?”
Woodward sat next to former Vice President Al Gore at a dinner and asked Gore what percentage of what happened during the Clinton administration is publicly known. Gore said only about 1 percent, which is why journalism is necessary.
Woodward also said he changed his opinion of President Gerald Ford, who many thought at the time that he pardoned Nixon as part of some secret deal where Nixon would resign so Ford could assume the presidency. Ford told Woodward that Nixon’s chief of staff had offered a deal like that, but he refused.
Instead, Woodward said Ford told him that had he not pardoned Nixon, the former president would have been indicted and the Watergate issue would have dragged on for two or three years at a time when the country was facing economic problems and the Cold War was still a factor.
“What Ford did was gutsy. He had paid an immense price for the pardon. Two years later when he ran against Jimmy Carter he probably lost because of suspicions of the pardon.”
Another person asked him how Watergate would have been covered in the this age of digital technology.
Woodward said he does not think much would be different. “You get inside information from human beings, quite frankly. And the Internet is not a magic lantern. It’s a very useful tool,” he said. “We got information by going to human beings who are involved or aware of the conspiracy and what is really going on and got them to talk and won their trust.”
Tim Rice, 17, of Niskayuna, said he enjoyed the lecture, which was sponsored by the student-run Speakers Forum. As a student journalist himself, he thought Woodward offered a lot of insight.
“I really liked his idea that secret government wasn’t just contained to Nixon,” he said.