Bob Woodward on Ethics and the State of Journalism Today

Bob Woodward On Ethics and the State Of Journalism Today

At the height of the Cold War, investigative journalist Bob Woodward received a phone call from a high-ranking Naval intelligence officer. “I have a story for you,” he said. Intrigued, Woodward agreed to meet with him. The officer told Woodward tales of corruption and deceit among his colleagues and superiors. Woodward and his editor at the Washington Post brought the information to a high-ranking member of the CIA who confirmed its validity. They knew they had something incredible. This was the kind of story that made careers and got people fired. Woodward also knew something else: This was the kind of story that could get people killed and posed a threat to national security. “We can’t run this,” he and his editor agreed.

During a talk at UT’s Belo Center last week, Woodward explained his rationale for never breaking that story. “We are human beings first, and journalists second,” he said, explaining that for him, moral obligations come before journalistic ones.

Woodward understands what it’s like to get people fired, of course: He and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal. Instead of focusing on the travesty of Nixon’s actions during his lecture, Woodward told the story of President Ford’s deft maneuvering of the scandal. Many Americans, himself included, regarded Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon as pure cronyism and corruption. In a later interview with Ford, Woodward was embarrassed to find that the president had acted in America’s best interests. Ford told him that America’s economy was doing poorly and there was a lot he needed to fix. “I needed to get Nixon off the front page,” Ford told him. “It was humiliating, because I was sure Ford was corrupt,” Woodward told the crowd.

Woodward was not afraid of admitting his biggest mistakes, including the scandal in which his subordinate, Janet Cooke, fabricated the story of a boy who was being forced to take heroin. Woodward explained that his biggest mistake wasn’t figuring out if the story had been real or not, but his moral failings. “I should have tried to find this 8-year-old and gone to his house with police and EMS.”

During his talk, Woodward offered substantial critiques on the state of journalism. Unlike some of his colleagues, his criticism didn’t feel curmudgeonly; instead, he assumed the role of a grandfather gently nudging newcomers to his profession in the right direction. He elaborated with an anecdote from an interview he conducted with President Obama. “We’re not digging into things [Obama] said. People think they’ve broken a story by being the first to tweet it,” Woodward said. “Did any of you know that President Obama is on record saying cutting entitlement reform is inevitable?” He explained that Obama told him directly, “Not cutting entitlement reform is untenable.”

It seems that in Woodward’s view, modern journalism has a tendency to glaze over important facts.

He took this point further, alluding that if Watergate had happened today, it would have looked radically different. We have lots of information that’s being dispersed in tweets and blog posts, but isn’t expanding to longer narratives that paint more substantive pictures of what’s happening, he argued. In Woodward’s words, “We’re drowning in data that has no meaning.”

Photo by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin via Flickr.


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