I am old enough to remember Watergate as it unfolded. I remember the investigations, the Congressional hearings and, most of all, the landmark work done by the Washington Post and, in particular reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
In fact, I would not be lying if I suggested that my admiration for the pair, especially Woodward, was fundamental to my decision to pursue a career in print media. If Gina found a hero in Edward R. Murrow, I found one in that parking garage crusader Woodward.
I have always admired Bob Woodward, perhaps even more now as an elder statesman for the profession of journalism. His takes on securing and verifying information reinforce what I have always believed about the industry: that among the best qualities to possess as a reporter are doggedness of purpose, humility and respect for the readership.
This week we debated media excess. Well, If ever a story threatened the future of a news organization it was Watergate. How much more excessive could a story be than one that triggers a Constitutional crisis and takes down a president? As the great Jason Robards said in “All the President’s Men”: “There’s nothing riding on this story … Just the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
Predictably, the Nixon White accused the Post of practicing shoddy, near reprehensible journalism. It was precisely the kind of ad hominem attack used by administrations (perhaps even high school administrators) who know the facts will not defend them.
Years ago, a mentor—in fact, a real guiding light to an aspiring editor—offered this bit of advice: “James, remember this: The more you think you know, the less you do.” His point was well-made: This industry can humble you in a hurry, so make sure things are true; make sure they are right.
That was in 1984. In the post-first, think-later world of 21st-century instant media, I can think of few things more enduring.