Woodward: The Post is ‘more authoritative’ than the Times

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Woodward in 2010. Photo (cc) by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is The Washington Post “more authoritative” than The New York Times? You might expect investigative reporting legend Bob Woodward to say so. After all, Woodward has spent nearly his entire career at the Post, and institutional loyalty runs deep.

Still, Woodward’s remarks — delivered at a stop on his latest book tour Tuesday night in Harvard Square — come at a time when they’re likely to garner more attention than they otherwise might. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the Post from the Graham family nearly two years ago, is sinking money and resources into the paper. And media analysts like Ken Doctor are saying that the Post is making its first serious run at the Times in many years.

Asked by a member of the audience about changes in the media business, Woodward responded with an unsolicited paean to Bezos. “I think he’s helping us as a business,” Woodward said. “It’s a better website. I find things much more authoritative, quite frankly, than The New York Times, to be honest.”

And when asked by his interlocutor, Washington insider-turned-Harvard academic David Gergen, whether newspapers remain committed to investigative reporting, Woodward replied: “I know The Washington Post is, because I asked Jeff Bezos. He has the money. We talked about this. He said I could quote him on this, and I will. He said, ‘Rest assured, Marty’ — Baron, the editor — ‘will have the resources he needs.’”

Woodward will forever be remembered as one-half of the twentysomething reporting duo (with Carl Bernstein) who broke open the Watergate story and brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Now a no-longer-boyish 72, Woodward was on hand to promote his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men.” In it, Woodward tells the story of Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the existence of the White House taping system before a congressional committee, thus providing the evidence that Nixon really was a crook.

Several hundred people crowded into the First Parish Church for Woodward’s reading, sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. The book is based on some 40 hours’ worth of interviews Woodward conducted with Butterfield, as well as a trove of documents. Butterfield, Woodward said, provided invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Nixon White House, especially of the early years. “For two years, there was no taping system,” he said. “In a sense Butterfield became the tape recorder.”

The event began on a light-hearted note, with Gergen — who served four presidents, including Nixon — asking, “When did you all sense that you were on to something much bigger than you’d thought?” Woodward’s response: “When Nixon resigned.”

The conversation, though, took a darker turn as Woodward described Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in “The Last of the President’s Men” is that Nixon ordered more and more bombs to be dropped during 1972 — the year he was up for re-election — even though he secretly acknowledged it had accomplished “zilch.” The reason, Woodward said, was that polling showed the bombing campaign was popular with the American public.

“It’s close to a war crime,” Woodward said.

Equally nauseating was Nixon’s response to journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelation in 1969 that American troops had massacred civilians in the village of My Lai. Nixon ordered Butterfield to go after everyone involved in exposing it, including the soldier who blew the whistle, Life and Time magazines and a perceived enemy who Woodward said was described by Nixon as “a liberal Jew.”

The mood brightened considerably when Gergen asked Woodward how he would go about investigating the leading 2016 presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Woodward said he would talk about Trump first, and then brought down the house with this: “Can we ask the audience a question? How many people want the next president to be somebody who has no touch with reality?”

As for Clinton, Woodward turned the tables and questioned Gergen.

Woodward: “You worked with her.”

Gergen: “I did.”

Woodward: “Do you trust her?”

Gergen paused before answering: “I have found — I don’t think she — I don’t think she tells lies. I think she’s careful with the truth.”

Woodward, after the laughs had faded away: “You didn’t get to work for all these presidents for no reason.”

Notwithstanding Woodward’s enthusiasm for Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post, his talk was, in some respects, an elegy for the kind of journalism Woodward represents. Whether you prefer the Post or the Times, at their best they stand for a rigor that often seems to be on the wane.

For all the faults of the 1970s-era press, there was something approaching a national consensus that made it possible for a story like Watergate to keep building. These days, the media are too fragmented, with too many so-called news outlets aligned with partisan interests. Fox News chief Roger Ailes would release his flying monkeys to go after the liberal media and it would all end in a standoff.

Though Woodward’s establishment-oriented journalism is sometimes criticized, including by none other than the aforementioned Hersh, he nevertheless represents something important: the power of the press to do good through thorough, indefatigable reporting aimed at rooting out the truth rather than serving some ideological cause.

Thanks for the assist from Kylie Ayal, a third-year journalism student at Boston University, who supplied me with a copy of her audio file of the event after I managed to erase mine by mistake.

Pushing back against the White House anti-leak crusade

By Bill Kirtz

Leading news figures this weekend blasted expanding investigations of national-security leaks, detailed the dilemma of dealing with confidential sources and offered ways to restore credibility in a media universe that merges fact with fiction.

Their comments came at Boston’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference attended by some 1,200 established and aspiring journalists.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said the Obama administration’s widening probes have created an “urgent” problem because it has a “chilling effect” on confidential sources. She said the current Washington environment “has never been tougher and [confidential] information harder to dislodge.”

She said the attorney general’s latest attempts to ferret out leakers raise the question of whether the U.S. Espionage Act “is being used as a substitute for” Britain’s wide-ranging Official Secrets Act.

Using the Espionage Act, the current administration is pursuing six leak-related criminal cases. That’s twice as many as all previous administrations combined brought since the act was passed in 1917 to punish anyone who “knowingly and willfully” passes on information that hurts the country or helps a foreign power “to the detriment of the United States.”

The Official Secrets Act makes it unlawful to disclose information relating to defense, security and intelligence, international relations, intelligence gained from other departments or international organizations and intelligence useful to criminals.

Alluding to recent Times stories about U.S. drone strikes and computer attacks aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Abramson said the government’s policy on cyber warfare is an important subject about which the public needs to know.

The vast majority of her paper’s national-security disclosures come from “old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting” and not from leaks, she said. And before they run, she said, “We give all responsible officials a chance to reply” and will hold or cut information if they raise a legitimate security objection.

Times media columnist David Carr called the government investigations an “appalling” attempt to restrict information about significant issues.

“Whistle-blowers aren’t scarce but the people who blow them are,” he said, citing as an example the indictment of a National Security Agency worker who told a Baltimore Sun reporter about a failed technology program.

“As war becomes less visible and becomes its own ‘dark ops,’ reporters are trying to punch through and bring accountability,” he said. Carr added that while it’s easy to say leak-based scoops come gift-wrapped, they usually come from reporters working hard and asking the right questions. Continue reading “Pushing back against the White House anti-leak crusade”

Another view of the Nixon pardon

Commentators have been falling all over themselves to praise the late Gerald Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon a month after assuming the presidency. Even Ted Kennedy has said he came to realize that pardoning Nixon was the right thing to do.

No doubt Ford’s motives were honorable. He was that kind of guy. But did he do the right thing? No, says the author Barry Werth, writing in today’s New York Times. Not only did Ford squander his popularity, he also squandered his effectiveness. It also directly led to Ford’s elevating the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, as he was compelled to abandon the centrist tone he’d initially struck. Werth writes:

President Ford believed that by pardoning Mr. Nixon, he was putting Watergate and the imperial presidency in the past. But by sacrificing his popularity, he also lost much of his mandate to address the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam with moderation, bipartisanship and national humility — the very goals he set out to achieve. Forced to the right, his administration spawned many of the core attitudes and key players of the George W. Bush White House.

And what, really, would have been the harm of seeing Nixon frog-marched off to prison?