Who are Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein?
"Woodward and Bernstein? Sounds like an accounting firm."
"Nope, never heard of them. Are they critics, maybe?"
"Don't they own a woodworking shop here in Canton?"
"I have no clue."
"Are they from the Berenstain Bears?"
"Yes, those are the guys from Watergate, right?"
Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner.
Watergate: one of the most well publicized scandals in U.S. history that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.
A pair of young reporters working for the Washington Post got a hunch and went with it. They eventually brought down the president.
Those reporters were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
“If two people actually changed the face of journalism, and redefined what investigative reporting is all about, it was these two,” Bob Schieffer, former anchor of CBS Evening News, said at a panel discussion last week in Washington.
I was at that panel discussion. It was every aspiring reporter’s dream. Sure, I’ve seen All the President’s Men, where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman caramelize Woodward and Bernstein in history—well, at least pop culture history. But to witness two of the greatest reporters in modern American journalism talking about the greatest story they’ve ever written was priceless.
These men faced tremendous amounts of pressure. Their careers, their boss’ careers, their reputations and even their lives were in danger. But they stuck with the story. Backing down was never an option, they said, because they knew they had a good story with good sources.
Sadly, most college students don’t know who Woodward and Bernstein are, said Alicia Shepherd, author of Life in the Shadow, a biography of the two reporters. That is, unless their journalism professors tell them. Evidence of this was seen at the top of this column - those were quotes from real students.
That’s sad because much can be learned from Woodward and Bernstein, not only for journalists, but for anyone who is doing research.
“There’s no such thing as investigative reporting,” said Scott Armstrong, one of the original members in the Senate Watergate investigation. “It’s just more time spent reporting—doing more work, doing it harder, doing it longer.”
So here are a few of those tips from Woodward and Bernstein themselves.
• “A preconceived notion of the story puts you on the story, and then you go,” said Bernstein, meaning you’ve got to be able to see what you’re looking for before you can find it.
• They knew their sources were good and they had good information, but they didn’t trust all the information they received. They verified, verified, verified to make sure what they had was fact and not rumor. My note: This is good advice to follow. Don’t trust everything you read, especially in the age of the Internet.
• Good reporters are good listeners, Bernstein said. If you listen closely to your sources, the story can go places you never imagined.
• “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not getting chalk under your shoes, and that doesn’t mean that you do it intentionally or you’re irresponsible,” Woodward said, adding that he and Bernstein had made mistakes when covering Watergate, but that they had learned from those mistakes.
Don’t think this applies to you? Well here’s some food for thought. For every memo, term paper or business plan you write, you’re going to have to look up documents and talk to people. You may not be a journalist per se, but everyone is a reporter.