Courage and Conscience

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters share lessons from Watergate scandal.

March 20, 2012

Follow all leads, use common sense, and have no preconceived notion of where your story is going. That’s the methodology Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward followed as young metro reporters working for The Washington Post investigating a break-in at the Democratic National Convention headquarters at The Watergate Hotel.

And that’s a different process than many of today’s journalists follow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writers told the Opening General Session crowd Monday.

The bottom line for the Post, Bernstein said, was "the best attainable version of the truth" and not just the economical bottom line.

Watergate began as a story of a burglary—called "third-rate" by the White House—but it grew into a scandal of dirty campaign tricks and abuse of power at the highest levels in government, culminating with impeachment proceedings and the resignation of President Nixon.

Today, the writers credit the courage and conscience of their sources who told them of illegal acts and who put national interest above personal interest. Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post, showed courage despite threats by the Nixon administration and legal requests to turn over the reporters’ notes, Woodward added. She was "mind on, but hands off" the story, absorbing all of the risk but letting us do our jobs.

"The system worked in a powerful way," he reflected. Republican senators broke party lines to vote to investigate Nixon’s role in the scandal. The Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion to order the release of the Nixon tapes. Today both branches of government are politicized and polarized, he said.

For years, the duo felt there was an "aroma of a deal" about Nixon’s pardon by his successor, President Ford. It would bother them for years. Woodward eventually called Ford for an interview. They spent hours together and Woodward, the relentless reporter, continued to question him about the pardon.

The answer he finally received: He issued the pardon for the country, Ford told him, to preempt the criminal process that had started and connect to the higher purpose of his job as president.

Years later, Ford received the Profile in Courage Award, bestowed by the Kennedy family for putting the country and the national interest first. The moment was "sobering" for us, Woodward said.

On media today, "no one is more critical than we are," Bernstein said, and "there isn’t enough good reporting. People look to the media to reinforce their political beliefs" rather than having an open mind.

The national interest has to guide us as it did in the Watergate scandal, Bernstein said—and not any partisan concerns, ideologies, or money. But for decades now the increasing role of money in politics has made partisanship more possible.

It will be a challenge during the presidential election for the media to come to an appropriate view of the strengths and weaknesses of candidates, Woodward added. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows "super" political action committees to raise unlimited funds, "exponentially allowed new robber barons to use their money and access" for negative campaigning, making it difficult for truths to be heard, he said.