Q&A

The honorable tradition of Deep Throat reporting

June 9 1980
Q&A

The honorable tradition of Deep Throat reporting

June 9 1980

The honorable tradition of Deep Throat reporting

Q&A: Bob Woodward

The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s rocked the United States, ousted Richard Nixon from the presidency and made heroes of two young reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Wood-ward and Carl Bernstein, who were credited with spearheading the investigation. Their books, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, rode the bestseller lists for months and were followed by a popular movie with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the “Woodstein” team. Now the Post’s assistant managing editor for metropolitan news, Woodward, 37, is enjoying another huge

success: The Brethren, a study of the U.S. Supreme Court which he wrote with journalist Scott Armstrong, has been a best seller since its publication last December. But the journalistic technique of both writing teams—where the identity of many key sources is not divulged—is the subject of some controversy. Toronto writer Terry Poulton spoke with Woodward last month about the ethics of not naming names. Maclean’s: What is the journalistic legacy of the Wa tergate investigation? Woodward: Well, a lot of people think

It was the night they lost the president *

the legacy is tons of investigative reporting, reporters out of control, digging around looking for dirt on everyone. That has just not turned out to be the case. There’s too little investigative reporting—I really don’t like that term—too little in-depth reporting. People still do the quick and dirty, the press conference, instead of going around talking to everyone and getting a real sense of what’s going on. Maclean’s: Why don't you like the term investigative reporting?

Woodward: Well, it sounds like you have to find wrongdoing. I don’t think reporters should ever be sent out to find wrongdoing. I think they should be sent out to obtain a description of whatever is really happening.

Maclean’s: How would you describe the style of journalism that you and Bernstein began?

Woodward: You mean not naming sources? We didn’t begin it. It’s got a long and honorable tradition. A lot of journalists in America in the 1930s were doing it. When Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court, for example, Joe Alsop, who later became one of the best-known columnists in America, and Turner Catledge, who became editor of The New York Times,

wrote a book together using exactly the same style we used in The Final Days and The Brethren. There’s a fiction in journalism that if something’s on the record, the journalist has really done a good job or gotten to the meat of the matter. But, in fact, if somebody’s lying on the record, as so many public officials do, it’s no good, it’s invalid. It’s actually much riskier to write something not naming the sources. If you go to people and say, ‘Listen, I’m not going to name you as the one telling the true story but I am going to check it and verify it and see if I can document it,’ you’re serving the consumers of your product much better because you have a better chance of giving them the truth. But when your source’s version turns out to be contrary to what people are saying on the official record, you’re putting your professional reputation on the line. So it’s not easy; it’s much harder. The idea that there’s something cavalier or that it’s on the cheap to not name sources is totally backwards.

Maclean’s: But isn't telling a source that he or she will not be named just giving them carte blanche to be slanderous? Woodward: No, because you’re going to go back and beat them over the head if what they say doesn’t check out. You make that very clear. So it doesn’t give them an opportunity to be slanderous— it gives them an opportunity to tell what’s really going on.

Maclean’s: How can you possibly verify information from these secret sources? Woodward: The same way police reporters do every day. You find out who else is involved. If it’s an allegation of wrongdoing or improper behavior

against somebody, you go to that person and ask them to give their side. It’s very easy, very basic, but it takes more time.

Maclean’s: Have there ever been any real gems of information that you felt certain were true but could not verify? Woodward: All sorts of things that one person said—they saw this, they witnessed that—but others denied and we couldn’t use. I’ll give you one example because it didn’t involve wrongdoing. It’s a terrific story but I’m not sure it’s true. The day before Nixon resigned, when he was obviously emotionally charged and distraught, he got up in the middle of the night and said he was going for a walk. He ordered the Secret Service not to follow him. He just walked out the White House gate and they lost him. It was the night they lost the president of the United States! A couple hours later, he walked back in and they never found out where he’d been. Now I don’t know whether that’s true or not. Somebody who was in a position to know, and whom I trust, said it happened. But we never used it in a book or article.

Maclean’s: You and your co-author have been accused of practising deception in researching The Brethren. How did you get yöur information?

Woodward: There’s been a great mis-

conception and it’s partly our fault. A lot of people have written about the massive treason of the Supreme Court clerks. In fact, there was no treason. A good number of the justices themselves opened the door for our investigation. Some of them spent hours allowing us to interview them and even provided us with the names and addresses of their former clerks. And the hundreds of documents we quoted from have all been authenticated—nobody’s questioning

that. How or where we got them is irrelevant and we proved that we weren’t quoting out of context. So I think it’s a specious issue. The question is the quality and usefulness of the information. Maclean’s: What do you expect of people you trust when they're approached by investigative reporters?

Woodward: Interestingly enough, I’m in that situation right now. A reporter for a big magazine in Washington has spent about three months talking to people about me. In a staff meeting, I told people that I believed in the First Amendment, with no footnotes or exceptions, and if they wanted to spend the time, they should go ahead and talk. I don’t think people should be afraid of their secrets.

Maclean’s: Are you ever going to reveal the identity of Deep Throat (the key, secret source in the Watergate case) ?

Woodward: Traditionally, this kind of thing does not come out for a long time. I remember talking recently to Pierre Salinger, who was Jack Kennedy’s press secretary. I asked him to name the six most devastating leaks during the Kennedy presidency and whether he knew the sources of any of them. And he said, “No, but even now, 15 or more years later, I’d give my right arm to know.” This kind of information just does not come out. And as a journalist I protect it because confidential sources are really our lifeline to a better version of the truth than that provided by the normal public relations apparatus of government.

Maclean’s: Why are you still working in daily journalism ?

Woodward: My feeling is that we don’t find out what really happens that often. I remember listening to Senator Frank Church, who headed the investigation into intelligence agencies in the U.S. a number of years ago. He was giving a speech and he said,“The truth always comes out. We can feel very confident that we will always learn what’s at the bottom of the barrel.” As a practising journalist, I think he’s damn wrong. In fact, disclosure is rare, not something we can count on. There is no department of truth. Besides, I think being a journalist is the best job there is. f¡?