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Woodward, Bernstein talk about Nixon, Trump and Watergate at NEIU
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Suzanne Arnold
2018-02-13

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Journalism icons and authors Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were featured in the latest Daniel L. Goodwin Distinguished Lecture Series at Northeastern Illinois University ( NEIU ) on Feb. 8. This was the first time the two have appeared together since the November 2016 election.

In the early 1970s, Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story for The Washington Post, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The story set the standard for modern investigative reporting, for which they and The Post were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Woodward and Bernstein wrote All The Presidents Men, which was about their role in the Watergate investigation and Nixon's resignation. It was later made into a movie of the same name.

Dr. Katrina Bell Jordan, interim dean of NEIU's College of Arts and Sciences moderated the event.

The evening began with remarks by Dr. Richard Helldobler, interim president of Northeastern, who introduced the benefactor of the lecture series and alum of Northeaster, Daniel L. Goodwin. Goodwin presented the University with a check and then introduced the moderator, Dr. Katrina Bell-Jordan.

When asked to describe the current state of presidential affairs, the comments "bullshit" and "off the rails" were used. Woodward, who is currently writing a book about Presdient Donald Trump, shared a very striking story.

In an interview in which Woodward asked Trump about a quote by President Obama in which Obama said, "The strength for the U.S. comes from restraint and humility," Trump responded, "Real power comes from fear." Bernstein added that this is typical of the demagoguery so reflective of the current president.

In discussing Trump, they expressed that his success really came from media as well as the creation of cultivation and manipulation of the two New York papers ( New York Times and New York Daily News ). They stated that he would call into a reporter at each paper using the name "John Baron" to plant stories about himself to boost his visibility.

As expected, there was much discussion around the Watergate investigation and comparisons with current investigations, including the Russian meddling and potential obstruction that the U.S. Department of Justice is pursued.

The current situation has much similarity, as they believe the real story here is the cover up. They compel journalists to establish piece by piece what is being covered up, just as they did with Watergate.

When asked about Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Bernstein said that Mueller is tough, thorough and fair. Woodward added that if a pear "tear[s] the mattress tag off, he will prosecute you!"

The two journalists described the Watergate era mindset of the public as people unable to even believe that it happened, even as they reported the facts as they unfurled. For example, they thought Nixon was too smart to use the tactics he did to burgle the Democrats at Watergate and, then, to record his own office conversations.

When Woodward called John Mitchell one evening to tell him that the story running in the next days Post would identify him as the coordinator of payments to the Watergate burglars, he threatened Katherine Graham and told him that "we will come after you boys." They ran that response, too, and—much to their surprise—there was hardly a ripple over it, because people could not believe it possible that a previous Attorney General would do that.

Per Woodward, in one meeting with Katherine Graham, publisher of the Post, she blew his mind with the detailed questions she asked. As he discovered that, as publisher, she was "hands off" to let them do their work, but she was "minds on" to fully understand and support the work.

Bell-Jordan asked the two icons several questions about the current state of journalism, as it relates to politics, and where it is headed.

Generally, Bernstein remarked, there is a lot of great investigative journalism being done today. However, what he calls the "cold civil war" is changing the United States, adding that said war actually predates Trump. He also stated that Fox News, by dressing up opinion as truth, established this "cold civil war." He pointed out that the late Roger Ailes, the Fox News founder and a propagandist, started in the Nixon White House.

Bernstein stated that he believes media and politics are looked at by most as separate from the larger culture but is, in fact, a reflection of the culture. Through social media, discussion has become more stratified, beliefs have been put into boxes, and both left and right try to pigeonhole people's beliefs.

They noted that social media has created a sort of "need for speed,' in terms of news, explaining that patience seems to be no longer needed to fully vet a story. The two also noted that people are really looking for information to buttress their beliefs.

Advices to current and future journalists include the need to be face-to-face, that real information comes from "visiting." They related several stories where they just "showed up" for an interview without an appointment. Bernstein even related that he even jumped into a cab once with the Watergate burglars. It was following a court hearing and as the three burglars and their lawyer filled the cab, Woodward dove into the full cab as the door slammed. ( He ended up flying to New York with the lawyer. )

Furthermore, they expressed the belief that most people want to tell the truth—their truth. In questioning, they advised reporters to keep in mind that the story is most likely not what they expect. For example, in covering Trump, they should report more about what his strategy and methodology are.

They added that the daily press briefings are no more than theater. They added that the term "breaking news" is used so much that it cheapens the news overall—and that the public is the loser. Another tip they dispensed: Journalists need to work to get credibility back by finding new ways to report, by doing the research, assemble the story, retool and reform. According to Bernstein, media should engage care not to become a platform for lies and a sales pitch. Bernstein further stated that the Trump people are not inaccessible, and are actually more accessible than the Obama team had been—but the journalists have to ask the questions and not become frustrated.

Bernstein stated that Trump's tweets are the real roadmap of Donald Trump, used to instill fear. He stated, "[reporters] are not covering enough of what Trump does, just what he says. Trump has done some moderate things." The example shared is that in his first year, Obama added 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, while Trump has added only 4,000 in his first year.

The most important role of media is the decision of what is news, they stated. For example, they said that maybe the Nunes memo is not the story.

Another tip: Reporters also need to be able to own up to mistakes. Woodward shared an example of one he made in judging Gerald Ford following the Watergate scandal. When Ford pardoned Nixon, Bernstein called Woodward on the phone to tell him and in very few words, stated his overall feelings, saying, "The SOB pardoned the SOB." Years later, when Woodward interviewed Ford, he found him to be one of the nicest, sincere and open person he had ever met. When he asked Ford why he pardoned Nixon, Ford explained that he did it for the country.

Al Haig, Nixon's former secretary of state, made the deal for Nixon with Ford. It was that Nixon would only resign if Ford pardoned him. Ford felt that another two years of indictments and scandal would further undermine the economy and culture. Ford had felt that we needed healing. In fact, Ted and Caroline Kennedy agreed that Ford did the right thing by pardoning Nixon and awarded Ford the Profiles in Courage Award. Woodward stated, "I had been so wrong" and "what a cold shower for me."

In short, they were saying that reporters need to re-examine, go back and excavate.


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