The role of the journalist is to provide information to the public and let the voters decide, according to Bob Woodward ’65.
On Tuesday, The Yale Political Union hosted Woodward — a famous for his reporting on the Watergate scandal — for its annual Bulldog Days event in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. Woodward, who is the associate editor of The Washington Post and is currently teaching a journalism seminar at Yale, gave the opening speech for a debate centered on the resolution, “Resolved: The Media Should Ignore Politicians’ Private Lives.” Before an audience of over 200 current and prospective students, Woodward argued that journalists have an obligation to disclose relevant facts to the public, even if those facts concern private matters.
“Our job is to go through and get information, verify it and publish it,” Woodward said.
Woodward prefaced his speech by saying he would not address the topic in an orthodox manner. Rather, he would ask for engagement from the audience, as “participation” is a theme he believes is important to Yale culture.
He began by presenting an ethical dilemma he faced while at the Washington Post in the 1980s when he had to decide whether to publish a story concerning a public figure and his habit of cheating in golf.
Although the story was ultimately not run in the paper, partially due to the editorial staff’s concern about the newspaper’s reputation, Woodward said he felt that decision was ultimately a mistake.
“My conclusion is that we failed,” Woodward said.
He added that since this individual could have been elected to higher office, the public deserved to know as much information as possible to make an informed decision when voting.
Woodward also shared his experience interviewing former president George W. Bush ’68 following the Iraq war. He recounted Bush’s response to a question about how history would remember him.
“He replied, ‘History? We won’t know — we’ll all be dead,’” Woodward said. “It is true; we won’t know how all these things will be judged by history.”
After a student asked whether it was possible for a newspaper to entirely remove political biases, Woodward replied by saying that as human beings, there will always be some personal influence in reporting.
However, he said it is necessary for reporters to keep those attitudes in “their back pocket” to preserve the integrity of their journalism.
“We live in the era of impatience, speed and Internet. Anyone can say anything about anyone, whether it is true or not,” Woodward said. “But the truth emerges — sometimes it just takes a long time.”
Following Woodward’s address, students from across the political spectrum supported and rebutted the resolution.
Richard Lizardo ’15, a member of the Conservative Party and the first student speaker, argued that in entering the public sphere, politicians are inherently forfeiting a degree of privacy.
He added that extramarital affairs by politicians often reflect a lack of self-control, stupidity, deceptiveness and willingness to break oaths — all characteristics he said are relevant to serving office.
Julie Aust ’14, a member of the Party of the Left, spoke on the negative side, stating that politicians are not role models. Rather, they are individuals who are elected for having the most compelling agendas.
She added that in publishing personal information, journalists force individuals to “be on a pedestal … a very dangerous place for anyone to be, especially a politician.”
Although Yale students and admitted students interviewed said Woodward’s remarks did not entirely address the stated topic for debate, they were largely positive about his speech.
Tyler Carlisle ’15, vice president of Operations for the YPU, said it was great to have Woodward come speak at the Union and to be able to interact with a journalist of his caliber.
“I was really excited when I saw he was on the schedule,” said Josh Hochman, an admitted student from New Jersey.
He added he had read some of Woodward’s work and appreciated the opportunity to hear him speak in person.
Max Bloom, an admitted student from New Haven, said although he found the discussion interesting, it did not have direct relevance to the proposed resolution.
Farheen Maqbool ’17 disagreed, adding that she enjoyed Woodward’s approach to the resolution.
Woodward’s seminar, entitled “Journalism,” is being offered through the English department.