Bob Woodward ’65: Uncovering the Hidden Universes

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// WEEKEND

References to Bob Woodward can make chills run down a young journalist’s spine, and not just because he’s in sub-zero New Haven hell. Bob Woodward ’65 is the man who uncovered Watergate and, indirectly, led to President Nixon’s resignation; he’s been in the game since the early 1970s, writing books and, for his reporting, staying loyal to one paper, the place that published his most famous work: the Washington Post. Woodward is, this semester, connecting with another part of his past — Yale. He’s teaching the “Journalism” seminar, a high-level writing course that focuses on the methods of strong reporting. WEEKEND tried to keep its feelings in order and caught up with Woodward about his thoughts on journalism at Yale (we told him he didn’t have to play nice), how he chooses what to write about and why should we be paying more attention to the hidden universes around us.

 

Q. You’ve spoken a lot in interviews about immersive reporting, so extensive checking, confirmation through meeting notes or through in-person interviews, having unnamed sources that you can corroborate. Could you tell us about how you convey that in a syllabus? How do you unpack so many years of doing this kind of reporting in a few weeks in a classroom?

A. Well, I have the luxury of time to work on a book or a long project for the Washington Post, so you can get information and then try to get documentation, try to get contemporaneous meeting notes, and talk to all the people who might be involved or are present at a discussion or meeting. By surrounding a topic that way, I think you can get what we call the best obtainable version of the truth. But it takes time, and in the class I’m teaching, I have described it as a way of explaining how you get information through all kinds of ways, obviously — how you verify it and then how you write it up so others can read it and hopefully understand it.

Q. Professor [Steven] Brill has been teaching the course for some years now. How have you built on how he’s been teaching it? Did you design a completely new syllabus?

A. I looked at his syllabus and what others have done, like Jill Abramson, who’s now the [executive] editor of the New York Times, what some people have done at Columbia Journalism School and other schools and I devised my own syllabus.

Q. How has the experience been so far? Are you learning as you go along with it?

A. I’m hopefully learning a lot. They’re fabulous students — I like it much more than I ever expected because of their engagement. I’ve selected things to read and discuss which have to do with the methods of reporting, and I’ve found that to talk abstractly about some of these things and even practice them, then to kind of try to develop a succinct way of stating how you go about it has helped me in my own reporting. For example, the simple rule of trying to talk to everyone, be aggressive … in talking about it, I’ve found that it puts me in a mode of, “OK, now practice what you’re talking about!” After doing this for four decades, you can get … to put it in English, you can get lazy. I’ve found it very energizing to talk about these things and see what the students’ ideas are.

Q. What do you make of journalism at Yale right now? What do you think kids are doing right, and what do you think people could be doing better? Obviously, your class is not necessarily a representative sample, but what are you finding?

A. There were, I guess, 81 people applied to the class. I took the journalists, the people who have been editors at the Yale Daily News and The Politic, but also a couple of scientists, a couple of people who are very religious, and so it’s a very diverse group, it’s not just journalists. I am interacting with the people who are engaged in journalism there — they’re tired, they’ve worked very hard. The number of hours they put in each day is extraordinary… the publications there are excellent and I think the people practicing it are walking around all of these issues, “How are you sure what’s a story? How do you get responses?”— all of the fundamentals of journalism.

Q. With that, something that I think is interesting for people who do writing at Yale is the question of how much do we learn about journalism, and how much do we learn through our extracurriculars, things like the News or The Politic — do you have any guidance on that, in terms of how much people can learn about journalism in an academic way?

A. I think by reading examples. For instance, a couple of weeks ago we did Seymour Hersh’s My Lai stories from Vietnam — are you familiar with that? [WKND: Yes!] And a book called “With the Old Breed,” which is a World War II book by somebody on the ground in the island-hopping in the Pacific. I intentionally selected that because hopefully these students aren’t going to go to war — you never know — and it’s something seemingly removed from their lives, and I wanted them to see it and wrestle with the questions of what war does to people … so it’s journalism but it’s also on a subject that they barely have a lot of familiarity with.

Q. That’s actually something I wanted to speak with you about in terms of your own career: approaching new subjects. I’m Pakistani, and I noticed that you wrote a story on drones in late October — you broke the news that the Pakistani government had been aware of the drone strikes, that the CIA had been sharing documents with them. I’m really interested in how you pick what you want to cover now. You did the drone story, and you said in an interview that you wish you had gotten the Snowden scoop. How do you pick, as a veteran journalist, what you cover today? 

A. That’s an important question and something that you want to think about. I did four books on President Bush and his wars; I’ve done two on Obama, “Obama’s Wars” about his decisions in the Afghan war, relating to Pakistan intensely as you know, and then a second one on the budget wars with the Republicans. To be honest, I’m not sure where the center of gravity is now in American politics and the White House, whether it’s in foreign affairs or the budget/domestic issues, obviously they’re going on in both, but I’m kind of doing reporting in both areas and even some others. I haven’t decided on the next book yet.

Q. So with something like the drones scoop or Snowden, is that something that strikes you as interesting because the White House is paying attention to it, or is that potentially a new area of interest for you? 

A. We were talking in class on Monday about the stories that Dana Priest and Anne Hull did on Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] … they’d spent months [there] without telling any officials running the hospital or seeking their permission. So they kind of embedded themselves. And in their articles, they wrote that this is a hidden universe. I think one of the standards is to try to find what’s hidden, and there’s always a great deal, and try to explain it. That’s what they did so well in those articles.

Q. That’s really interesting, especially because of the comments you did make about Edward Snowden and how you would have approached the story. You said that he shouldn’t necessarily have been named — you would have approached him as a protected source. In finding hidden universes and exposing these areas in your journalism, how do you approach questions like the protected source, particularly in today’s media environment?

A. I think it’s essential to protect sources, and obviously if people can be on the record, that’s much better, but involving many of these sensitive cases, they can’t. In the case of Snowden, he’s chosen to be on the record. There are lots of people who have made the point that he, in being on the record and having these documents and kind of playing publications against each other, has been in control, and I think it’s better if the reporter can be in control.

Q. How do you think that reporters and publications can maintain control today, given that sources obviously have so many more outlets of their own to shape the narrative?

A. That’s the world we live in. Ideally, you want to be able to weigh it against other information, put it in context, explain it — I think a lot of these stories occur that people are baffled by. People are baffled by what’s going on in Ukraine now. There’s pieces of information, people say things, there’s an analysis of “who is Putin?” A giant question, so people are working that out, running a story of great influence. I think lots of people are confused. The new owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, when he came to visit and talk to the staff, said one of the things he really liked in the Post has been the story “10 Reasons Why Syria Matters.” He said that really helped him and he felt it helped readers. I think that’s true — I think it’s very difficult to sort out the meaning and the background on lots of things.

Q. What is your take on pieces like that? We’re seeing these, “10 Reasons why Syria Matters” or the “Four Things You Should Know About Ukraine Today” becoming this popular format because people like to click on those things — it’s instant information. As someone who’s done very immersive, source-dependent journalism, are you open to that?

A. Sure! I think it helps. In the long books and projects I do, hopefully I explain the context and what it means and why it matters, but in the daily newspaper, I think it’s incredibly useful, and you’re right, people click on it, people like it. One of my approaches is I think people take very seriously what they read and what they know … I think that the eventual survival of newspapers hinges on that, or of the news media whether it’s newspapers, online or print — that the implicit argument always is, “We’re going to tell you what you might want to know,” and I think people want to know what’s going on. The more of that can be done, the better, particularly when it has to do with hidden universes, going back to Nixon and the CIA and the Supreme Court and what goes on in the White House. Those are all hidden universes.

Q. So the task of the reporter is to bring that out.

A. The obligation is to bring that out … to do it in a fair-minded way but a very aggressive way.

Q. One thing that has concerned me and I think a lot of younger journalists is … I wonder if today you feel that people are as aggressive or as willing to be aggressive in their reporting, to go after sources who have more power and more of an ability to get their voice out there. Do you think that courage is still there among young journalists?

A. Sure, but I think there’s not enough of it. I’ve, in my last book, “The Price of Politics,” criticized Republicans and Democrats but particularly President Obama, and there’s no more powerful figure around. I know from people I’ve talked to he doesn’t like it, he’s not happy with it, and I understand that but particularly when you look at the facts, there’s a leadership burden that he bears as President and CEO of the country. At the same time, he’s dealing with a very difficult hand and the Republicans are difficult, to say the least … I think there is a lot of in-depth, aggressive reporting, but I’d like to see about twice or three times as much.

Q. You’ve alluded throughout our conversation to coverage of Ukraine. I was interested in how some media critics spoke about American reporting on Sochi—things like #SochiProblems. People were uploading these pictures of half-completed bathrooms and hotels that they thought were shabby. How do narratives of journalists affect foreign affairs, and how much are the effects considered? Some Russia experts have turned around and said, you’re not helping, you’re only boosting the Russian people’s idea that others are xenophobic. I was wondering what you thought of that kind of reporting.

A. If the reporting was good and accurate … I look at it and I didn’t think it was at the center of what the Olympic games were about. Again, I think you have to go to 30,000 feet or 100,000 feet and we’ve got a new media … if there was a thimbleful of information forty years ago, now it fills the universe to a certain extent. And as a kind of committed believer in the First Amendment, people should say what they want and report on what they want and I don’t object to that at all. The former editor of the Post, Ben Bradlee, used to have this saying: “the truth emerges.” I think that’s exactly right. People put things out there, they write stories about bad hotel rooms and toilets that don’t work and so forth … that may be true, but to expand on what Bradlee said, the context and meaning emerges also over time.

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Listen, it is really a pleasure to come back there. My 50th reunion is next year. The change is phenomenal and, quite frankly, I think it’s a much better place than it was 50 years ago, with the admission of women, much more diversity, much more …Yale now represents the whole world. Fifty years ago, it was a very small segment of the world.

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