Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee referred them collectively as “Woodstein” – the two young Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who, in 1972, were chasing down the details of a burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel complex.
Both Woodward and Bernstein – as well as a host of other major and minor figures – would become household names as the so-called “third-rate burglary” at DNC headquarters blossomed into a full-blown scandal that resulted in President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and jail time for many of his cohorts. For its dogged coverage of what would forever after be known simply as Watergate, the Post won a Pulitzer in 1973.
While other major papers covered the story, the Post and the work of Woodward and Bernstein was the most renowned. They also wrote a best-selling book, “All the President’s Men,” about their escapades, and Hollywood made a movie of the book that won four Academy Awards, including the best supporting actor award for Jason Robards, who played Bradlee.
Across America, aspiring young journalists at papers ranging from the smallest weekly to the largest metropolitan daily wanted to be the next Woodward or Bernstein. Our two heroes from the Post had made reporting seem glamorous, dashing and, above all, important.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
It also looked fun, with all that running around, talking to sources late at night, secret meetings and going up against the most powerful people in the nation. Newspapers had never seemed so essential, so relevant to the daily lives of all Americans, so crucial to the balance of powers in our country.
And so, thousands of Woodstein wannabes signed on as cub reporters, often at whatever papers would have them – only to run head-first into reality. We didn’t hold clandestine meetings in parking garages or butt heads with the president’s men; we covered county fairs, car wrecks, chamber of commerce meetings and Friday night football games.
We soon learned that investigative reporting, which had seemed so exciting on the big screen, usually turned out to be a slog through boring official documents and yellowing news stories in the paper’s morgue, talking to people with faulty memories or people who refused to talk at all, pursuing dead-end leads and then writing a story that ultimately had little, if any, discernible impact.
We began to realize that neither Robert Redford nor Dustin Hoffman would be playing us in the movies.
But we also began to discern that there was value in what we did, even if the scale was a bit smaller than toppling a sitting president. We were doing something necessary.
The Washington Post is still doing that. So are all the other major papers, network and cable TV stations and all the other reporting outlets, both big and small, that make up the so-called mainstream media.
Some people had begun to question the viability of what Sarah Palin liked to call the “lamestream media.” Why did we need traditional news outlets to tell us what was important? Why did we need to have our news filtered and vetted by reporters, editors and publishers? Why couldn’t we just rely on bloggers and people with cellphone cameras for our information?
Well, the work being done now by papers such as the Post and the New York Times, and by scores of reporters for other news outlets has provided a resounding answer to those questions. What these reporters have begun to unearth about the presidency of Donald Trump may ultimately rise to the level and scope of the reporting on Watergate.
This time, too, we might be tempted to believe that this pursuit of facts – real news, not fake news – is all glamor and glitz. In reality, as always, it is hard work, a matter of digging through records, hounding sources, checking and re-checking facts, making sure you get it right.
The national reporting being done now should lay to rest any questions about the relevancy of the media and the importance of establishing a factual, verifiable record of events. In short, we are relearning the inestimable value of a free press.
Woodward and Bernstein ride again.
James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.