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Watergate and the Internet: A Cautionary Tale From Bob Woodward

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 10 2012

Last Tuesday at the American Society of News Editors annual conference, on a panel called “Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age?” veteran investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were talking about the importance of traditional shoe-leather reporting when the following exchange occurred, according to Washington Post reporter Dan Zak:

“One of the colleges asked students in a journalism class to write a one-page paper on how Watergate would be covered now,” said Bob Woodward, “and the professor — ”

“Why don’t you say what school it was,” suggested Carl Bernstein, sitting to Woodward’s left...

“Yale,” Woodward said. “He sent the one-page papers that these bright students had written and asked that I’d talk to the class on a speakerphone afterward. So I got them on a Sunday, and I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there.’ ”

“This is Yale,” Bernstein said gravely.

“That somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events,” Woodward said. “And they went on to say the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed, and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate.”

A small ballroom of journalists — which included The Washington Post’s top brass, past and present — chuckled or scoffed at the scenario.

“I have attempted to apply some corrective information to them,” Woodward continued, “but the basic point is: The truth of what goes on is not on the Internet. [The Internet] can supplement. It can help advance. But the truth resides with people. Human sources.”

I read this and thought, could it really be this black-and-white? Could Yale students really be that gullible about the Internet and naive about how powerful actors will try to hide information from public view?

And I'm not the only person who thought this story was unbelievable. Last Thursday, I ran into NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen at MIT, and asked him for his take. He said that he doubted that the Woodward anecdote about the Yale students was true. Wednesday morning, Rosen had written on his Facebook page, "I don't even believe this anecdote about moronic Yale students that Bob Woodward used to illustrate how clueless young people are today about journalism. It sounds made-up or very, very distorted from something one of them wrote."

Well, this past weekend I spoke with Woodward and then with Steven Brill, the veteran journalist, founder of Court TV and American Lawyer magazine, who teaches the Yale journalism class, English 467, that Woodward is referring to (and who endowed, along with his wife Cynthia Margolin Brill, the Yale Journalism Initiative that sponsors the class).

A 'Six Day' Story?
According to Brill, this wasn't the first time Woodward engaged his journalism class on the question of how Watergate would have played out in the age of the Internet--it's the third year that he's asked his students to tackle the question. And, he says, "Woodward's characterizations of their papers is totally accurate. It blows our minds every year."

"Almost to a person, they said this would have been a six day or a twenty day story," Brill added. "This is not just one class. Three classes in a row."

And these aren't college freshman either. Says Brill, "This is a very popular class. We take just 15 students out of 100 applicants. It's very bright kids, very much tuned into journalism, the managing editor types from the Yale Daily News and Yale Herald."

Early in the semester, he asks them to read through much of Woodward and Bernstein's original Watergate reporting for the Washington Post. And then he asks them to "write a one page essay on how Watergate would have played out in the age of the Internet."

This year, Woodward told me, the students' papers included these statements:

"Nixon would not have been re-elected in 1972. The Watergate cover-up would not have lasted more than a few days."
"With the advancements in the technology of the Internet it would be much easier to unravel the truth. It would have been simple to track down the $50,000 that was withdrawn from the intelligence gathering fund [i.e. Nixon's secret slush fund]."
"There would be hundreds, potentially thousands of people investigating the story. We'd learn from the Internet the details of James McCord's [the lead burglar] military records. With such readily available information, it would have been difficult for the conspirators to deny involvement for as long as they did."
"Along with the advantages the Internet would provide, today's political climate would also lead to the Watergate scandal completely unfolding in a week or two."
"Solid evidence proving their guilt would have spread everywhere on the Internet. As a result, the Nixon Administration would have almost immediately confessed the truth of the scandal."
"Once the connection between the burglars and the Committee to Re-Elect would have been established, other evidence would have trickled in. The online community would have gone into a tweeting frenzy."

Brill told me that of the 15 papers handed in this year, three included lead sentences that said something to the effect of "I would have Googled 'Howard Hunt' and found out that he worked for CREEP, or I would have Googled 'secret fund.'" Hunt handled the White House plumbers burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, and then also organized the bugging of the Democratic National Committee's Watergate headquarters a few months later. Hunt also worked for CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President.

After reading these essays, Woodward wrote Brill, "To a person your students have a heart-stopping over-confidence in the quality of the information on the Internet." And to me he added, "There's nothing laughable about this. It's sad."

"I'm not saying you shouldn't use the Internet," Woodward continued. "I'm saying that if you go to the Internet and use it, find human beings who have not yet talked, who have not yet unburdened themselves, and advance the story." Josh Marshall's reliance on his readers to help connect the dots in the Alberto Gonzales/district attorneyU.S. attorneys firings scandal was a good example, he said. "The Internet assists and does a lot of good things. People helping ferret out a story can be helpful."

That said, Woodward also told me he was outraged by Jay Rosen's skeptical comments. "Jay Rosen ought to be ashamed and retire. That he would say that about somebody without checking. Someone who teaches students to think and weigh evidence, just at random says this? He ought to resign as a professor." He added, "This only increases my distress about the Internet, and this rush to say anything."

I've asked Jay for a response (he's a friend), but he said he would rather write his own post explaining what happened, rather than commenting here. I will link to that when it's up. [UPDATE: Here's Jay's post, which includes a full apology to Woodward.]

For Woodward and Brill, the lesson of this class is not to embarrass Yale students, but to show them that the main work of journalism is in talking to people, not just using the web. Brill told me that a few weeks after the Watergate exercise, he asks his students to report on a hypothetical breaking story involving someone on the Yale campus, and to a person they all immediately respond by saying they would look up more information on Google, or start emailing around. "None of them say they'd pick their asses up" and walk over to the person's office at Yale, Brill bemoaned.

Crowdsourcing Watergate?
So today's budding college news hounds--or at least those taking Steven Brill's journalism class at Yale--are too reliant on the web. Point well taken. But are those same students really that wrong to argue that a Watergate-type scandal would play out differently in the age of the Internet?

Keep in mind that the Internet isn't the only new piece of the puzzle; in the wake of Watergate came relatively tough new political disclosure laws that indeed do push tons of useful information into public view. Had Howard Hunt been on the Nixon campaign's payroll, someone could have indeed taken his name from the police report of the Watergate break-in and perhaps matched it to CREEP's expenditure filings on the Federal Election Commission website. But given that the plumbers were an active criminal conspiracy sanctioned from the very top of the Nixon White House, would the Nixon campaign have really made all the proper disclosure filings?

Similarly, while the Yale students are certainly right to argue that there would have been an internet-driven feeding frenzy about the Watergate break-in, that doesn't mean the story would have immediately blown up in six or twenty days. Using the Internet and old-fashioned reporting, it still took a long time for Josh Marshall and his Talking Points Memo collaborators to bring down Gonzalez.

The problem, of course, with all these speculations is that "Watergate the story" indelibly changed American culture, reinforcing our deep-seated distrust of politicians. This attitude that now underpins a great deal of our interactions with people in power--including how we relate to them online. So, trying to imagine how Watergate would have played out in the age of the Internet is to some degree impossible, because the Internet is also a product of Watergate. Today we are more likely to disbelieve our leaders because so much endemic lying was exposed thanks to reporters like Woodward. And as a result we are probably more likely to go hunting for scandals (real and imagined) using all the new tools at our disposal. In that respect, the kids at Yale are probably right that a presidential scandal like Watergate would blow up faster today thanks to the net--but they owe Woodward, Bernstein and the other reporters who broke Watergate open a huge debt for making that so.

- - - -
Afterword: To clarify my "apology to Bob Woodward" from Friday: The draft version of this story was briefly published before I had spoken to him or Steven Brill. It did include the first several paragraphs of the text, including the speculation from Jay Rosen that I quoted above. Obviously it was incomplete when it inadvertently appeared.

This post has been corrected: It is Alberto Gonzales, not Gonzalez; and it was the U.S. attorneys firings, not district attorneys.