“The crime was worse”: Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate and a changed world

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Miller Center Director and former Governor Gerald Baliles (left) talks with Carl Bernstein (center) and Bob Woodward at the Paramount November 2. Miller Center Director and former Governor Gerald Baliles (left) talks with Carl Bernstein (center) and Bob Woodward at the Paramount November 2.

The most striking thing about seeing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sit side by side and talk about the Watergate scandal and their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting that brought it to light is that even after 40 years of talking about it, they still get excited. Or if they don’t, they do a good job of sounding like they do.

The famous pair took the stage with Miller Center director and former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles at the Paramount Friday following a screening of the movie based on their book about Nixon’s downfall, All the President’s Men, as part of the Virginia Film Festival’s “Presidency in Film” series. The packed house had laughed its way through the movie—for a political thriller, it got a lot of appreciative chuckles—and was rapt during the Q&A with Baliles, which touched on the long-term impacts of Watergate on politics and the media.

Woodward and Bernstein teamed up again this year to take another look at Watergate four decades later, and after spending a lot of time with White House tapes, they’d gained a better understanding of the vengeful rancor that inspired the tactics known as “ratfucking.” From plotting takedowns of members of the media to considering blackmailing Nixon predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon and his top advisors were all about payback.

“There’s no ambiguity,” Woodward said. “He says, ‘I want the safe cracked. I want it blown. I want that file.’”

It’s often said that the cover-up of Watergate was worse than the crime. Not so, said the journalists.

“The crime was worse,” Woodward said. “Far worse,” Bernstein chimed in. The Nixon administration waged all-out war on the media, the anti-war movement, and their Democratic opponents—and in the last instance, their goal “was to undermine the very idea of free elections,” said Bernstein.

A lot has changed since then. Woodward pointed out the rather extraordinary show of bipartisanship in the Senate’s 77-0 vote to set up a committee to investigate the Watergate burglary, something that “just wouldn’t happen” today, he said.

Newsrooms have changed, too. The depictions of the Post’s floor in the movie—a crowded, squalid place ringing with the cacophony of typewriters—drive that home. But Woodward and Bernstein both said the real shift is in reporting. Too many journalists, especially young people who have grown up never knowing a world without the Web, rely too heavily on the Internet, thinking of it as a “magic lantern” that holds all the answers. Real reporting, he said, requires the kind of plodding methodology he and Bernstein employed to crack open Watergate.

But those on the other end of the media pipeline aren’t off the hook, Bernstein said. “There’s a huge difference today in how news and information is being received by readers, viewers, and consumers, too many of whom—many many more of whom—are not looking for the best obtainable version of the truth,” he said, “but information that will reinforce their previously held prejudices, ideologies, and political beliefs.”

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