Woodward and Bernstein Life in the Shadow of Watergate

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Alicia C. Shephard
Author of Review
Carol White

I approached reading Alicia Shepard's book with some eagerness. I had just finished Woodward's newest, State of Denial, and like many people was struck by its critical tone toward the Bush crowd. For so long now, he had seemed like their guy.

Were things so bad, in Woodward's estimation, that he was willing to jeopardize his position as a White House toady by a bit of truth-telling? Or perhaps "just as interestingly," might he perhaps be the voice of a section of the establishment who have become determined to force a change of policy on Bush II? Were the writing of State of Denial and the formation of the Baker bi-partisan committee related in some fundamental way -- perhaps including the involvement of Papa Bush? Unfortunately I was doomed to disappointment. Shepard's book is not particularly illuminating.

Shepard, who is an adjunct member of the journalism faculty at American University in Washington, DC, is an award winning media critic, and she has had unique access to a Watergate archive at the University of Texas offered for sale to the University in 2002 by the two reporters, for $5 million. The archive covers the period from 1972-76 and claims to contain all of their notes from that period. Judging by this book, I would say that this was not money well spent.

Shepard's story is about how the two reporters were transformed from the lean and hungry investigative reporters who played a crucial role in bringing down the edifice of the Nixon Administration, to media icons. Clearly, for her Woodward remains a hero while Bernstein is a drop out. But she admits that even her hero has softened up. From lean-and-hungry investigative journalist he has become a pussy-cat, or in his own words, someone who 'chronicles' events. For those who believe that Woodward's pose of Olympian detachment is pure fraud, her account is at best thin beer. The book might better have been titled: Poor Little Rich Boys and How they Survived the Trauma of Wealth and Success. Ho hum!

The book's strengths, such as they are, lie in its account of how Woodward, the celebrity journalist, is supported by a major multi-media campaign including pre-publication in the Washington Post and featured treatment by Newsweek, which is owned by the newspaper--and then there is the TV celebrity circuit. All of these contribute to the hullabaloo of a Woodward book release, and create the aura of importance which surrounds him and whatever he may write.

It is interesting that in 1973, Woodward was very clear on the proper role of a reporter. On page 85 of the book Shepard quotes from speech he gave at a college, which first appeared in the Boston Globe. Note this was one year after the publication of All the President's Men, but six years before the release of the film of the same name. Woodward had yet to reach icon status, and this is what he had to say. "There has been an obscene affection in Washington for the official version of a story. Big-name reporters were merely stenographers. Watergate has proved that that is not enough."

After this quotation, Shepard goes on to quote from Woodward's notes from the same year where he calls reporters "captive prisoners, who have an 'obscene affection' for the official version [a] superficial toughness [but are] not doing a good job sorting through the information."

Shepard does report that in his later books even though Woodward's "facts" are accurate, he has been caught out seemingly 'overlooking' important information because of his reliance on high level sources, and she cites how he failed to uncover the Iran-contra scandal when he wrote his book about the CIA, even though he was given a significant lead by fellow Washington Post reporter, Leonard Downie, Jr., while he was gathering information for this book. Woodward got a lucky break in that although Woodward had finished writing his book by the time the scandal broke in the press, it had not yet been published and he was able to make some last minute revisions so as to to be caught flat-footed.

Interestingly, on page 236, Shepard suggests that Woodward intimidates critics. She writes, "People who are critical of Woodward, for the most part, refuse to go on record because they fear Woodward, who has occasionally called bosses when he hasn't liked a story about him." Nonetheless, she appears to number herself among his admirers, writing on the next page that "Woodward should not be judged for failing to analyze events because he is a reporter, a fact gatherer, and, even if people wish differently, he does not pass himself off as anything more. He prefers to leave the analysis for historians."

Hopefully as a journalist she does a better, more ctitical job than she did with this book. The following links point to some stories, casting more serious doubts on Woodward's integrity might have found a place in her book. The following links provide insight into Woodward's claims to objectivity.

http://www.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/10/30/22044/596
http://nightlight.typepad.com/nightlight/2005/10/woodward_helped.html

About the Author: Carol White has had a long and varied career, but the salient points are a first career as mathematics teacher--in NYC high schools and then at the City University of New York. After that she morphed into being a science writer and editor. These days her news beat is the local culture scene.

Special Thanks: Ava Home
ePluribus Contributors: JeninRI, cho and roxy