Is the Washington Post whitewashing criticism of its Watergate coverage?

When it comes to the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post has some explaining to do.

Why is the paper ignoring some very serious questions about the reporting methods of its two most famous former reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (W/B)?

As you may have read, the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in is this Sunday, June 17, and there is already much in the press about the scandal and its meaning for American politics and journalism.

At LSU, the Manship School of Mass Communication and the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs got ahead of the curve on Watergate. We sponsored one of the first retrospectives on the scandal on April 23.

It was a lively discussion among Barry Sussman, the Washington Post‘s special Watergate editor (he directed Woodward and Bernstein); Earl Silbert, the original Watergate prosecutor (he put the burglars in prison); and Max Holland, a journalist and historian who has published an exciting new book about “Deep Throat,” the confidential source for many of the Post’s stories. The book is Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. [See a brief video of the program here.]

Max’s book, and another by journalist Jeff Himmelman, Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, have raised serious questions about the veracity of W/B’s reporting and their subsequent book about the scandal, All the President’s Men.

In Himmelman’s book, former Post editor Ben Bradlee voices doubts about the truthfulness of Woodward’s account of his clandestine encounters with Deep Throat. Himmelman also uncovers another troubling discrepancy in the Post’s reporting, which is examined here. (To its credit, the Post has published stories about Himmelman’s far-less-sensational allegations.)

Holland’s book, however, is far more troubling for the Washington Post and the two reporters.

Holland uncovered the missing piece of the Deep Throat story and reveals that personal ambition motivated Felt — the then-assistant FBI director — to become the most famous secret source in American history.

The book destroys the image of Felt as honest truth seeker peddled by W/B in their book, in their subsequent movie of the same name and in countless interviews since. In that regard, Holland’s research features greater detail and is far more specific about the reporting methods of W/B.

Felt, it turns out, was mostly just an ambitious backstabber determined to get the FBI’s number-one job by using leaks to destroy his boss, L. Patrick Gray.

And now, just yesterday, Holland published a fascinating piece in The Daily Beast about Woodward and Bernstein and the questionable “new journalism” techniques they seem to have employed when writing their book. [Find the story here.]

One passage from Holland’s piece is particularly troubling. It regards evidence the author discovered in the papers of Alan Pakula, the director of the film, “All the President’s Men (ATPM).”

The document, Holland writes,

may be the most disconcerting of all, more so than any finding of augmented quotes, elided information, or rose-colored accounts. It concerns erroneous presumptions that Woodstein themselves harbored and infused into ATPM.

Deep Throat’s motive, of course, is the obvious example of an embedded misperception. In the end, such subjectivity was probably the New Journalism’s greatest weakness. If what matters most is one’s own judgments, as with Woodward’s perception of Mark Felt’s motive, it encourages a false omniscience that the old journalism is expressly designed to avoid.

But Woodward wasn’t the only half of the duo offering up illusions; Bernstein was propagating them in equal measure. Consider the interview in which Bernstein describes the Post’s approach to CRP [Committee to Re-Elect the President] employees:

“We started narrowing down the list to who would be the most valuable people to see, lower-level people, and we started going out at night and banging on doors. It was, I guess, the big difference between what we did and what the FBI did, and where the FBI was so unsuccessful was that they interviewed people only at the committee, and in the presence of committee lawyers, who were trying to get them to go with the cover story as it was. We saw them at home … where there were, you know, not similar kinds of pressures.”

Every perception here about how the FBI went about its job is untrue. Months before the Post duo contacted CRP employees like Judith Hoback, the bureau had already interviewed them privately and repeatedly, away from CRP lawyers. FBI agents interrogated Hoback alone on six separate occasions, more so than any other CRP employee, and always out of earshot of CRP lawyers. From the moment bureau agents and federal prosecutors realized that CRP attorneys would insist on being present, they resolved to advance the investigation within the confines of the grand jury, where no defense lawyers were permitted.

Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Post’s stories—although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. The FBI’s documents on Watergate, released as early as 1992, bear this out. The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.

The Washington Post remains the paper of record for all things Watergate. And the upcoming 40th anniversary calls for a look back.

But the Post’s coverage of Watergate has been disappointing — in particular, its woeful neglect of Holland’s book, which the paper has not reviewed in the three months since its publication. In that time, a slew of Watergate-era figures, ranging from John Dean to Pat Buchanan, have written that the book is notable and the book has been reviewed in a dozen or more publications.

A commemoration of Watergate last Monday, which was podcast on Washington Post Live, was another occasion in which the newspaper’s approach very disappointing. The anniversary should have prompted thoughtful reflection, and not just self-congratulation.

The LSU forum in April sparked discussion by students and professors for days. It was much more useful and interesting to offer our students and the Baton Rouge community a variety of viewpoints, and even clashing perspectives, as opposed to the recitation of tired anecdotes that marked the Post event.

There are very serious questions about the Post’s reporting of Watergate and the methods employed by Woodward and Bernstein. No one suggests that they do not deserve most of the accolades coming their way. But the two reporters, and the paper for which they wrote, should not be above scrutiny and some honest self-evaluation.

By ignoring an important book that raises some very serious questions about the Post’s reporting of Watergate, the paper is acting a bit more like the Nixon White House than the great newspaper it once was.

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