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Bob Woodward defends journalistic objectivity in the era of Trump

“My job is not to take sides.”

Bob Woodward speaks at Broward College’s A. Hugh Adams Central Campus Institute of Public Safety on January 22, 2014, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Vallery Jean/Getty Images

“There’s that delicate line between being very aggressive and working hard on something and trying to smoke out what’s hidden,” the renowned Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward told me about the unfolding Trump-Russia scandal. “Still, something is always hidden.”

Woodward, along with the reporter Carl Bernstein, famously helped expose the Watergate scandal, which, of course, brought down a president. That project has been called “maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time.” And parallels have been drawn between abuses of power and cover-ups in Richard Nixon’s White House and some of the actions — actual or alleged — by Donald Trump’s administration. But in interviews, Woodward has urged the public to cool its expectations that a major Trump-Russia bombshell is coming.

Woodward, who shared two Pulitzer Prizes at the Washington Post and has written 18 best-selling books, is now an associate editor at the paper, where he has worked for more than 40 years.

Most recently, he taught an investigative journalism course through the online education platform MasterClass. “The starting point in journalism is that there are no boundaries,” he says in the class’s introduction. “Everyone has their own version of the truth. But there are facts. There is reality.”

I talked to Woodward by phone while he was at his Washington Post office. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eric Allen Been

You’ve been skeptical about whether the Russian investigation is going to take down Trump in the same way Watergate ended Nixon’s presidency. Do you think the press has oversold — or overpromised — the scandal? If so, how does the public deal with the reality not meeting their expectations?

Bob Woodward

I’ve read the line almost every week or so that the [Robert] Mueller investigation is heating up, it’s intensifying. And they’re certainly doing a lot of things. I don’t think that’s an overpromise. I think those stories are important and need to be done.

But it’s a question of tone. A story saying Mueller and his investigators are asking the following questions is a way of clueing people in that this may be the way the investigation is going. But just because they’re asking questions doesn’t mean that they’ve reached conclusions or they have evidence.

You used an interesting word, “overpromise.” You can, in your coverage, imply things that may look like an overpromise. To go back to the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan era, there was a special prosecutor, an independent counsel. It was very aggressive. There was a story on the front page of the Washington Post saying that Reagan was going to be indicted. A lot of people were saying he was going to resign.

But Reagan’s not going to be remembered for the Iran-Contra scandal. It may be part of the history, a chapter of it, but it’s nothing like what Watergate is for Nixon. So there’s that delicate line between being very aggressive and working hard on something and trying to smoke out what’s hidden. Still, something is always hidden.

Eric Allen Been

You mentioned tone earlier. You said in another interview that the media should be careful not to ridicule Trump. Doesn’t he deserve it, though, when it’s due?

Bob Woodward

The answer is not in ridicule; the answer is in information. He obviously is a lightning rod for people in the world and certainly to journalists. I think our job is not to love or loathe people we’re trying to explain and understand. It is to tell exactly what people have done, what it might mean, what drives them, and who they are.

Eric Allen Been

It really seems like a better word for what you’re talking about is snarkiness.

Bob Woodward

I’m talking about snarkiness, smugness, and sense of self-satisfaction. Certainly, criticism and exposure of what’s happened here has been great. I think when the level of effort is high, the story speaks for itself, and you don’t have to ridicule and editorialize.

Eric Allen Been

The idea of objectivity in journalism and covering “both sides” of the issue is a longtime tradition of journalism. Do you think the criticism this concept has received in recent years has been justified?

Bob Woodward

It’s not that you necessarily have to cover both sides with the same energy and focus, but the problem is in the culture of impatience and speed from the internet. People are not being given the time to really dig into something. When Bernstein and I were doing Watergate, we could work weeks on a single story, and editors would look at drafts, make suggestions, criticism, comment where other sources might be. And as you well know, reporters now have to sometimes do five or six versions of the same story in a day.

Eric Allen Been

Facebook recently changed its algorithm to make its newsfeed more “personalized.” Consequently, there were layoffs across the journalism industry. What does this say about the state of media?

Bob Woodward

We’re going through convulsion in the news business. Where it lands, or how it lands, I don’t know.

Eric Allen Been

I recently interviewed Linda Greenhouse, the former New York Times reporter, who believes the boundaries between journalists and private citizens have become “too rigid.” She didn’t think it was an issue that she donated to Planned Parenthood while also covering the Supreme Court for the Times. What do you think about that boundary?

Bob Woodward

I think it’s just prudent and wise to have that boundary. If you’re donating or advocating for something that has political repercussions, it’s just not worth it. Leonard Downie, the executive editor of the Post after Ben Bradlee, didn’t vote. I heard this and thought about it, and I’ve adopted the same posture of not voting in, particularly, presidential elections or primaries.

I’m in DC and it’s heavily Democratic, so a vote one way or another wouldn’t make any difference anyway. But I think it’s a matter of mindset. My job is not to take sides. I think it’s important to send the message to people and to act and be as careful and neutral as possible.

Eric Allen Been

What do you make of the whole “fake news” concept?

Bob Woodward

We can always do better. That’s why I talk about tone; I think the tone is very important. There’s a way to write a story, present a story, and it can be tough and aggressive but not churlish. When all this is out, when the Trump and the Russian investigation is over, people, rightly, will look out and see how the media did.

You can go back and say, “How did the media do in the 2016 election?” There was a lot of great work, particularly by my paper, I must say. But we didn’t do enough. It would have been really important to get Trump’s tax returns and his audits. It’s hard, and there are laws against it. But it’s something I wish I and others had worked harder on.

Trump had no political career before running for president, before becoming president. And his history as a real estate, golf course developer should tell you a lot. If you wanted to find out how [Bill] Clinton would be as a president, you would go back and look at how he was as a governor of Arkansas. Or how was George W. Bush as governor of Texas. Those are all important inquiries and were done in those campaigns. A lot was done on Trump, but there was more to do.

Eric Allen Been

I’m interested in your thoughts on some of criticism you‘ve faced over the years. For instance, the late Christopher Hitchens once called you a “stenographer to the powerful.”

Bob Woodward

I think you learn, when you’ve done this as long as I have, that most criticism is sincere and has some basis. I would agree with some of it, disagree with some of it. A “stenographer to the powerful”? I’ve written a lot of books and stories, and sometimes the sources are powerful people who are unnamed because they will only tell the truth if they are unnamed. The powerful could be the station chief in the CIA in a Middle East[ern] country, for instance. I’m delighted to find out what that person thinks or says.

Eric Allen Been

Do you push people to go on the record as much as possible?

Bob Woodward

No, I don’t. We kid ourselves if we think that somehow people are going to want to tell the truth on the record about military operations, CIA operations, jockeying and infighting in the White House. They’re just not going to. Often, the most bland, irrelevant, and untrue statements are those that are on the record. So what we have to do is use more background, deep background sources, but check within an inch of its life.

Make sure it’s true. If there’s another side, explore that fully. I think that’s what’s happened in the Trump era — a lot of the good reporting has sources that have not been named. I understand readers and the discomfort with unnamed sources, but if you go to the deputy CIA director and say, “I’d like an on-the-record comment about this cover operation,” you’d be laughed out of the building.

Eric Allen Been

Back to other broadsides against you, Joan Didion claimed your books, post-Watergate, have a “scrupulous passivity” to them, and that you wrongfully fail to draw conclusions and make judgments in your investigations.

Bob Woodward

It’s not my job to provide judgment. There’s an implied critique in this, in the Watergate coverage, that we were making judgments. We weren’t. These were facts. I thought the best answer was a Jill Abramson review in the Times, in which she looked at my four books on the wars under George W. Bush. She said that [much of what I’d uncovered was] new, this is probably the best [record] we’ll get, and some of it is very critical of Bush. But at the same time, I’m not jumping up and down on a mattress saying, “Hey, look!” I think it should be as neutrally presented as possible. Let people involved make their own judgments.

Eric Allen Been is a freelance writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Vice, Playboy, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and TheAtlantic.com.