Shoptalk: Where Have You Gone, Woodward and Bernstein?

As journalism slowly dies in this country, the major news media organizations are gaining customers. These two trends are not unrelated.

Television and digital news audiences for many media outlets have been steadily growing since the election of Donald Trump. He is their golden goose.

According to the News Media Alliance, “Newspaper websites in the United States have seen an increase in paid subscribers (in 2017) — The New York Times has grown to more than 2 million paid digital-only customers, while the Wall Street Journal passed the 1 million mark.”

On the television side of the news business, as just two examples, MSNBC is attracting its largest audiences ever and CNN posted record profits in 2017.

Say what you want about President Trump, he is good for the news business.

Unfortunately, the news media’s coverage of Donald Trump has too often been riddled with errors and falsehoods.

Trump-Russia collusion stories have too often violated basic journalistic standards. In a Dec. 7, 2017 article in The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald listed the major reporting errors made in last year on the Trump-Russia story.

Reporting errors happen. But why do these reporting errors occur?

Perhaps a journey back to 1972 will remind us of what constitutes good investigative journalism.


It is June 18, 1972 a Washington Post headline reads: Five Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here (Original Story Here):


By Alfred E. Lewis

June 18, 1972

(Washington) — Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here…

…They were surprised at gunpoint by three plain-clothes officers of the metropolitan police department in a sixth floor office at the plush Watergate, 2600 Virginia Ave., NW, where the Democratic National Committee occupies the entire floor.


This is just crime-blotter reporting.

Enter Bob Woodward (who did the legwork on Lewis’ story) and Carl Bernstein—two young, ambitious Washington Post reporters who are given a story assignment that will change the course of history.

Their Aug. 1, 1972 Post story, three months before the general election, gives a glimpse into the future scope of their investigation. The headline reads: Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds (Original Story Here).


By Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Aug. 1, 1972

 (Washington) — A $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for President Nixon’s re-election campaign, was deposited in April in a bank account of one of the five men arrested in the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters here June l7.


The Watergate story is three months old when a Sept. 29, 1972 Woodward and Bernstein story carries the headline: Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund (Original Story Here):


By Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Sept. 29, 1972

 (Washington) — John N. Mitchell, while serving as U.S. Attorney General, personally controlled a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about the Democrats, according to sources involved in the Watergate investigation.


Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative work reaches its apex on Oct. 10, 1972. Citing conclusions from the FBI and Department of Justice investigations, the Post headline reads: FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats (Original Story Here):


By Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Oct. 10, 1972

(Washington) — FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.


On Aug. 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency, more than two years after the Post’s initial break-in story.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is how high-quality investigative journalism is conducted.

Unfortunately, we must return to present day journalism. The times have changed and journalists have been forced to change with it. The Post in 1972 wasn’t competing with 24/7 cable news networks. And is it fair to compare the journalism on today’s CNN with the Post or any other national-audience newspaper? They have different audiences and business requirements.

Nonetheless, we should all expect more from today’s journalists than what we getting in the coverage of the Trump-Russia connection. The use of anonymous sources is just one mechanism today’s journalists use to generate more stories faster.

However, anonymous sources are hurting today’s journalism. As “fake news” has set up a permanent encampment on the internet, news consumers need to remember the journalistic standards established by Woodward and Bernstein in 1972.

Kent R. Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with more than 30 years of experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. A full version of this article can be found at here.

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2 thoughts on “Shoptalk: Where Have You Gone, Woodward and Bernstein?

  • July 20, 2018 at 8:51 am

    Nearly all, if not all, of Woodward’s and Bernstein’s stories relied on anonymous sources.
    The key is obtaining multiple and independent anonymous sources for the same information.

  • July 20, 2018 at 11:23 am

    (a) this obsessive view about woodward and bernstein and washpost inventing investigative journalism displays blatant lack of basic education … any journalism, to be good, must be investigative by definition, otherwise all you need is having a few proofreaders who know how to clean up the grammatical mistakes and spelling errors from news releases that reach their desks, and voila, off you go, headlines blazing … of course, to be aware of this, you would have to know about the end of the 19th century in europe, namely about a reporter named egon erwin kisch … while i personally consider his political views with a jaundiced eye, still, it was he who started systematically investigating everything that would come his way posing as news …
    (b) washpost discredited honest journalism beyond belief … not only did they use uncorroborated information from an anonymous and singular source way too often, their coverage was quite openly tainted by their political views almost from the beginning … their executive editor’s love for everything kennedy shone through throughout the entire period … of course, it was jfk who got the u.s. into the war in vietnam, it w lbj who sank the country even deeper, and it was nixon who got the u.s. out of it … yes, we can continue debating whether the u.s. should have got into that war or not, but, regarding the washpost (and other mainstream media) coverage, it was rotten, blind and politically tainted from the get-go …
    (c) a point of interest: the decline of trust u.s. mainstream media used to enjoy can be traced precisely to that time period (vietnam war, watergate, etc.) … while almost imperceptible at the time, it would take only a few decades to cause irreparable harm: are you aware that almost two-thirds of north american readers, listeners and viewers do not trust their mainstream media to the degree that they ignore them completely? you can thank the watergate and vietnam war coverage from the late 1960s onwards for that … no amount of lament about woodstein is going to bring back the only thing of value journalists used to have: their readers, listeners and viewers’ trust … illiterate calls to arms such as this one are not going to bring it back: it seems your readers, listeners and viewers are way smarter than you give them credit for, and (even more) way smarter than you …


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