By: Joe Strupp
Watergate legend Bob Woodward says Monday’s revelation by The New York Times that two of its journalists had a tip on the Watergate scandal that he and Carl Bernstein later exposed is not as important as what they would have done with the tip.
“Watergate wasn’t about a tip,” Woodward told E&P Tuesday. “It was about extensive reporting and getting information you can put in the paper. They decided not to do the reporting. We get this idea that this is about one story or one source or one tip, it is not.”
The Times story Monday reported that former reporter Robert M. Smith had revealed that two months after the June 17, 1972 Watergate burglary, “the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, L. Patrick Gray, disclosed explosive aspects of the case, including the culpability of the former attorney general, John Mitchell, and hinted at White House involvement.”
It went on to state that Smith passed on the information to Robert H. Phelps, an editor in the Times Washington bureau. But, it adds, Phelps never pursed the tip and Smith left for law school. Smith said in the story he chose to reveal the tip now because Phelps recently published a book that included elements of the story.
“If his and Mr. Smith’s accounts are correct, The Times missed a chance to get the jump on the greatest story in a generation,” Monday’s story said.
But Woodward pointed out that any tip would not have meant much without reporting to follow. “It is not about a tip, that is the distortion that comes out here – it is what you do about it. What backs it up? What reporting do you do about it?”
Woodward and Bernstein had their own source in the FBI, of course, the late W. Mark Felt, known for years by the nickname Deep Throat. An FBI associate director, he famously guided Woodward in his reporting, but was never a direct source on major revelations.
If The Times’ tip came two months after the break-in, that would have been two months after Woodward had started on the story, having first reported on the arraignment of the burglars the day after the break-in. “The tip was the stories we were doing in the Post that they didn’t follow up,” Woodward added. “They did not do much until Sy Hersh came in and started doing stories on Watergate.”
Asked what difference it might have made on the story’s coverage or the Post’s work if the Times had pursued the tip earlier, Woodward states: “It falls in the category of history, what if? What if JFK hadn’t gone to Dallas? History is what it is.”
As for his current activities, Woodward, who wrote four books about President George W. Bush, declined to comment on what his next book will be about or if it would involve the Obama Administration: “I’ll talk to you later.”