interview

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

What do you think of the state of investigative reporting today?
I tend to not think in terms of investigative reporting as being different from most reporting. It’s supposed to be in depth, you’re supposed to spend time on it, you’re supposed to explain things, uncover things. So I would try to think in terms of just in-depth reporting. One of the difficulties with in-depth reporting now is obviously the internet. As glorious as it is, it has created a culture of impatience and speed — “Give it to me in 140 characters,” or “Give me the sound bite” — and things get shortened and in the shortening process get distorted or get totally politicized, and I think the idea should be the facts. What are the facts?

Last fall, I had a conversation with the new owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, and he asked the question about whether we could have known about Nixon before he became president. His character, his willingness to break the law, his obsession with being elected, reelected. And I said, I don’t know what we could have known, but we could have done a better job. And at the Post, the editors have decided, I think rightly, to make sure that we present as full a biography of the two presidential candidates as possible. Biography as character. And Jeff Bezos said the goal should be that no one goes into the voting booth in November and says, “I couldn’t find out who these people are.” And so we’ve done dozens of stories on Trump; we’re doing a book on Trump; we’re doing an in-depth look at Hillary Clinton and so forth, and the phases of her life, to try to meet that goal.

We’re now in a media environment where they will take a poll — any of the news organizations or various organizations that do this — and say, “What do you think now? Of the candidates or the controversies? Who do you trust? Who are you going to vote for? Who do you favor?” And what we’re not saying to people is, “We’ve provided you with lots of information, but maybe we haven’t provided you with enough.” We haven’t met that standard of the full biography — what Carl Bernstein and I used to call the “best obtainable version of the truth.” Knowing you’re not going to get everything, but make it complete. So it’s a kind of, “What do you think this week, or today, about the candidates?” And that’s part of the coverage, it’s legitimate, but really the primary focus should be describing who these people are, what they’ve done, what their policies are, what happened. The whole Trump world of real-estate investments, casino operations. All of Hillary Clinton’s time as First Lady, senator, secretary of State. The email issue. What happened here? What can you, as a potential voter, glean about the character of these people? That’s the core mission and job, and I think sometimes we’re getting away from that.

So it sounds like your conception of investigative reporting is that it should be integrated with beat reporting, that it should be a part of what every reporter does.
There should be more patience about: “This story is not ready. Let’s talk to more people, get more documents, weigh the evidence.” Time against the problem. To push against the impatience and speed. It’s part of the media environment, but it gets us away from really trying to understand. My former colleague, Carl, did a marvelous book on Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge. It is tough but fair-­minded — it’s 554 pages. If you want to know who she is, that is a portrait that’s in depth and is the best obtainable version of the truth at that point.

Weren’t those pressures — the need for speed, the sense of impatience from editors — always there?
No. In the ’70s, when Carl and I were working on the Nixon case, we could work for two or three weeks on a story. We would do a draft. It would go to the editors. We’d have a meeting: “What about this?” “Get more sources.” “Check this.” “Are you sure?” And there wasn’t that 24/7 pressure of, “Is somebody else going to get the story?” It was, “Let’s do this as comprehensively as we can.”

Do you think that was a function of having more reporters around? Or that it’s all technology?
It’s the internet, isn’t it?  Years ago, I used to check email once in the morning and once at four or five or six o’clock, at the end of the day. Now it’s a continuous “I’ll check my email.” And there’s always something there 

But if you ask lots of people, lots of voters, I think a large number would say, “We didn’t know enough about Bill Clinton when he became president. We didn’t know enough about George W. Bush when he became president. We didn’t know enough about Barack Obama when he became president.”

Do you put any blame on the media for the rise of Trump? It’s clear that media have really doubled down in recent months, fact-checking everything he says, but in a way that’s an acknowledgment that they failed the first time around.
Well, a lot has been done. It’s a democracy. People voted for him in the Republican primaries. I think there was a lot of coverage. Obviously there was a lot of disbelief about whether he could get the nomination. There were 17 candidates, and a lot of work was done. I think now is the time. There are months between now and the election. Trump and Hillary Clinton will be the nominees. And there’s more focus on it. So now is the time to do the work, and the Post has been doing it on Trump, doing it on Hillary. The Post book on Trump is coming out, I think in August. What’s it called? Trump Revealed or something. So this is the time. And the hydraulic pressure in the political system is, What’s the latest poll? What’s the latest statement? What’s the latest rally? What’s the latest controversy? And quite frankly, I think the email issue with Hillary Clinton is an important one. The FBI director says no recommendation for prosecution, but now there are actually more questions. So I think coverage is going to continue on that, perhaps right up until Election Day. I think that’s good: that people are going to have to spend time on it. They’re going to have to look real hard 

If the information’s not there — if there’s something that one of the candidates did that we learn about in somebody’s memoir in 20 years, that really was essential to understanding who they are — that means we failed, in my view. And nothing makes me more concerned than when something comes out and you say, “Oh my God, we didn’t know what. Shouldn’t we have known it?”

With Bill Clinton’s womanizing, there were intimations of it, there were names, there were things. And then he gets in the White House. I remember when I first heard about the Monica Lewinsky relationship. I couldn’t believe it! I thought, “Is this possible?” It was inconceivable that a sitting president would have an affair with an intern. Now come on.

In the CIA they have a process called “walking the cat back.” If something happens that is a surprise, like a country shockingly testing a nuclear weapon, as they did, years ago, then the CIA will go through all their intelligence. They say, “Okay. We know this happened on this date. When could we have — when should we have — seen it earlier?’ The same you can do with Clinton. Walk the cat back. What was Gennifer Flowers and all of those names. Marilyn Jo Jenkins. Paula Jones.

Now suppose — when he was running for president, there were a couple of those names and allegations. Suppose the press had said — suppose a couple of reporters had said — “Wait a minute. Let’s look at this in depth, and let’s get to the bottom of it. Let’s explain as much as we can.” And it’s hard. That’s hard reporting. It’s like reporting on the CIA. Maybe it makes the CIA reporting easy. And done a series, “Bill Clinton As Womanizer.” And then suppose he’s elected. Would that have been a more dramatic warning to him? People on the outside are looking. So these are the months — the months of August, September. It’s the last 100 days before the campaign. This is, in my view, the golden period, where we need to work the hardest, we have to dig the deepest. We have to be aggressive, fair-minded, to meet that standard. Even if people have to go look at the Washington Post website from Minnesota or wherever to find the real, in-depth story about these candidates. It will be available.

It sounds like you think things are pretty good right now.
I just think there’s been a ratcheting up, hasn’t there? There’s kind of a new rigor. I think there’s a new appreciation of the significance. This is an important election, obviously. It’s a pivot point. Problems at home and abroad are giant. And so who these people are looms. The stakes are giant. I think there’s a collective realization that it’s not a matter of getting it right or wrong. It’s a matter of investing the time and whatever is necessary to answer the Jeff Bezos question: Who are these people?

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Bob Woodward on the Media