monday, april 02, 2007
All the President's Men - Carl Bernstein and Bob WoodwardI had the good fortune (or prescience) to not read All the President’s Men until after I became a working journalist. As a result I was less swayed by the drama of sticking it to the man than the book’s vivid depiction of real journalists at work.
It’s my firm belief that every journalist can be classified by their favorite episode in the book (or scene in the movie). Most of the go-getting investigative types I've ever met were inspired by the idea of Bernstein jotting down the notes from the reluctant source on napkins, matchbooks, whatever.
That one always bothered me. It seemed somewhat… unethical. The source clearly is concerned about how they will be affected by giving out the information and the reporter is bending over backwards not to break that spell. Of course when the story is in the paper it’s not going to matter much is it?
I always thought the episode where Woodward was making the routine check on a piece of information he was given – the basics of any reporting – and he gets the lead on the bigger story. That he’s on the phone and it is dropped completely innocuously makes it all the more incredible.
You can almost hear his sharp intake of breath and hear the beating of his heart stop for a moment. It’s the moment everything changes and you know the story you now will have to work to get.
Where All the President’s Men is a great journalism book is really not the part where the scrappy journalistic David takes on the big bad Nixon Goliath. It’s not in espionage-style meetings with sources and off-the-record attributions. These things get the limelight and kindled the fires tha two generations of journalist students have been drawn to. But they are not where the real lessons of the story are for the young reporter.
Some of this is due to the film which indelibly seared the image of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman looking suitably scruffy and harried doing the good work against the forces of evil. It’s actually a good film makes an effort to give a sense of the boredom and waiting that fills the life of a working reporter. It does a great job transmitting that glorious horrible anxiety of having the key piece of information right in front of you but not in your actual grasp.
But it’s still a movie and it’s still filled with movie stars. Almost two generations down the line, it’s almost impossible to separate our mental image of the two. Luckily, the book does a great deal to fill in the gaps for those willing to go through it carefully.
The fact is, Woodward and Bernstein were classic reporters of the type their success made unfashionable. Cop shop and night beat guys in their late 20s. Overworked underpaid and willing to go the limit to get the story in print. And that meant shoe leather. That meant hours combing through records. that meant interviewing hundreds of people just to get the two quotes the story depended on.
A close reading of the first chapter shows the way of a major American newspaper goes putting out a solid on a daily deadline. This wasn't Woodstein pulling off some glorious journalistic coup. This was metro-desk deadline work at it's best. Eight reporters labored on a 12-hour Saturday shift to turn out a story under the byline of the cop reporter on duty – a guy who phoned in his information from the police station to a rewrite clerk.
For Woodward it meant hanging out at a dry-as-dirt preliminary hearing putting up with the no-comments of the attorneys and a 10-minute hearing to get one useable piece of information. For Bernstein it was an onslaught of cold calls to anyone at the hotel - desk clerks, bellmen, maids and waiters - for any nugget of info. Basically, a lot of unrequited effort for a first day story.
And then it meant coming in on a Sunday to find out they had missed out on one key piece of information that the Associated Press was running on the morning wires – that one of the burglars was the security consultant for the Committee to Re-elect the President, James McCord.
That meant they had to swallow the bitter disappointment of being beat (as well as probably enduring an ass-chewing from the editor) and then start completely from scratch to get back on top of the story. And it turned out nailing down that piece of information was an even tougher task.
The duo had to look up the office building the guy worked in, find a list of tenants and then try cold-calling all of them. At home. On Sunday. (Another rarely mentioned but immeasurably important asset of a big major daily paper is a kick-ass research department that really can make life easier for a reporter by coming up with these numbers and raw information.) Finally one of the two reached a lawyer who knew the guy…
The attorney recalled that a teenage girl who had worked part-time for him the previous summer knew McCord, or perhaps it was the girl’s father who knew him. The attorney could only remember the vaguely the girl’s last name – Westhall or something like that. They (the reporters) contacted five persons with similar last names before Woodward finally reached Harlan A. Westrell, who said he knew McCord.This is it folks. This is the in-the-trenches glory of working on a big story at a major daily newspaper. It’s a lot of cold calls, busted leads, fanciful conjecture and sheer dumb luck.. It’s doing a metric fuckload of detail work to get the one piece of key data that makes the story fly. Persistence is your biggest asset. And a huge pair of brass ones won’t hurt either.
One of the most refreshing things about All the President’s Men is how the book outlines the failures of the reporters as much as the victories. We all remember Bernstein’s account of getting the “tit in a wringer” quote but how many remember that the Post fumbled hard on the most important aspect of the whole case – the tapes?
When Alexander Butterfield went in front of the Senate and revealed the existence of Nixon’s extensive taping system, the Post had been caught flat footed and had only themselves to blame.
Since June 17, 1972 (the date of the break-in) the reporters had saved their notes and memos, reviewing them periodically to make lists of unexplored leads… By May 17, 1973, when the Senate hearings opened, Bernstein and Woodward had gotten lazy. Their nighttime visits were scarcer, and, increasingly, they had begun to rely on a relatively easy access to the Senate committee’s staff investigators and attorneys. There was, however, one unchecked entry on both lists – presidential aide Alexander P. Butterfield.Which isn’t to say Woodward and Bernstein failed. Far from it. They did what regularly happens to reporters working hard on a major story, they got beat, they made missteps, they followed the rocky road of the story to the best of their ability. These are important lessons that many glamorized war stories of past journalistic achievements tend to leave out.
The fact they don't is one of the reasons All the President's Men is far more than a back-patting account of a spectacularly successful investigative reporting effort.
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