A must-read book for everyone in the news media and for aspiring journalists
Review: Two reporters of the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, in their attempt to cover a burglary story at the Democratic headquarters, expose a political scandal which came to be known as the Watergate scandal.
On the morning of June 17, 1972, Bob Woodward, barely nine months with the Washington Post receives a call from office, asking him to cover a burglary at the Democratic headquarters where five men, with photographic equipment and electronic gear, were arrested.
A senior journalist at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, was also working on the story. Though apprehensive of each other at the beginning, the two reporters work together to establish how the then US President Richard Nixon’s men were involved in the usage of a secret fund to weaken Democratic campaigns through illegal activities like phone tapping, spying and threats.
Like in most investigative reporting, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, face enormous challenges in establishing facts, as people who had information, were scared or barred from talking to them but unlike most reporters, they did not give up.
The two reporters, after several stories, established how John Mitchell, the former Attorney General and the head of the Nixon re-election committee along with HR Haldeman, the White House chief-of-staff and a member of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), Maurice H Stans, CRP finance chairman and Kalmbach, the personal attorney to Richard Nixon and deputy finance chairman of the CRP were the main people who approved the illegal USD 350,000 fund to conduct illegal activities against the Democrats.
Like any practicing reporters, they made errors of judgment when they reported on Haldeman’s involvement. But they used all possible methods to connect the threads of their stories and all possible means to extract information from people who had information.
In a book review by Ben Stein for The American Spectator it is stated: “It was the golden boys who also got the first stories out about Haldeman’s involvement with a secret fund used to pay the Watergate burglars. In this they were clearly wrong, at least in large part, and Haldeman himself denies the involvement to this day.”
The personal story of the two reporters, told in third person, not only opens the reader’s eye to some of the best investigative techniques but also gives insight into the functioning of the newsroom. The protagonists of the book are the main sources of the two reporters, unnamed and named, without whose information the investigation and coverage of the scandal would never be successful. Unnamed sources like Deep Throat and Z, who were in positions to have knowledge of the secret activities of the White House and CRP, shared information with the two reporters and deserve the reader’s appreciation for telling the truth not only to the American people but the world.
Deep Throat not only put things in perspective and in context but gave moral support to the two reporters to go on. However, it is Hugh Sloan, who was a treasurer of the CRP and a former aide to Haldeman who resigned from CRP on moral grounds, who had the courage to reveal the truth to the two reporters, FBI and a grand jury, that made the Washington Post’s story more credible.
The book also reveals some of the best investigative reporting techniques like protecting sources and dealing with confidential sources. The procedure followed by Woodward and Deep Throat to meet and discuss issues strike out the most:
When Woodward had an urgent inquiry to make, he would move a particular flowerpot to the rear of the balcony. During the day, Deep Throat would check to see if the pot had been moved. If it had, he and Woodward would meet at about 2am in a predesignated underground parking garage.
Amongst the many investigative reporting techniques highlighted in the book, an outstanding one is the way Woodstein starts conversations with potential sources. He would say: “A friend at the committee told us that you were disturbed by some of the things you saw going on there, that you would be a good person to talk to … that you were absolutely straight and honest and didn’t know quite what to do; we understand the problem.”
The effort Bernstein and Woodward put in to conduct the investigation and the support the then executive editor, Benjamin C Bradlee and the publisher, Katharine Graham, of the Washington Post provided, is exemplary. Bernstein and Woodward assert the importance of their support by often highlighting how the editor and publisher were willing to go through enormous pressure for their story, even up to the extent when Charles Colson, the special counsel to the president, threatened that they would get back to the Washington Post after elections.
However, numerous names used in the book confuse the readers and a lot of time is wasted on turning to the initial pages of the book to keep the focus and understand it in context.
The 349-page book ends with the resignation of many high profiles in the White House including John Dean, the White House Counsel, HR Haldeman, and John Erhlichman, the Counsel and assistant for the President for Domestic Affairs and the President concluding his annual State of the Union Message with his intention of holding his position as the President.
At a time when the internet and advanced technologies is changing news gathering and coverage, and when the importance of journalism is supposedly on the verge of extinction, this book should serve as restitution of the importance of investigative reporting.