Commentary

Christensen: Woodstein give their take on Snowden

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2014 

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or Woodstein, as the reporting team famously became known, are now graying men entering their 70s, although for some they will always be frozen in time as 20-something reporters breaking the Watergate scandal by knocking on the doors late at night and following the money.

Both Woodward and Bernstein have gone on to distinguished careers as journalists, authors and TV analysts. But people want to hear the Watergate stories, which is what they talked about before 600 people at the N.C. Museum of Historylast week.

But when I sat down with Woodstein before the event, I wanted to know more about contemporary issues.

Perhaps the most famous leaker since Deep Throat of Watergate fame is North Carolina native Edward Snowden.

So I asked whether they thought Snowden was a patriot or a national security risk.

Snowden, of course, is the former U.S. computer professional who disclosed thousands of classified documents that revealed the existence of numerous global surveillance programs, fueling the debate between national security and information privacy. Snowden, who grew up in Elizabeth City and is now living in Russia, has been charged by the Justice Department with espionage.

Bernstein said Snowden should not be framed as a good-guy, bad-guy question.

Snowden illustrates the huge problem of the need to collect information to protect the country against the real threat of terrorism, while at the same time safeguarding civil liberties, Bernstein said.

Imagine, said Bernstein, if a president like Richard Nixon had had the power to collect information on telephone and email conversations.

“What Snowden has done is to have etched out the dimensions of the problem,” Bernstein said. “Is he a hero? No. Clearly he has broken the law. Is he in the tradition of whistleblowers? Somewhat. This is an act of civil disobedience, and people who engage in civil disobedience presumably know the real risks that they are going to be incarcerated.”

Bernstein apologized for taking too long in the answer, but Woodward said as far as he was concerned, Bernstein could keep on talking. Woodward, whose paper, The Washington Post, has been involved in publication of some of Snowden’s material, seemed not to be anxious to talk about Snowden.

“We don’t know,” Woodward said. “Our old boss during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, used to say, ‘The truth emerges.’ Let’s see how it plays out, what the impact of it is.”

I also asked whether a new “Woodstein” investigative team would be able to have the same impact on a corrupt presidency in today’s political environment.

Both expressed reservations because of the way society had changed.

Bernstein said that during the time of Watergate, many readers and viewers were still interested in finding out “the best obtainable version of the truth.” But, he added, information on a modern-day scandal would immediately be filed in “ideological boxes.”

“What is different today is that so many people in our culture, people are reading the Internet, who are watching Fox, who are watching MSNBC, all they are looking for is information to reinforce the political ideologies that they already have. They are not looking for the best obtainable version of the truth. They are looking for ammunition,” Bernstein said.

Woodward said the creation of the Senate Watergate Committee, with its chairman North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, by a 77-0 vote, would have been impossible in today’s hyperpartisan environment.

“I find the time we are in right now – talk about Snowden, talk about Obamacare, talk about Benghazi – even most modest efforts to be factual are almost impossible because all of those things are politically polarized,” Woodward said. “We are in a time where there is not enough data. The reporting is not empirical enough. It drives me crazy.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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