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Jenkins: Woodward, Bernstein and the journalists they launched

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comMay 28, 2014 

It was 1976. As a kid reporter in Fayetteville, I covered education and helped run what was then called the “city desk.” One day I got the word that a local teacher was going to be the national teacher of the year and would be getting a crystal apple from President Gerald Ford in a ceremony at the White House, which I’d get to cover.

Big stuff.

And it was. I stood in the back with what was then called the “press,” as opposed to the “media.”

Afterward, I went to the offices of Time magazine to see North Carolina native Simmons Fentress, a senior Time correspondent and old family friend. He came out, said we’d go to lunch, but to come on back to his office. There sat a rather scruffy looking guy with shaggy hair, and a more carefully dressed, preppy sort of fellow.

“Fellas,” Simmons said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine, a newspaper guy from North Carolina. Jim, this is Carl Bernstein, and this is Bob Woodward.”

Simmons was doing a lengthy profile of the two reporters who’d become famous for their Watergate reporting. The introduction was a little like guys in a garage band having a private practice session with Bruce Springsteen.

Thirty-eight years later, I recalled the meeting, shortening the story considerably, for Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The two appeared together recently before a big crowd at the Fletcher Opera Theater in downtown Raleigh to recall Watergate in the 40th anniversary year of the ultimate outcome of the story, the resignation of President Richard Nixon. (The News & Observer was one of the event’s sponsors.)

Bernstein is 70 and Woodward is 71. They’re both active in television and print journalism, and in about an hour and a half with WRAL’s David Crabtree moderating, they recalled with vigor what happened in those years when they chased a story from house to house, in parking lots, or little-known corners of Washington. It was, of course, the story of a lifetime, maybe the century, a story of deception and dishonesty and corruption surrounding a president who finally had to go.

And it was also the story that launched thousands and thousands of careers in journalism, careers driven by the belief among lots of bright, young people that they could make a difference, change the world by rooting out the bad guys and telling the truth. Because when Watergate was all over, Woodward and Bernstein, against denials and threats and the most powerful people in the country, had the truth on their side. But it was they who had to find the truth.

In the ensuing decades, too many stories probably had a “gate” tacked on to the end of them; and yes, perhaps too many people saw another “Woodstein” story around too many corners. But many stories, from many reporters who’d gone in the business because of Woodward and Bernstein, unearthed some uncomfortable truth about people in power.

All through the unfolding of the Watergate story, there were those who refused to believe it, who complained that the story was beaten to death, who reckoned the story to have gone on too long and that people were tired of it.

Stories in the generations that followed have drawn exactly the same reactions, whether the stories have to do with a town council’s secrecy in a hamlet or a city council’s business-friendly zoning habits. But in so many cases, the stories have proved out in the end. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t create Watergate, they reported it. So it is with town councils and other institutions that come under unwanted and uncomfortable scrutiny from reporters.

Mostly, it’s not about big stories. It’s just about the day-to-day workings of government or institutions, and the abuse of power or the public trust. In 1990, in “Little Washington” North Carolina, the Washington Daily News won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing a pattern of water contamination. (The N&O copped the prize for a series on hog farms in 1996.)

Every day, the truth is sought and found by reporters in multiple forms of modern media, from print to television to the Internet. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t invent all that, but they did inspire others to pursue careers they otherwise might not have chosen.

What Woodward and Bernstein did was good for the country, liked or not by admirers of President Nixon. And when reporters today, for this or any other media outlet, root out small-scale or large-scale rascals, or expose wrongdoing, or tell truths with which the powerful and positioned are uncomfortable, they, too, are doing valuable work.

And when those who are embarrassed by that truth dismiss such reporting as biased or exaggerated or wearisome or boring, remember: In 1972, the White House called the first disclosures about Watergate a “third-rate burglary.”

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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