Why Bob Woodward is wrong about the internet and journalism

Anyone who has followed the media for the past half century or so knows that Bob Woodward is a giant in the field, one half of the legendary investigative team of Woodward and Bernstein — a man who helped to bring down a U.S. president and defined a generational shift in the practice of journalism. In other words, someone whose opinions on the craft of journalism are probably worth listening to. But should we believe him when he argues that the Internet is not really of any benefit when it comes to stories like Watergate? Not necessarily. As with any field that has undergone the kind of disruption the media has, the journalism of today is very different from the kind that Woodward defined 40 years ago — and arguably better.
Woodward, who has been a reporter and editor at the Washington Post since 1971, was reunited with his investigative sidekick Carl Bernstein earlier this week at a meeting of the American Society of News Editors, as part of a panel at the conference titled “Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age?” Woodward’s view seemed to be that younger newspaper reporters and journalism students have a misplaced faith in the power of the Internet and that what really counts (not surprisingly, perhaps) is good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting and personal interviews.

Journalism needs more than just shoe leather now

The veteran reporter and author of multiple award-winning books said that a Yale journalism class was recently asked how Watergate would be covered now and that the responses caused him to almost “have an aneurysm,” because they said they would just use the Internet to find out information about President Richard Nixon’s secret campaign fund. Woodward said this betrayed a view of the Internet as being a kind of “magic lantern” that would reveal everything and that the students were also wrong when they said the blogosphere would have helped bring Nixon down:

I have attempted to apply some corrective information to them, but the basic point is: The truth of what goes on is not on the Internet. [The Internet] can supplement. It can help advance. But the truth resides with people. Human sources.

Woodward is right, of course. The truth does reside with people — people like Mark Felt, the so-called Deep Throat source who leaked all the relevant information that allowed the Watergate reporters to build their case. And obviously, if you happen to have a senior member of the FBI leaking you damning information about the president, that is going to provide a lot of bang for your reporting buck. Would Felt have had a Facebook account? Probably not, as Woodward took pains to point out during his panel (and has pointed out before). And he likely wouldn’t have been on Twitter either, or had a Tumblr blog.

The lone reporter is no longer the only source of news

But that doesn’t mean the Woodward-and-Bernstein approach is the only one that produces anything of value or that the Internet is only good for “supplementing” things or commentary after the fact on political blogs, as Woodward seemed to suggest. Something like the release of the Collateral Murder video, for example — a classified clip of an Iraq war incident that Wikileaks released in 2010 — arguably couldn’t have happened without the Internet, which helped make the connection between Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, the former U.S. army intelligence analyst who (allegedly) leaked the video.
That video, and the subsequent release of thousands of classified diplomatic cables, may not stack up against Watergate as an investigative breakthrough, but they were both still significant events in journalism, and they didn’t involve any trained reporters until after the fact. Does that make them less valuable? No. If anything, it makes them more valuable. And the fact that anyone could plow through those cables — just as anyone could go through the 170,000 expense filings that the Guardian (see disclosure below) opened up to a crowdsourced discovery effort in 2009 — was a crucial part of their journalistic success.
The point is not that individual effort and the labor involved in long-term investigative pieces isn’t worth anything any more. It is, of course, and people who do it well are extremely valuable — including veteran reporter Seymour Hersh, who revealed recently the U.S. government has been secretly training MEK fighters from Iran at a base in Nevada. But Woodward (not surprisingly, perhaps) still seems to see journalism as something that lone-cowboy-style reporters do in secret by themselves, rather than a collaborative process that now involves other people — including the “people formerly known as the audience,” as journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to call them.
That view may be a lot more romantic, and it serves the purposes of journalists who see themselves as a special breed, with special powers that normal mortals don’t possess. It also serves the purposes of newspapers and other traditional media entities, which would like to be the sole source of all value in the media ecosystem. But it doesn’t really serve the purposes of journalism or society as a whole.
Disclosure: Guardian News and Media Ltd., the parent company of the Guardian newspaper, is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Yan Arief Purwanto