Reflection on “All the President’s Men”
The investigative journalism conducted by Woodward and Bernstein, as illustrated in the movie “All The President’s Men,” exemplifies the obstacles and triumphs of the profession.
Woodward and Bernstein took on the daunting task of investigating the executive branch. They followed both “Deep Throat” and the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook’s advice in such situations to “follow the money.”
Using primary sources, such as public records of employees, FBI records, and other information from the Library of Congress, Woodward and Bernstein were able to follow the money and uncover financial misconduct. Interviews with a variety of people also contributed to their understanding of the scandal. The duo also referenced secondary sources such as other newspapers while investigating.
The 11-step “Paul Williams Way” of investigative reporting provides a straightforward description of the process of investigative journalism.
While Woodward and Bernstein do not follow it to the T, their investigation reflects a few of his steps. For example, the “Go/No-Go” decision, step 3, is made by Woodward and Bernstein’s editor. The final step, publishing the story as well as follow-up stories, is carried out over a few years as the Watergate scandal is slowly revealed in its entirety.
American’s trust in the government diminished greatly as a result of the Watergate scandal. Nixon became the only president to ever resign from office as a consequence of his involvement in the scandal.
The scandal also demonstrated the ongoing need for the media to hold the government accountable. The public was reminded of the vital role the press plays of the “fourth estate,” as it was Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting that revealed the misconduct.
As Woodward and Bernstein investigated the scandal, they were hindered by the inability to confirm rumors with sources. Also, investigating a high-profile set of individuals like they were meant that many powerful obstacles stood in the way.
Negative reception of the story by the public and the government was another obstacle. Accusing the president of being involved in an illegal act is no small story. It took courage to not only investigate an event of that level of consequence but especially to publish about it.
To keep the story going, Woodward and Bernstein repeatedly went back to sources for more information, physically went to sources’ houses, turned to their own newsroom for information, asking the same question in different ways, and searching for more documents.
As they investigated this ethical breach, the pair also encountered ethical dilemmas themselves. One such concern involved taking information from “Deep Throat,” a source who wouldn’t go on record. They ran the risk of this whistleblower being someone spreading misinformation with the goal of getting revenge on the president.
Another concern was with the story itself. It would be unfair to publish such an accusatory story without proper sourcing. Without this kind of sourcing, publishing was an ethical gamble. On such example is how Bernstein confirmed a piece of information by instructing the source to remain on the phone after he counted to 10.
If Woodward and Bernstein were conducting this investigation today, they would have relied more heavily on the Internet for information. They could have reached out to sources through email, although perhaps with less success than going door to door. Twitter would be a source on which to come across rumors.
Many public records could have been located online, avoiding trips to the Library of Congress. Notes could have been taken electronically, making more a more organized process.
Without “Deep Throat,” Ben Bradlee and the bookkeeper for CREEP, I doubt that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation would have been as successful as it was.
“Deep Throat” revealed much of the information that guided the duo through their investigation. He served as a whistleblower, or, according to IRH, someone who ends up in the spotlight because they have knowledge of wrongdoing. Without his insider information of what actually happened before and during the break-in at Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein could have had the wrong story or no story at all.
Ben Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein’s editor at the Post, guided the duo wisely through their investigation. He demonstrated what a healthy relationship between editor and reporter looks like, offering constructive criticism, holding them to high journalistic standards by demanding more sources before publication, and defending them and their work.
Even in making difficult decisions, such as not publishing a piece, the reporters have to trust that the editor has their best interests in mind. The editor is likely less wrapped up in the story and able to determine objectively if it is worth publishing or not. When conflict over this arises, the editor takes superiority, hence why they are in that position.
The bookkeeper for CREEP, Judy Hoback, served as a valuable source for Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation. She was willing to talk with the reporters and confirmed evidence of financial misconduct.
If I had the chance to talk with Woodward and Bernstein, I would ask them how they were able to balance their personal lives with the endless hours of work dedicated to the investigation. During all the uncertainty, obstacles, and even danger that they faced, was there a point where their families urged them to quit?
From watching Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative work, I learned the importance of finding reliable sources. At any point in their investigation, the reporters could have been led astray by a bad source. This would have had disastrous consequences both for their careers as well as for the public’s perception of the media as a whole.
Additionally, I realized how many toes have to be stepped on in order to assemble a story of this level of consequence. Often it seems like an exciting achievement to investigate and publish articles of as much historical significance as Woodward and Bernstein’s — and I’m sure it is. However, along with excitement, it involves a lot of hurt feelings, angry phone calls, and slammed doors.
On my honor, I have watched “All the President’s Men” in its entirety.
*I was unable to access any of the stories published by Woodward and Bernstein, as I encountered a paywall.
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