Watergate journalists Woodward, Bernstein share reporting stories in Macomb
Clinton Township — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting at the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s is widely considered a high-water work for investigative journalism.
So when they brought their journalist heft to Macomb County on Wednesday, it seemed that people were interested to hear more about how journalism is made and how to protect a free press.
"When we talk about journalism, the titans for us ... are the likes of Woodward and Bernstein," said Paula Tutman, a broadcast reporter who moderated an evening presentation Wednesday at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. "These guys are absolutely no slackers."
More than 1,000 people filled the auditorium to hear Woodward and Bernstein tackle the current political climate, attacks on media, and similarities between the Nixon and Donald Trump administrations in a lengthy "fireside chat" session.
Both men said that demonstrating high standards in newsrooms can combat accusations of "fake news."
Famed Watergate-Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein talk about the role of journalism today. The Detroit News
“What’s the remedy?” Woodward said to the audience at the University Center lecture hall. “To make our work better, more factual, less emotional and so it doesn’t appear to be partisan.”
Earlier, the award-winning pair spoke to about 200 people, including students, in a question and answer session at a Macomb Community College lecture hall.
Woodward and Bernstein's two-part event, “Building Block of Democracy: The Role of the Free Press in America,” is part of the college’s James Jacobs Civic Engagement Project to bring nationally recognized experts to the county.
The pair fielded questions from students and community members — some submitted, others live — on the Trump White House and more.
Woodward last year published “Fear: Trump in the White House,” which quotes aides calling out the president’s judgment and claiming they plucked papers off his desk to prevent him from withdrawing from a pair of trade agreements.
Trump has labeled the tell-all memoir “a work of fiction” and disputed some of its incendiary passages.
Recalling his sources for the piece during the Macomb Center presentation, Woodward said his sources' perspective was illuminating.
"The reality is, whether you like Trump or don't like Trump, we have a governing crisis that is substantial," Woodward said. "He bases lots of his decisions on things that are just not true or facts. That has a tremendous impact on where we are and where we are going."
The reporters also addressed the impact of Trump's attacks on the media, which have drawn rebukes professional journalism organizations, human rights experts and others.
When Tutman asked if that had changed his views on the profession, Bernstein said it forced him to "even more strongly believe we in journalism, in reporting, are the essential block that enables democracy to function."
Despite the climate, he said, "remarkable news reporting" persists. "Democracy has not gone dark in this presidency."
During the earlier Q&A, Woodward and Bernstein reflected on reporting techniques they used to pursue their landmark coverage, which was recounted in a book they co-authored, “All The President’s Men.”
Woodward credited part of their success to editors insisting that they work around the clock and “go knock on doors” to collect the facts.
“Without that kind of support system, you don’t investigate it," he said.
The work, which spawned a 1976 film, chronicled how the pair doggedly investigated the events surrounding a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.
Their reporting eventually led to an end to Richard Nixon’s presidency. Some of his top aides were imprisoned.
Bernstein, who has served as a CNN analyst, said Nixon’s criminal actions were relayed in taped White House conversations, and current special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia would need similar concrete evidence.
“He may find the answer definitively and tell this story about Trump and the Russians in terms of the larger cons that have to do with Trump’s way of doing business both in the presidency and before he got there,” Bernstein said. “And maybe along the way, there are tapes.”
Bernstein said social media has played a role in how the public perceives the work of journalists.
“Social media promotes very often ideas without factually laying out what the truth is,” he said.
To strengthen coverage, Woodward said cultivating sources is key. "Human sources are really the backbone of reporting," he said.
The discussion encouraged Charlie Frakes of Clinton Township, who attended the event with his daughter, Emily.
“These guys are heroes,” he said. “It’s important to have a free press.”
Jessica Thompson, a Macomb Community College student, drew inspiration for pursuing a journalism career.
“It makes me feel like I can make a difference,” she said.