Veteran journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took the stage at the Augustana University Elmen Center on Tuesday, March 19, and received a lengthy standing ovation before they even took their seats.
(Bob Woodward, it should be noted, tried to sit down more quickly, but Augustana University President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin appeared to encourage him to stay standing and allow the South Dakota crowd its gratitude.)
Herseth Sandlin served as moderator and demonstrated deft understanding of the core educational purpose of the Boe Forum itself, as well as the historic heft of the two former Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in 1972. She allowed them to artfully dodge a question or two. (The pair has a delightful, and at times maddening, tendency to slip into entertaining anecdote that might be genuine comraderie, but might also be speaker-circuit schtick.)
To the educational point: Herseth Sandlin recognized the Augustana Journalism graduates in attendance (of which this reporter is one) along with professors Janet Blank Libra and Jeffrey Miller. She included a pointed question from Professor Emily Wanless, turned to the audience for input (a gutsy move), and closed the evening with questions from current Augustana Journalism students.
When Woodward and Bernstein either could not hear or didn’t fully grasp a student inquiry, Herseth Sandlin clarified and pressed them to the point, indicating she felt these were the key insights of the evening. This wasn’t merely an opportunity to reminisce about how two metropolitan Washington Post reporters covered a hotel break-in and ended up uncovering a scandal that brought down an American president. This was an opportunity to examine the future of journalism and democracy. HersethSandlin seemed to be saying there was no better way to navigate those waters than by handing the helm to the journalism students themselves.
Take, for example, this question from student and Augustana newspaper editor Jacob Knutson:
“One of the key duties of the journalist is to provide access to the corridors of power, so people can know, understand, and act on what they find in those corridors. Yet the occupants of those corridors in government, business, and education add more and more locks and security devices to keep what’s inside from getting out. How can graduates from schools like ours learn how to gain the access necessary for a democracy to function?”
Knutson (a former SDPB intern) packed a lot into this question. It’s sweeping question, of course, but it’s also a personal one about local journalism, about standing outside a closed door, and about the foundation of democracy.
Woodward and Bernstein didn’t directly answer Knutson’s question, but the answers they did offer were particularly telling. They verbally stumbled momentarily until Bernstein sighed and said, “What we’re telling you is that this isn’t rocket science.”
Woodward and Bernstein were what Bernstein affectionately calls “shoe-leather” journalists. They knocked on doors, often late at night. They pounded on typewriter keys with phones propped in the crooks of their necks, taking dictation from sources. They scribbled in notebooks and on paper napkins when necessary. They were threatened by those in power. They protected their sources.
They gained access because they persistently and creatively and obnoxiously insisted on access.
Woodward followed Bernstein’s comment with an anecdote about his personal coming-to-terms with the pardon of newly resigned President Richard Nixon by President Gerald Ford. It was a good story about the nuances of political sacrifice, but there was more to it than that.
Veteran reporter Bob Woodward was telling rookie reporter Jacob Knutson that gaining access is less important than what you do with it once you’ve gained it.
In a time where people galvanize around a presidential Tweet, where facts are considered relative when relativity is politically convenient, and where behind-the-scenes political courage is often replaced by social media grandstanding, we need journalists to not only ask the difficult questions, but to be relentlessly responsible with what Bernstein acknowledges is “the most attainable version of the truth.”
Ignore the “clickbait headlines.” Ignore the digital gimmicks. Stop moaning about the changing market and the newspaper that used to land, fat and weighty, on your doorstep each morning. Seek out local journalism that provides insight and balance, and then support that journalism with your attention and your resources.
Really. This isn’t rocket science.