Politics & Society

Bob Woodward on Covering Watergate and Investigative Journalism

Written by MasterClass

Nov 15, 2018 • 6 min read

Decades after the Watergate scandal, there are still ample lessons budding investigative journalists can learn from Bob Woodward and his groundbreaking coverage of the event. Read on for the reporting challenges Bob and his fellow journalist Carl Bernstein faced, how to find and treat sources, and how to break a story by sticking to the facts.


Who Is Bob Woodward?

Bob Woodward is an associate editor of the Washington Post, where he has worked since 1971. He has shared in two Pulitzer Prizes, first in 1973 for the coverage of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, and second in 2002 as the lead reporter for coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Gene Roberts, the former managing editor of the New York Times, has called the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate reporter team, “maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time.” Bob Schieffer of CBS News has said, “Bob Woodward has established himself as the best reporter of our time. He may be the best reporter of all time.”

Bob has authored or coauthored 18 books, all of which have been national nonfiction bestsellers. Twelve of those have been #1 national bestsellers, including his most recent, Fear: Trump in the White House, which broke records with a million-dollar release. In listing the all-time 100 best nonfiction books, Time magazine has called Bob’s All the President’s Men, the explosive Watergate story which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, “perhaps the most influential piece of journalism in history.”

The Reporting Challenges of Watergate

Bob discusses the impact of Watergate: what started as a small story—what the White House press secretary famously called “a third-rate burglary”—ballooned into an event that changed history. Bob and fellow Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein spent years interviewing and reinterviewing everyone they could track down who was attached to the case. Bob discusses the role their reporting played in Nixon’s resignation. But keep in mind: journalists don’t aim to take down presidents; they pursue the facts.

While Bob was investigating Watergate, Katharine Graham, the publisher and owner of the Washington Post, encouraged him to never give up on uncovering the truth because “that’s the business we are in.” As Bob explains, you have to keep going back. Even 40 years later, people like Alexander Butterfield—the former deputy assistant to President Nixon who disclosed the White House taping system—continue to divulge new information about Watergate when interviewed.

The tactics Bob and Bernstein used to follow the story are helpful for any aspiring journalist in understanding just how far you have to go. They wrote about their experience reporting on Watergate in All the President’s Men, which later became a movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. If you haven’t already, take the time to read Bob and Bernstein’s book and watch the film.

The Importance of Sources

Bob believes people agree to be sources because they want their side to be heard and because “everyone is a secret sharer [under] the First Amendment.” When you start working on a story, make lists of people who might have any understanding of the case. These witnesses and participants will help you uncover the truth.

The internet will never replace human sources in investigative journalism. Obviously, no one can google “Where are the Secret Memos?” with a reasonable expectation of success. Decades later, Watergate would be reported in pretty much the same way. But how might the internet be used as a tool alongside human sources?

When reporting, you have to knock on doors, set up meetings, and ask people to help you. To develop these relationships, especially with sources who might be hesitant to divulge important details, you will need to be persistent and patient. Sometimes that means calling an office five or six times before someone will meet with you. Most importantly, never give up on finding sources.

How Watergate’s Mark Felt Became Deep Throat

Mark Felt became “Deep Throat” by accident. Bob met Felt long before the Watergate investigation, when Bob was a US Navy sailor who sometimes acted as a courier between the chief of naval operations and the White House. When Bob started his career as a reporter, Felt provided tips and clues on various stories. After the Watergate break-in, Bob asked Felt if he knew anything about “H. Hunt”—a White House worker whose name was written in two of the Watergate burglars’ address books. Felt verified Hunt’s involvement and went on to share information many more times throughout the investigation.

Felt spoke with Bob on deep background, meaning Bob was not able to identify him as a source. Their communication was clandestine. They met in a garage using a secret code involving a newspaper and flower pot, espionage tricks Felt had learned during World War II. Felt ultimately conveyed the true gravity of Watergate to Bob. The burglary was part of a much larger effort by the Nixon reelection committee to sabotage Senator Edmund Muskie and get a weaker Democrat nominated. The situation was so severe, he told Bob, that he feared Bob and Bernstein’s lives might be at risk.

Bob believes Felt became a source not just because Felt was offended by the criminal activity of Nixon and his cohorts, but also because of thwarted personal ambition. Even so, Felt never handed documents over for the Washington Post’s use, nor did he provide an outline for the story. Instead he provided clues to help Bob uncover the overall picture. Bob always made sure that Felt’s identity was completely protected, even as speculation about his identity circulated in Washington decade after decade. Over the years, Bob gained the trust of other sources because of the protection he gave Felt.

How to Break a Story—Without Getting Attached

While reporting on Watergate, Washington Post editor Howard Simons showed Bob that the best story is a breaking story. When developing a story, it’s very important that you stay open and not become attached to your own theory of what happened. Make sure you are not so blinded by what you believe occurred that you can’t see what is right in front of you.

You might be certain you are right, but your personal perspective will inevitably affect the questions you are asking. Rely on other perspectives from your team and continuously examine your own perspective before you publish. Keep in mind Bob’s story of the pardon President Ford gave Nixon and the real story behind Ford’s decision-making.

Don’t forget to apply your own common sense. Sometimes the key to understanding a case is staring you right in the face. This became very clear to Bob when he was investigating whether the Committee to Re-Elect the President and the White House were connected to the Watergate burglary. It just didn’t make sense that low-level people in the Richard Nixon campaign would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own. In this case, the common sense way to uncover the truth was to “follow the money.”

How to Decipher and Present Facts

Bob shares lessons from the mistakes he’s made during his career as a journalist. While reporting on the Watergate investigation, he learned the value of verifying facts. One of his stories stated incorrectly that, according to grand jury testimony by Hugh Sloan, Bob Haldeman controlled a secret fund. Though the basic facts were correct—there was a secret fund that five people controlled, and Hugh Sloan had verified that Haldeman was one of those people—Sloan never stated this in grand jury testimony. If you don’t present the facts correctly—even if the essence of what you’re saying is correct—you compromise the integrity of your story and your news organization.

The internet has transformed the landscape of journalism. We are living in an era in which journalists are distrusted, which means that reporters must work even harder to present their stories authentically. The accelerated news cycle puts immense pressure on reporters, editors, and news organizations, but Bob cautions that impatience is driving too many journalistic choices.

Bob states that the key similarity between special counsel Bob Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Watergate is the attacks on the press. In both cases, those who have or had a stake in the outcome of the investigations accused the press of publishing falsehoods. In a speech made at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bob emphatically proclaimed that “the media is not fake news.”

Journalists must continue to uncover hidden government secrets and report the truth, because, as the motto of the Washington Post states, “Democracy dies in darkness.”