Business, Politics & Society

Developing the Theory of the Case

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 13:19 min

Using examples from his own reporting, Bob discusses some common pitfalls reporters run into when developing their theory of the case.

Bob Woodward
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The notion, the phrase, the theory of the case is this is where we're going with this story or this book. Those practicing journalism, starting journalism, hold back the judgment. Don't be sweeping, don't be quick on the trigger to say this is the way it is. This is what it means. Because you may have it dead wrong. What you don't want to do is become wedded to the theory of the case, if the evidence does not support it, which is often the case. One of the more interesting days was in September 1974, a month after Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford was president. And Ford went on television on a Sunday morning and announced he was giving Nixon a full pardon. Now therefore, I Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution have granted, and by these presence do grant, a full, free, and absolute pardon onto Richard Nixon. This was a real surprise. I was asleep. And my colleague, Carl Bernstein, called me and woke me up and said, have you heard? And I said, I haven't heard a thing. Carl, brilliant in saying what occurred in the fewest words with the most drama, said, the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch. And I remembered thinking. It's perfect. It's the final corruption of Watergate. Nixon, who was behind everything, gets a pardon. 40 people go to jail. He's not held accountable. He goes scott free. And there was an aroma of a deal between him and Ford, because Nixon had picked Ford to be his vice president. Then, 25 years later, I undertook one of my book projects, a book called Shadow, about the legacy of Watergate and the presidencies of Ford through Clinton. And I called Gerald Ford up. I had never met him, never interviewed him, and said, I want to talk to you about the pardon. And I thought he would say, well, I've-- I got a golf tournament. I can't do it. He turned out to be one of the most open, direct people I've ever met in politics. Get all of the legal memos, read all the contemporaneous coverage of the pardon, the memoirs, the books, which always have nuggets and part of the story. And we'd do a draft. And then, I'd go see Gerald Ford and go through it with him, saying I understand this happened, the legal memos said this, and interviewed Ford at his home in Colorado. He also had his main home in Rancho Mirage, California. And just doing as much as you can ever do to tell the full story. And the last interview with Ford was quite remarkable. I got to know him pretty well at this point and asked, well, why did you pardon Nixon. He said, you keep asking that. And I said, well, I don't think you've told me the whole story, to be honest. And he said, yeah. You're right. I haven't. Let me tell you what happened. I haven't even told Betty, his wife, this. This is what occurred and....

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Bob Woodward was just 29 when he changed a nation. His Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein helped expose the corruption of the Nixon presidency. Two Pulitzer Prizes and nineteen best-selling books later, the legendary journalist is teaching his first-ever online class for anyone who wants to find the truth. Learn to investigate a story, interview sources, and understand how the news is written. The next history-making story might be yours.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

brilliant insider stories. inspirational. insightful.

This was a terrific class. Informative and inspiring. It's motivated me to learn more about journalism.

It was interesting, full of ressources, and honest. Frankly, this is what we need right now. Objectivity is rare nowadays.

What a treat! I learned some fantastic tips regarding journalism, but the greater gift was the learning of the responsibility of the media in democracy. I will certainly revisit these concepts in the future. Thank you Mr. Woodward!


Dirk W.

Great as every time he is talking. I only have to ad, that it was the german king and emperor Henry IV. (originally "Heinrich der IV."), not the french king.

Ricardo M.

Incredible lesson and that President Ford's story regarding Nixon/Watergate floored me.

A fellow student

Very interesting lesson. Great advice. Like going to a psychic. Some of what they say may seem totally accurate yet others, false and not true at all. I (kind of) met President Ford back in my teens. I was waiting at the airport gate for his plane to arrive when some con man came by, chatted me up and managed to get me to move out of line so I couldn't shake Ford's hand. Grrrrrrr! But I did yell his name and he waved at me so tha was nice. PS Recall Chevy Chase's perfect impersonation of Ford on SNL and his stuffed dog Liberty? Hysterical.

Vickie R.

I read Thomas Payne's Common Sense. It made sense. PS Looking forward to seeing you in April in LA a t the Hebrew Un speech. Th

Vickie R.

Funny. Reminds me of the time I met Prez Ford's famous dog Liberty at Van Nuys airport when he came to a rally in Los Angeles. I almost got to shake Ford's hand but an older man pushed me out of line. Das is life I guess? Anyone recall Chevy Chase's portrayal of Prez Ford on Saturday Night Live and his stuffed dog Liberty that used to fall over all the time?

A fellow student

Amazing lesson and reflection. Should we examine our preconceived theories before we write the story? Is the theory the story or are the facts the story?

Geri S.

It's important we don't decide what the issue should then go out and try to find a theory that agrees with what we think happened? Again, common sense should help but we shouldn't let that dictate the story.

Bryan I.

I wonder how Mr. Woodward can be so sure that Ford was telling the truth about his motivations for the pardon versus a story that he had had 25 years to rehearse and prepare for the moment when he needed it to plant with a journalist who would lend it credibility. I don't know either way but it seems like the kind of thing that a journalist would research rather than taking at face value. Perhaps Mr. Woodward did that -- but I don't know as he doesn't mention having done so in this lesson.

book E.

Arn't journalist the puppet at the end of the politicians string? You say journalists are "used." Today I feel "played." Watching news programs, news hosts report stories as absolute when in fact we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes. The deals made. Concessions. Are we not told exactly what the politician wants us to report to their end? And anxious reporters hasten to the camera eye confident their "take" is it, when in effect, their "take" is only the merchandising of the politician.

book E.

I think this is where I am with the article/book I've been researching. The story has centered on one individual when this past week I realize all my research points to another personage with the original focus being only a consequence of the actions of the true main character. Other's have attempted to write on this subject with the secondary person as the primary focus and nothing has ever been published: book or article. Perhaps this is why. The focus has always been on the father, not the son.