Business, Politics & Society

Lessons From Editors

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 10:47 min

From the surprising value of rejection to the importance of honest communication, Bob reveals what he's learned from the many accomplished editors he's worked with over the years, including renowned Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

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Bob Woodward
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After I got out of the Navy, I was going to go to law school. And I realized I'd be 30 when I got out of law school. And at that time and at that age, you think 30 is the end of life and I have to find something else to do. So I went to the Washington Post and asked to work there, just kind of spontaneously. I was reading the Post. It was very aggressive under the editorship of Ben Bradlee. And they gave me a two week tryout, though I had no experience. I wrote a dozen stories, none of which they published. The local editor called me in and said, you don't know what you're doing. Nice try. And I said, thank you. And he said, why are you thanking me. You failed. And I said, I realize this is what I want to do. As awful and painful and emotionally wrenching as failure is if you find out, in the course of failing, this is what I want to learn to do that is a magnificent gift. And so he was astonished. They helped me get a job at the Montgomery County Sentinel, which was a weekly paper in one of the Washington suburbs, very rich county. And I worked for a editor there who once had been the state editor at the Washington Post named Roger Farquhar. Roger Farquhar was one of these genius editors. Comes right out of central casting. He called me in and he said, we've heard from a political opponent of the Maryland attorney general, Bill Burch, that when Burch was insurance commissioner in Maryland, he awarded all kinds of legal fees to his own law firm. Believe it or not, in this period, 1970, being attorney general of Maryland was a part-time job. So he also practiced law. And so Roger said, there are records somewhere. And so I went in on this record chase and going through files and seeing, here these records were of all this money going to the attorney general's law firm. We asked him for comment. He wouldn't comment. We ran a big story on it that the Washington Post had to pick up. Next day, I'm sitting at my desk at the Sentinel. And the attorney general has driven all the way from Baltimore down to Rockville. And I hear all this yelling and how can you do this to me. You've questioned my integrity. And he stormed out and Roger came out and had this almost beauttific smile on his face. The attorney general is upset. And I said, is there a problem. And he said, no. He couldn't dispute a single fact. And he said, that's what we do. We're not here to make anyone happy. Never do you know the scope of the story at the beginning. In the Watergate case, the day I was called on that Saturday morning, no one told me, hey, look this is going to be an important day in your life, one of the most important. So you just proceed. Howard Simons, one of the genius editors of all time, he used to always say, we want to get the story when the sun on it is rising, not setting. In other words, we wan...


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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.



Reviews

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

As with all masterclasses thus far, I'm observining from a point of view that there must certainly be some sage advice from all of the experts. I'm not planning to become an investigative reporter, but Bob Woodwards lessons helped sharpen what I do. As did Ken Burns and as will each of the masters. They are masters afterall and their experiences and advice permenaties time and discipline.

I annoy a journalist but I do write and the honesty, clarity, and passion conveyed by Mr. Woodward are an inspiration. Thank you.

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

I have learned so much about how to find sources and then how to talk to them from these classes. I have also learned a lot about the Watergate story, which I had not known too much about before. Thank you so much Bob for saying what you say about Trump! Everything he does truly terrifies me.


Comments

A fellow student

True again. I met Mr Bradley at a World Affairs Council meeting and even got my photo taken with him, only he looks like a deer who got caught in the headlights?????

A fellow student

Bob Woodward seems to have learned his craft thru a life long apprenticeship. It's sad that we no longer seem to have editors of this quality. Great lesson!

A fellow student

How much of the interview comes from preconceived ideas of the journalist and how much comes from the interview?

Pamela K.

"Do the best you can and the hell with it" -- something JFK often said, and Jackie repeated throughout her life. And JFK Jr repeated it from her.

Pamela K.

Bradlee also loved gossip, stories, "What's the deal with this guy? What's he like?" There's the official story, and then the story behind the scenes -- "the true gen" -- Hemingway called it. JFK was also like this, which is why he and Bradlee were such great friends. (And JFK fed him lots of stories.) "Journalism -- the first rough draft of history."

Kristiina

Great job, Mr Woodward! Hope you can overthrow another incompentent cunning administration. We Finns are really worried about the developments in the U.S. affecting the whole globe.

Mia S.

"There is such a tendency when you've done a lot of reporting to get in there and second-guess the reporter. It really doesn't work. Part of the business of editing is saying no - you have to say no sometimes, and Ben would run stories on the inside of the paper or say, 'You don't quite have it,' and edit some of the stories down. Carl and I had a story about people in the Nixon White House investigating Teddy Kennedy, who Nixon and people worried was going to run for president at a certain point. We had some evidence of that. Ben thought it was too weak, kind of said, 'In the story, the White House and some of the people are showing a special interest in Kennedy, not investigating him.' So we didn't have it. It later turned out that they were doing more than investigating him, but at that point, Ben said no, and a strong editor needs to say no. With Bradlee, it didn't mean 'We're never going to run this,' it meant, 'Go do more reporting, develop more sources, get more facts, and then we'll look at the story again.' The night Nixon announced his resignation, Bradlee was kind of shell-shocked - wanted to make sure that people did not gloat. He literally was running around the newsroom telling people, 'No gloating. Do not pound your chest, you can feel good, realize we played a journalistic role, but no celebrations.' Part of Bradlee's genius was he would move on when we made a mistake - 'I stand by the boys, we stand by our stories.' He didn't sit around and wring his hands, he played the next play. 'What's the next story? What have you got for tomorrow? What are you working on?' In the newspaper business there are a lot of mistakes - Bradlee had the capacity to emotionally let go and would not stew about the past, but would focus on the future: 'What are we going to do next?' That line he always said, 'What've we got tomorrow?' No matter what had occurred, whether it was a mistake or a very important story."

Mia S.

"Never do you know the scope of the story at the beginning. In the Watergate case, the day I was called, no one told me, 'Hey look, this is going to be an important day in your life, one of the most important.' You just proceed. Howard Simons, one of the genius editors of all time, he used to always say, 'We want to get the story when the sun on it is rising, not setting.' In other words, we want to be there early. He was somebody who was always calling meetings, saying, 'Where are we on Watergate? I want to find out. Work on this story full-time, nothing else.' How do you know when a story is sunrise or sunset? It's hard to know the sunrise, it's easy to know the sunset. The sunset is when it's the five-part series on what happened to Hillary's campaign, it's interesting, may be well-reported,but that's over. I've got to talk about Bradlee for a moment, as an editor - because an integral part of reporting everything, you name it, he had this way about him; he just loved the news, a good story, loved life and journalism and would walk around with a kind of swagger and comfort and curiosity, you could feel it. He'd stop at somebody's desk and people would feel, 'Oh wow, why's he stopping there? What does he know, what is he asking?' The relationship between a journalist and editor or editors needs to be honest. The editor has to be in a position to push, the reporter has to push back. There's a lot of back and forth. The reporter can help the editor be better, just like the editor can help the reporter be better. The reporter can make demands on the editor, 'What do you think of this?' 'What about that?' You need to share your uncertainty. You need to share the certainty that you feel. An editor is a coach in one way - coaches are on the sidelines. They don't go through the plays. Bradlee used to say, 'I can't do the reporting for you. I can't ask the questions, so you are my emissary.'"

Mia S.

"After I got out of the Navy I was going to go to law school, and I realized I'd be 30 when I got out of law school, and at that time and at that age, you think 30 is the end of life, and I have to find something else to do. So I went to the Post and asked to work there, just kind of spontaneously. I was reading the Post, it was very aggressive under the editorship of Ben Bradlee. They gave me a two-week tryout, though I had no experience - I wrote a dozen stories, none of which they published. The local editor called me in and said, 'You don't know what you're doing, nice try.' I said thank you. 'Why are you thanking me? You failed.' 'I realize this is what I want to do.' As awful and painful and emotionally wrenching as failure is, if you find out in the course of failing, 'This is what I want to learn to do,' that is a magnificent gift. They helped me get a job at the Montgomery County Sentinel, which was a weekly paper in one of the Washington suburbs, very rich county. I worked for an editor there who once had been the state editor at the Washington Post - one of these genius editors, comes right out of Central Casting. He called me in, said, 'We've heard from a political opponent of the Maryland Attorney General that when Burch was insurance commissioner in Maryland, he awarded all kinds of legal fees to his own law firm.' In this period, 1970, being Attorney General was a part-time job, so he also practiced law. 'There are records somewhere.' I went in on this record chase and going through files and seeing, here these records were of all this money going to the Attorney General's law firm. We asked him for comment, he wouldn't comment, we ran a big story on it that the Washington Post had to pick up. Next day, I'm sitting at my desk at the Sentinel, and the Attorney General has driven all the way from Baltimore, and I hear all this yelling and, 'How can you do this to me? You've questioned my integrity!' He stormed out and Roger came out and had this almost beatific smile on his face. 'The attorney general is upset.' I said, 'Is there a problem?' 'No, he couldn't dispute a single fact. That's what we do. We're not here to make anyone happy.'"

Joe C.

Rejection is a very important part of learning. My first attempt to publish a short story earned a harsh rejection and put my writing on hold until I retired from my day job. But it made me understand that I had to improve my story telling technique. That is a big part of what I am working on at the moment - learning to get the story and tell it in an interesting way.