Bob Woodward at Sciences Po
The greatest thing about going to one of the most prestigious schools in France, (besides the name-dropping) is that influential and famous people want to hold talks and give speeches for you.
Sciences Po Paris has hosted a number of cool people on campus this semester including, Egemen Bagis, the current Turkish minister for EU affairs; Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president; and Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General.
Today, I grabbed hold of one of these opportunities, and went to see Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post journalists who reported on Nixon’s Watergate scandal, speak on campus.
Woodward, introduced to us as the most famous investigative journalist in the world, sat up on the small auditorium stage in a black suit and baby blue tie. He looked nothing like Robert Redford, the actor who played him in the 1976 movie, “All the President’s Men.” But I’m sure he gets that a lot, so I will move on.
Woodward drifted into journalism, because he thought going to law school was “gutless.” He wrote four books on George W. Bush’s presidency, and his book on Barack Obama, “Obama’s Wars,” was published in 2010. He has also written books on Nixon’s resignation, the CIA, Bill Clinton, and secrets of the White House. Today, Woodward spoke a little about investigative journalism, a little about what he thinks of journalism today, and answered a few questions from students.
“Journalism is trying to find out what happened, a method of going at something, peeling an onion,” Woodward said. He stressed the importance of getting out of the newsroom, talking to people and observing. He said every story can get better when the reporter goes to the scene.
“Go check it, go see it, go feel it, to understand what’s going on,” he said. He revealed the perfect time of night to knock on a difficult someone’s front door in order to get an interview: 8:15 p.m. I suspect this was a joke, but to illustrate how it worked for him, Woodward told a story about when he was working on one of his Bush presidency books.
He knocked on a general’s front door at 8:15 p.m. The general opened the door, looked at him, and said, “are you still doing this?” (This was including one expletive that I won’t add). Without answering, Woodward stood in the doorway, I imagine maybe he held up his pen and notepad suggestively, and eventually got let in. Woodward’s point was, the way to get questions answered is to go after them.
“It’s harder that way, but it’s more fun,” he said. “I got a rush from it.”
Woodward thinks that information and the internet as related to journalism, blogs and citizen journalism, is “Darwinian,” in that the high quality work will survive.
“The first amendment works, this is going to sort itself out,” he said.
Woodward talked about his mistakes in reporting at the start of the Iraq war, when he said he didn’t dig as hard as he should have after receiving reports about weapons of mass destruction. Maybe this is why he spent so much of his time investigating and writing about Bush’s war with Iraq. He talked about his belief in journalism as a public good, and the greatness of journalism as a business (“you get to raise hell.”)
“Journalism by definition doesn’t deal with the boring,” Woodward said. ”It deals with excitement and relevance, getting at the center of what is going on in our lives.”
For me, Woodward represents a glorious era of journalism. He is the essence of investigative reporting, getting the dirt, the check on government and power that we learn about in journalism class, and the fame and romance that made us all want to be reporters in the first place.
Yes, journalism can have quite the superiority complex, but it can be kind of great sometimes.