Thought Leadership

Conference Recap: Bob Woodward on the Communicator’s Moral Responsibility

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As Bob Woodward watched Richard Nixon’s presidential resignation speech in the aftermath of Watergate, the scandal he and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein first broke in The Washington Post, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist didn’t expect to learn a seminal lesson in moral responsibility.

But then, Nixon said something that would come to define the young journalist’s legendary career over the next 45 years. 

“Nixon waved his hand and said, ‘Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself,'” said Woodward, during his opening General Session today at the PRSA 2019 International Conference in San Diego.

For the 76-year-old Woodward, this Nixon quote is more than just about learning to respect your enemies and denouncing hate in politics. It’s also about the importance of openness — whether it’s to another person’s opinions or to the truth itself, even if that truth forces you to rethink your own views. 

“In this world, we can be fairly, and often unfairly, ground into dust,” he said, quoting author Graham Greene. “Don’t become an enemy with the other side, even if you don’t agree. They have a case and you must listen.”

The centrality of truth

For the majority of his presentation, Woodward (who has covered nine presidents and published 19 books including last year’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”) talked about the parallels between Watergate and today’s media climate, imploring communicators in attendance to always honor the “centrality of truth.”

“How can we have useful dialogue and citizen understanding when there isn’t a common agreement of what a fact is?” he asked.

Woodward recalled that when reporting on Nixon during his early days at the Post, the then-president would send his press secretary out to denounce any stories that painted him in an unfavorable light — referring to it as “character assassination.”

It set a dangerous precedent, one that can be traced all the way to President Trump’s claims of “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

Obviously, said Woodward, a journalist can make mistakes or flub details while reporting a story. But when a powerful individual invites readers to question the truth of an article simply because they don’t like the way it’s presented — it invites readers to question any truth.

“Every lie that is told incurs a death to the truth,” he warned.

For journalists and communicators frustrated by skepticism about the “centrality of truth,” Woodward recommends a straightforward way to take action: performing your job honorably.

This can be as simple as treating a source with the respect they deserve or going the extra mile to interview someone in person rather than connecting with them on social media.

“We have to show people we take them as seriously as they take themselves,” said Woodward. “We have to be patient. We have to spend time.”

The importance of humility

Woodward’s presentation, which also included a Q&A with fellow General Session speaker Laura Ling, was packed with evocative details from his storied journalism career.

He talked about how Sen. Barry Goldwater poured him a drink from his secret whiskey stash as they talked about Nixon’s looming impeachment and how he called up President Gerald Ford in the years following his time in office to ask him why he pardoned his predecessor after Watergate.

However, one of Woodward’s most compelling trips down memory lane didn’t involve any high-profile sources or whiskey-fueled chats with politicians.

In the months following Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein were showered with awards and adulation. Fame could have inspired an impenetrable ego in Woodward.

But before that could happen, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham sent him and Bernstein a letter, which Woodward vividly recalls as being written on “yellow legal pad.” The message was congratulatory, but it also contained a warning.

It said: “Now that Nixon has resigned, don’t start thinking too highly of yourselves. Beware the demon: pomposity.”

Though Graham’s lesson was tied to the political climate then, it’s a piece of advice that’s prescient today, too. To be a strong, honorable communicator, especially during uncertain times, you need to get out of the way and let the truth speak for itself.

“We’re at a pivot point in history,” said Woodward, tying Graham’s message to the state of journalism in 2019. “We need to get it right and get it as factual as possible.”

Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications.

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