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Summary:

Veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward said this week the Internet would not be of much use in a case like Watergate, the story he helped break in 1972. But he misses the point about the value of using a multitude of sources instead of just one.

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Anyone who has followed the media for the past half century or so knows that Bob Woodward is a giant in the field, one half of the legendary investigative team of Woodward and Bernstein — a man who helped to bring down a U.S. president and defined a generational shift in the practice of journalism. In other words, someone whose opinions on the craft of journalism are probably worth listening to. But should we believe him when he argues that the Internet is not really of any benefit when it comes to stories like Watergate? Not necessarily. As with any field that has undergone the kind of disruption the media has, the journalism of today is very different from the kind that Woodward defined 40 years ago — and arguably better.

Woodward, who has been a reporter and editor at the Washington Post since 1971, was reunited with his investigative sidekick Carl Bernstein earlier this week at a meeting of the American Society of News Editors, as part of a panel at the conference titled “Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age?” Woodward’s view seemed to be that younger newspaper reporters and journalism students have a misplaced faith in the power of the Internet and that what really counts (not surprisingly, perhaps) is good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting and personal interviews.

Journalism needs more than just shoe leather now

The veteran reporter and author of multiple award-winning books said that a Yale journalism class was recently asked how Watergate would be covered now and that the responses caused him to almost “have an aneurysm,” because they said they would just use the Internet to find out information about President Richard Nixon’s secret campaign fund. Woodward said this betrayed a view of the Internet as being a kind of “magic lantern” that would reveal everything and that the students were also wrong when they said the blogosphere would have helped bring Nixon down:

I have attempted to apply some corrective information to them, but the basic point is: The truth of what goes on is not on the Internet. [The Internet] can supplement. It can help advance. But the truth resides with people. Human sources.

Woodward is right, of course. The truth does reside with people — people like Mark Felt, the so-called Deep Throat source who leaked all the relevant information that allowed the Watergate reporters to build their case. And obviously, if you happen to have a senior member of the FBI leaking you damning information about the president, that is going to provide a lot of bang for your reporting buck. Would Felt have had a Facebook account? Probably not, as Woodward took pains to point out during his panel (and has pointed out before). And he likely wouldn’t have been on Twitter either, or had a Tumblr blog.

The lone reporter is no longer the only source of news

But that doesn’t mean the Woodward-and-Bernstein approach is the only one that produces anything of value or that the Internet is only good for “supplementing” things or commentary after the fact on political blogs, as Woodward seemed to suggest. Something like the release of the Collateral Murder video, for example — a classified clip of an Iraq war incident that Wikileaks released in 2010 — arguably couldn’t have happened without the Internet, which helped make the connection between Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, the former U.S. army intelligence analyst who (allegedly) leaked the video.

That video, and the subsequent release of thousands of classified diplomatic cables, may not stack up against Watergate as an investigative breakthrough, but they were both still significant events in journalism, and they didn’t involve any trained reporters until after the fact. Does that make them less valuable? No. If anything, it makes them more valuable. And the fact that anyone could plow through those cables — just as anyone could go through the 170,000 expense filings that the Guardian (see disclosure below) opened up to a crowdsourced discovery effort in 2009 — was a crucial part of their journalistic success.

The point is not that individual effort and the labor involved in long-term investigative pieces isn’t worth anything any more. It is, of course, and people who do it well are extremely valuable — including veteran reporter Seymour Hersh, who revealed recently the U.S. government has been secretly training MEK fighters from Iran at a base in Nevada. But Woodward (not surprisingly, perhaps) still seems to see journalism as something that lone-cowboy-style reporters do in secret by themselves, rather than a collaborative process that now involves other people — including the “people formerly known as the audience,” as journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to call them.

That view may be a lot more romantic, and it serves the purposes of journalists who see themselves as a special breed, with special powers that normal mortals don’t possess. It also serves the purposes of newspapers and other traditional media entities, which would like to be the sole source of all value in the media ecosystem. But it doesn’t really serve the purposes of journalism or society as a whole.

Disclosure: Guardian News and Media Ltd., the parent company of the Guardian newspaper, is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Yan Arief Purwanto

  1. Yeah, we’re all awaiting your first huge investigative journalism breakthrough scoop, Matthew and GigaOM. We won’t hold our breath about it though. Keep aggregating the work of others, and adding your two cents to it, and calling it “journalism.”

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  2. And another thing: don’t ever equate yourself with Bob Woodward, or say he’s “wrong” about anything regarding journalism. Because the fact is, Bob Woodward is 1 gazillion times more credible on the subject than you can ever hope to be Matthew.

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    1. I didn’t equate myself with him, Joe — and I agree he is a fine journalist. That doesn’t mean he’s infallible about everything, however, especially the internet. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. Kevin Bondelli Friday, April 6, 2012

    I don’t think that Woodward is saying that the internet provides no benefit to journalism. He is saying that one can’t rely solely on the internet to uncover something that people are purposefully hiding. I also don’t think the WikiLeaks example contradicts Woodward’s point. Bradley Manning was a human source that chose to leak documents to WikiLeaks to disperse on the internet. For something hidden to be revealed on the internet, it either requires a human source to post a leak or a hacker to access such files. The internet is a tool/platform, and a powerful one, but to rely on it exclusively would allow many things to slip through the cracks. That is Woodward’s point.

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    1. This is exactly the way I read Mr. Woodward’s comments as well.

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  4. I think the author missed Woodward’s point.

    As a young journalist, I’m burnt out on the field exulting tech over the human element that I’m beginning to realize has been the major driving force behind every important story that pops up online.

    The web is only a multiplier of content, but that content must still come from getting out there and doing the damn thing. It’s depressing how easily we forget this.

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  5. Real estate redlining and the absence of grocery stores in poor communities of color come to mind when thinking of meta-stories of wrongdoing unearthed uniquely by computers. that overcame the limitations of the atomized individual’s perspective. Now via social media, we can overcome some limitations of space and culture by carrying the voices of the previously unheard around the world in an instant. That’s just beginning to unfold. Shoe leather? Just one tool among many wonderful tools for learning the world’s secrets.

    I sure do enjoy reading your coverage of journalism and the web, Mathew.

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  6. Absent from this discussion is the issue of distribution. In Woodward’s time, all you had to do to get attention to your story is publish it in a major national newspaper. That still works now to some degree, but people also have many more choices in their media consumption and the crowded news ecosystem needs more than just journalists, as I once wrote here: http://annatarkov.com/47544133

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  7. The problem with the Internet is that it dilutes everything. I think, for instance, that there’s a good deal about various Wikileaks disclosures that is actually more significant than Watergate. The problem is that these disclosures have principally come about online.

    And that is a problem. Essentially, the digital age is diminishing the narrow funnels of information that legacy media were and the megaphones that they could be when disseminating information. The Internet, in other words, is coming close to turning everything, including highly significant news, into white noise.

    I’m not defending legacy media at all, by the way. They have degenerated considerably over the years, starting well before the advent of the Internet.

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  8. “Seems” is used a lot in this post — Woodward seems to think this or seems to say that. Among the things that separate journalism from punditry is the abundant speculation in the latter. Journalists tend to seek clear, definitive answers to their questions. This post would have been far more compelling if the writer had sought out Woodward to clarify his statements.

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    1. I thought the exact same thing…”seems” to be going on a lot. And, egad, not even a word from Woodward. Furthmore…the hero Wikileaks is not Wikileaks. It’s Bradley Manning. Just like it was Mark Felt and Daniel Elsberg.

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  9. FRANK FEATHER Saturday, April 7, 2012

    You would not find Deep Throat on Twitter, or at least not get him to cough up publicly the inside scoop on a Watergate, in my view. You need on-the-ground face-to-face meeting in a super-quiet locale.

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