Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Journalist Woodward to talk on presidents

The Washington Post editor says he also will talk about the spin given White House stories.

Investigative journalist and author Bob Woodward has spent more than 25 years unearthing Washington's most wrenching scandals, and there's no sign he is about to run out of material.

Woodward, whose work from Watergate to Monicagate has made him the most famous newspaper reporter in the country, is scheduled to speak at 7 tonight at the University of South Florida's Special Events Center.

His topic, "Journalism in a Changing World," is wide-ranging, but Woodward, 56, said he expects to focus more on how presidents try to spin their stories and less on the whiz-bang technology that has created the race to "get it on the Web site by noon."

"What I'm going to talk about is the press and the presidency and the current campaign, and try to cover going from Watergate through Clinton and some of the things that have happened and what they might mean," Woodward said in a telephone interview last week. His speech, for which USF will pay $20,000, is free and open to the public.

As a young reporter with the Washington Post, Woodward and colleague Carl Bernstein broke the story of the Nixon administration's involvement in the burglary of the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and the ensuing coverup. As a result of their reporting, the Post won a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service in 1973.

Since then, he has risen to assistant managing editor at the Post and written or co-authored nine best-selling books, most recently Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.

In Shadow, Woodward contends that Watergate forever changed the presidency by introducing tough new ethics laws and inspiring more aggressive scrutiny from Congress, the media and prosecutors. But he said presidents since Nixon did not see that they could no longer engage in the traditional "deception and hedging" and paid for it.

"These presidents were inhabiting a new world, but they often seemed not to recognize it," he writes of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

With last year's publication of Shadow, Woodward is looking for the subject of his next book. He's recently spent some time in Iowa interviewing presidential candidates.

Whatever the story, though, "there's a public version and a more real version," Woodward said. "Is there always something hidden? Not always, but often, often enough."

At times, his methods of getting and presenting anecdotes about what really happened have been controversial. In Shadow, for instance, Woodward's account of a private conversation between Clinton and his attorney has prompted critics to question where he got his information and how he could publish exact quotes from a discussion that he did not witness himself.

In daily journalism as well, some newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, do not generally attribute information to unnamed sources or people who speak on the condition that their names not be revealed.

Woodward, however, describes himself as a "passionate advocate of the use of unnamed sources _ if it is done very carefully with corroboration and with a full effort to make sure the people you're writing about have an opportunity to rebut (and) offer contrary information."

"I understand the reluctance to use unnamed sources," he added. "It gives the reporter and the news organization a triple burden."

But, he said, in important public matters, "it's the information that's important. Good, accurate information has power," and reporters should try to verify it through multiple sources or cajole reluctant sources to go on the record when the story is important enough.

Andrew Barnes, the editor, chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times, said he would not sanction the use of unnamed sources except in rare and serious cases. Barnes said any story where readers cannot evaluate the source of information for themselves is weakened by that gap, so he could see using such sources "only if it were terribly important and you had huge trust in the reporter, and the senior-most editors knew exactly what was going on."

"It could happen," he said. "It would not be done idly."

Of course, Bob Woodward and Andrew Barnes have not always been on the same page at the same time, as the following story illustrates:

Just after he got out of the Navy, Woodward persuaded editors at the Washington Post to give him an unpaid, two-week reporting tryout. Barnes, then a deputy metro editor at the Post, was his supervisor.

"He was terrific to me, and he let me write a dozen stories, none of which they published," Woodward recalled. Barnes and the newspaper's metro editor cut Woodward loose. As former Post publisher Katharine Graham recounts in her memoir, at the end of the tryout "Barnes confidently declared that Woodward was a bright and good guy, but lacked the skills needed for being a newspaperman _ in short, was hopeless, and would be too much trouble to train."

Barnes did help Woodward get a job at a small paper in Maryland, a job that led to his being hired at the Post in 1971.

"Basically, he was a fresh young naval officer who was energetic and didn't know anything," Barnes said. Today, the episode is something he can laugh about, volunteering Graham's unflattering account of the matter himself. He doesn't remember any of the stories Woodward wrote during his tryout, but said, "I'm not in the business of throwing away publishable stories, so they must have been bad."

Now, nearly 30 years later, Woodward remains sympathetic to the plight of the inexperienced reporter. As part of his visit, he will spend an hour at the USF student newspaper, the Oracle. Editor-in-chief Joe Humphrey said his staff members, a mix of journalism and political science majors, aren't quite sure how they will hear Woodward speak and put out the paper that night, but are thrilled to meet him. So thrilled, Humphrey said, "We're thinking of cleaning up the newsroom."

_ Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or