Virginia Press Association

Woodward says there is a ‘war on truth,’ discusses new book at VCU

By William Lineberry
Virginia Press Association

It was the middle of reporting on Watergate. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were both growing cynical and unsure if the whole story would ever come out and even less sure if people would believe it when and if it did come out.

Woodward’s publisher at the Washington Post, the infamous and legendary Katharine Graham, prodded him on Watergate, “When is the truth going to spill out?”

A frustrated and 29-year-old Woodward snapped back and said, “Never.” Graham’s response cut him down. “Never. Don’t you ever tell me never.”

This wasn’t a threat, Woodward said. It was more of a “statement of purpose.” And with a laugh, he said he left the meeting, “a very motivated” reporter.

This was one of many newsroom anecdotes that Woodward shared with a packed 500-person auditorium at Virginia Commonwealth University earlier this week on a stop to promote his latest book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.” In his 45-minute long talk “Truth, Freedom of Expression, Democracy and the Age of the American Presidency,” Woodward discussed many subjects and ideas.

One overarching theme was that there is a “war on truth” currently playing out across the country and that anything that can be done to end this war should be done.

“You have to deal with truth,” Woodward said. “It is the foundation of everything [we as a society] do. It is what we base our debates on.”

Woodward went on to say that he believes the current attacks against the media are largely based on people’s ambivalence toward the truth.

“Fake news is just a way of saying ‘I don’t like things,” he said.

Another theme in Woodward’s talk was, “beware the demon pomposity.” This quote also came from Woodward’s publisher, Graham. Graham, in a letter, told Woodward this after the Watergate reporting was beginning to win national awards and the Nixon presidency had been ended thanks to the Post’s reporting.

Woodward also shared some scenes from “Fear,” that he said he had never before experienced in reporting on a president.

One incident that stuck out the most to Woodward, he said, was the widely reported incident of a cabinet member Gary Cohn physically removing papers from the president’s desk to snuff out a potential trading disaster with South Korea. The other instance Woodward said he had never encountered when writing about a president dealt with the mock interrogation that President Trump’s attorney John Dowd set up. The interview was set up to see if President Trump could withstand interrogation from the special counsel.

A few minutes into the mock interrogation, it became clear that Trump was “incapable of telling the truth,” littering his responses to Dowd with lies and incorrect statements.

“You’re not capable of telling the truth,” Dowd said, according to Woodward.

Woodward used this scene to illustrate, again, the necessity of “dealing in truth.”

Woodward’s critique did not end with Washington politicians and the Trump administration. He also offered his criticism on the news media, which he said has become too comfortable as a political entity and whose reporters have largely abandoned the practice of going out to meet sources.

“We have become willful members of the political dynamic rather than try to call it down the middle, trying to deal with facts,” he said.

What spurred this thought was a recent conversation Woodward said he had with a Republican senator. The senator said Woodward shouldn’t worry about the future of the news media because it was “another form of politics” and would therefore assumed a degree of immunity he was not factoring in.

From that point, Woodward went on and said reporters need to meet people in person–not over the phone and not in text messages—and shut up.

“We’re not showing up,” Woodward continued. “We’re sitting around doing our work on the internet. You’ve got to meet people. You’ve got to go out.”

Concluding his talk, Woodward said American politics are in flux right now because the “old order” is being replaced by a “new order.” When President Trump called Woodward after the publication of “Fear,” this idea came up, Woodward said.

“I said, ‘We’re at a pivotal point in history,’” Woodward said. “And he [President Trump] says, ‘Right. We’re at a pivotal point in history.’”

Photo by Joe Mahoney | Richmond Times-Dispatch

Photo by Joe Mahoney | Richmond Times-Dispatch

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *