From Watergate to Birtherism

Woodward, Bernstein and Redford ponder the Trump experience

By Richard Whittaker, 6:00PM, Sun. Apr. 24, 2011

Woodward: "I was not curious enough" about Bush's WMD claims in Iraq
Photo by Richard Whittaker

Thursday was a busy day for Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Robert Redford. The trio behind All The President's Men launched a whirlwind tour of the UT Campus, and a series of discussions about the burdens of truth and timeliness in journalism. But Bernstein seemed most distracted by one man: Donald Trump.

Or rather, he was distracted by the distraction that Trump is causing. The man, his musings about running for the presidency and his new-found birtherism, Bernstein said, was feeding the media's desperate hunger for "manufactured controversy, which is the scourge of our time. … The most important thing that a journalist does is to decide what is news," and when it came to Trump it seems a lot of his peers are doing a pretty lousy job.

Bernstein has a point. Think of every column inch or broadcast segment dedicated to Trump or Charlie Sheen over the last six months. Imagine a world where that same time and space was given over to the Senate committee report ripping Wall Street apart for the 2008 financial collapse. Or the ongoing investigation into the Stryker Brigade's war crimes scandal. Heard about this? Probably not. Why not? Lady Gaga was probably in an egg that day.

For Redford, a comment like that is probably not suited for news reporting, but instead should be column fodder. Bernstein argued that reporters should not waste their time giving too much time and credence to gibberish: For example, when Trump repeats the regularly disproved birther myth, it is OK to report that he said it. Just mention in the second paragraph that what he said is nonsense. Redford disagreed, arguing that a reporter should lay out the evidence and let that do the talking. He added, "If you say, 'this is nonsense' in the second paragraph, it seems to me that should go in an op-ed." As for the latest publicity campaign for the casino king, Redford said, "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about Trump."

What about the third member of the group? "[Trump] is a fact in that he exists," Woodward said. When it comes to the four-time corporate bankruptee's new dose of birtherism, "It's a fact that he said it, but he has no facts beyond his assertion."

Yet Trump is a symptom of a general problem: Too much news coverage is personality-driven. When Harry Shearer was in Austin recently to screen his Hurricane Katrina disaster doc The Big Uneasy, he had his own criticism of news gathering. When apportioning blame or establishing culpability, he said, "We tend to ignore the importance of structure and institutions."

When asked what he thought about Shearer's comment, Woodward tied the people and the structure together. He said, "In the White House, the president picks his staff and who he's going to listen to." Case in point: Earlier last week he was at the Nixon presidential museum in San Clemente, listening to the famous Oval Office tapes. He said, "You'd get all these people, like Ron Ziegler, his press secretary, who were saying, 'Oh, we don't need to worry about the accusations of John Dean. We'll appoint a new attorney general and it will be a master stroke."

He added, "Structurally, a president needs to make sure that he gets independent, experienced advice. Not a young guy that worked at Disneyland like Ziegler did. Someone who has really seen business, seen government, has some wear on the tires. In the case of lots of these people, presidents just pick political people and deprive themselves of the serious advice that, institutionally, the president needs."

The irony is that Woodward has, by his own admission, suffered from that same sin. The consummate DC insider and Beltway survivor fell completely for the White House spin on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (and as recently as last November was still blaming Colin Powell for not flagging the play better.) In a moment of major self-reflection, he admitted that he "failed miserably" when it came to the mythical 'smoking gun.' "I was not curious enough," he said.

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