The Observer sat down the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author of Watergate fame to discuss Jumboleaks, the role of the media, and what it takes to be a journalist today.
Observer: Today, technology is fundamentally changing the dissemination of news around the world, exampled by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. Do you think this change is for the best?
Woodward: Well, it’s there, whether it’s good or not. You can’t avoid it. It drives a lot, but I don’t think it’s that important. Wikileaks, for instance: it’s a lot of information, and somebody said in the New York Times that these documents will tell you the most important decisions that are being made in government. That’s BS. Not so. Those documents are mid-level classified documents that rarely get to the White House and have very little standing in the White House.
O: Recently, the Tufts community was rocked by something called Jumboleaks, a WikiLeaks-inspired exposé of past Tufts investment records…
BW: What did it show?
O: It didn’t show any direct investments Tufts made, but it showed that some controversial corporations were receiving Tufts investment money indirectly.
BW: Like Madoff?
O: We had money with him, but this document included Monsanto, which many were upset about.
BW: I’m all for transparency and I think people should know whom Tufts invests in and with. It’s a matter of interest to the whole community. Did the university try to stop it?
O: The university prefers to keep those documents confidential.
BW: Well, the White House prefers to keep documents I quote from in Obama’s Wars confidential, too. We have a thing called the First Amendment. In 1974 the Supreme Court said there’s no prior restraint; they can’t stop us from publishing these things. So we have a really wonderful capacity to explain what’s going on behind the scenes. But we must be careful with that power, we must be responsible.
O: In that vein, it’s my opinion that one of the reasons for why WikiLeaks and the general trend towards open information is happening is because news reporting is so polarized, so popularized. Do you think, as a general concept, journalistic integrity still stands?
BW: There’s always been polarization in politics. I started during Nixon and there was serious polarization. So, it may drive the ability for these WikiLeaks-type people to get documents. I think the question of journalistic integrity is that you just don’t publish these things wholesale. If you publish them, you vet them if they name confidential sources or operations, check with the government and listen to their arguments (they may hold water, they may not). You don’t want to get people killed by publishing documents like this. I think the New York Times to a certain extent educated the WikiLeaks people, so they’ve been more careful in vetting these documents.
O: Do you think your investigative style, that is, journalism based on deep investigations and anonymity, would be possible if you had started your career today?
BW: Sure. It’s a matter of time. Going back to people. Developing sources, getting the documents, going to the scene and observing for yourself, to see what’s going on. I think it’s still possible now; you just have to get someone to pay you to do it.
O: What advice do you have for journalists starting out today?
BW: It’s a great job. If somebody came from Mars and spent time in the United States and went back and were asked who are the people with the best jobs, they’d say the media. You make momentary entries into people’s lives when they’re the most interesting and you get out when they cease to be interesting. The second thought I have is learn that if you work 20% harder you can double the quality of your work, and if you work 40% you can maybe triple the quality of your work. The third point is that always remember in every story you get information from three sources: human beings; documents of some kind, books, things on the internet that you can confirm; and then personal observation, going to the scene yourself and observing. I think there are always going to be journalists.
O: Do you have any advice for graduating seniors?
BW: Develop a BS detector.