The news media are under siege from President Donald Trump, said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Bob Woodward at UCLA. “But we cannot get into a defensive posture,” he said. “We have to drain the emotions from what is going on and take the lesson of Danny Pearl: go back to the reporting and bring people closer and closer.”
Woodward delivered the 2018–19 Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Burkle Center for International Relations on April 4. Pearl was a talented journalist and the South Asia bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal at the time of his death in 2002, when he was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan. The annual lecture was cosponsored by the Burkle Center, the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Hillel at UCLA and the University Religious Conference.
The speaker was introduced by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his address was preceded by remarks by professor emeritus Judea Pearl, father of Daniel and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, and Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA.
“I worry,” said Woodward. “I worry that after two years, we have gone to sleep about the risks of the Trump presidency.” The veteran journalist said of Trump, “I think he is the most isolated of all the presidents that I have sought to understand.” He later added, “It’s a very dangerous world with a leader who does not think strategically and does not have a planning process.”
Woodward cautioned U.S. reporters to ignore the attacks of “fake news” and re-double foundational reporting: knocking on doors and tracking down things to see if they are true.
“It’s not what Trump says about us or what he does, it is the barriers that we erect within ourselves,” said Woodward. Rather than focus on being beleaguered, he urged journalists to “get into the job.”
“We need to sit back from the political food fight that is going on in Washington and do the reporting,” he commented. “We have to keep going, but we can’t get tangled in the emotions.”
Advice for journalists
Woodward offered journalists several pieces of advice. He quoted Marty Barron, current executive editor-in-chief of The Washington Post, as recently saying: “Journalists need to display modesty and humility and demonstrate that they are being fair. When we’ve done our work, we need to tell people what we have found without masking our findings or muddling them. We need to proceed in a way that builds confidence rather than destroys confidence.”
Woodward also reiterated the late Post owner Kathryn Graham’s warning to avoid pomposity and quoted novelist Graham Greene to the effect of: “Do not despise your enemies or the people who disagree with you — they have a case.”
The acclaimed journalist shared many observations from his own reporting experience. Several years ago, he realized that he had become lazy in his methods — for example, sending too many emails and meeting too many people for lunch. So Woodward said he again began calling and showing up at people’s homes without notice in the evening, which frequently led to productive interviews.
“You have to build trust with people,” he remarked. “And there is something about people’s homes.
“You have to be patient. You have to have time. You have to show people that you really care what they think,” he continued. “In my opinion, most people are secret sharers… they will even say things against their own interest.”
Woodward was honest about one of his own lessons. He recounted that he had always assumed that President Richard Nixon made a deal with Vice President Gerald Ford: Nixon would resign and Ford would become president if Ford would agree to pardon him.
Some 25 years later, Woodward conducted a series of interviews with Ford for a book (“Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate,” 2000) and learned the real truth.
Although such a deal had in fact been offered by Nixon, Ford had ignored the offer before Nixon resigned. In the end, Ford told Woodward, he pardoned Nixon because it was in the national interest, knowing that he would be attacked for his decision. “I was drowning in Nixon, the country was drowning in Nixon. I had to get him off the front page and into the history books,” Woodward quoted Ford as saying.
“What a cold shower,” said Woodward. “I was so sure in 1974 that this was corrupt. When you looked through the lens of history, it was the precise opposite: courage. How humiliating and humbling [it was] to learn that lesson. That lesson does not leave my head.”
“Ford,” he remarked, “turned out to be the most honest, direct politician I have ever dealt with in Washington.”
Now associate editor at The Washington Post, Woodward joined the paper as a reporter in 1971. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism: in 1973 with Carl Bernstein for their coverage of Watergate, and in 2003 for his work as lead reporter in the coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In addition to his reporting, Woodward has authored or co-authored 19 books, the most recent of which is “Fear: Trump in the White House.”