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Woodward and Bernstein, Living Legends Who Broke Watergate, Wow Audiences at FAU

Speaking at the Boca and Jupiter campuses, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists said they are wary about how journalism has changed in the half-century since Watergate and warned about the lack of consensus in what constitutes truth in 2024 America.

Courtesy: FAU News Desk

By Sage West | MediaLab@FAU

Feb 9, 2024

At a moment when political contentiousness is reaching new heights and many Americans are anxiously anticipating another Trump-Biden dust-up in November, famed Watergate journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein regaled and entertained audiences at Florida Atlantic University this week. 

They also had some advice for young journalists in today’s complicated media landscape. The problem, they say, is the lack of consensus on basic truths in today’s choose-your-own-narrative journalistic environment.

“We have a totally different journalistic landscape just as we have a different cultural and political landscape today than we did half a century ago,” said Bernstein, responding to a question from moderator David Aronberg, the Palm Beach County State Attorney. “You've identified a great cultural shift that has taken place in this country and around the world. People are looking for information to reinforce what they already believe, their already-held political, social, religious beliefs… It means that there can be no consensus about what the truth actually is.”

"People like to tell the truth,” Bernstein said. “If anything has marked our experience, it is the ability to meet and talk with people who want to tell the truth.”

The two celebrated reporters who broke the Watergate scandal half a century ago – both Pulitzer Prize winners and the authors of numerous books – visited FAU on Feb. 8-9 for two days of well-attended talks to share reflections on their coverage of President Richard Nixon and the dramatically different political climate that journalists find themselves in today. The event was hosted by the university’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which offers courses and events to the wider community. 

"There is no curatorial consensus about what is good journalism,” Bernstein said. “There needs to be a curatorial consensus…in which people know, who are readers, who are viewers, that information has met a certain standard.”

Although their participation in breaking the Watergate scandal would eventually amount to historic levels of journalistic success, the two began the conversation reflecting on the challenges they faced as young journalists just trying to find a story. 

"We got a lot of doors slammed in our faces, but we got some doors open," said Bernstein. “I think that editors love great stories, and this was obviously a great and important story. Ben Bradlee, the wonderful editor of the Washington Post, understood its dimensions and wanted to make sure that we got that story and that we at the Washington Post got it right. And I would like to think that remains one of the constants in our journalism today.” 

The media landscape is something Woodward and Bernstein addressed significantly in their discussion, examining the many ways it has deviated since Watergate in the early ‘70s and sharing critical feelings surrounding the democratic process today.

Unabashedly expressing his disapproval of the actions of former President Trump and the Republican party, Bernstein compared him to Nixon, saying, “The system worked in Watergate, and it's not working in terms of holding a criminal president accountable in the United States.” 

"We're looking at a system that has now become dominated by the personality, and by the authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump, and by his own cult of personality, and his disconcern for the welfare of the people of the country," he said, eliciting applause from the audience.

Woodward also remained critical of Trump's motivations and shared concern for the future of United States citizens should he become re-elected in November. 

"His actions are not about the people; his actions are about himself," said Woodward regarding Trump. 

This led to a discussion about the flaws within both political and journalistic fields, which Woodward and Bernstein hope can change in the near future. 

The solution, they said, lies in setting standards.

"We need to look inward in our business [journalism]. I think there are some reforms that we could undertake, Woodward said. "We should come out in our business and say, ‘these are our standards, we are going to live by them, we are not going to publish or broadcast things that do not meet those standards.’” 

Despite their concerns, Woodward remains hopeful about the future of truth in journalism and argues that it can be found if journalists “just show up.”

“People are going to say no, but it's the yesses that count,” he said.

This sense of hope is seemingly contagious as many young journalists are left inspired and filled with gratitude following the opportunity to hear firsthand from the journalists they once learned about in school.

A few young journalists in the audience were inspired and filled with gratitude following the opportunity to hear firsthand from the storied journalists they learned about in school.

"It was such an amazing experience because these are two legends of journalism,” said Elisabeth Gaffney, a journalism major and the managing editor of the University Press, FAU’s student newspaper.  “The fact that they came here and talked to us not only tied in Watergate to the current election cycle but also what we went through with Trump.”

Added Sofia De La Espriella, the paper's news editor: “What we learn is what they did. The whole experience was like a dream come true.”

UP Managing Editor Elisabeth Gaffney, UP News Editor Sofia De La Espriella and UP Editor-in Chief Jessica Abramsky met with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward at FAU on Feb. 8. (Photo by Roberto Santiago / Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.)

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