Up until The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy piece last September that broke new ground in the News Corp. phone hacking scandal, The Guardian was basically the only media outlet that had pushed the story forward. As its editor, Alan Rusbridger, described in a recent article for Newsweek, “There seemed to be some omertà principle at work that meant that not a single other national newspaper thought this could possibly be worth an inch of newsprint.”
Rusbridger wrote that he and his paper’s lead correspondent covering the scandal, Nick Davies, were feeling isolated and exposed:
Life was getting a bit lonely at The Guardian. Nick Davies had been alerted that [News International CEO Rebekah] Brooks had told colleagues that the story was going to end with “Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy.” “They would have destroyed us,” Davies said on a Guardian podcast last week. “If they could have done, they would have shut down The Guardian.”
It brings to mind another famous piece of investigative journalism: Watergate. As with phone hacking, it was a story that many felt had been resolved early on. It appeared as though the burglary of DNC headquarters was the result of a few rotten apples acting on their own. Nothing to see here.
As with The Guardian decades later, the Post kept pushing.
No one else in the press wanted to touch the Watergate story. (Please see the update and correction at the bottom of this column for additional information.) Much like Brooks’s alleged comments about Rusbridger, those who were the target of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting wanted to see them drummed out of the profession, and their paper punished. (Attorney General John Mitchell warned the paper that the publication of one particular story would see Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s “tit caught in a big fat wringer.”)
Those are the obvious parallels. Another similarity is that the Post and The Guardian each made errors during the course of their investigations. No, that’s not shocking. Errors are a byproduct of producing journalism. That maxim is even more true when it comes to complicated, difficult stories that stretch over months and years and work to reveal information that powerful forces seek to keep hidden.
When the stakes are this high, and the story goes on this long, you will get some things wrong. It’s almost about making the right mistakes. Put another way, it’s about avoiding the ones that can damage people and your credibility, or that arise as a result of carelessness or confirmation bias.
This reality was articulated by Philip Meyer in his book, The Vanishing Newspaper. He wrote that mistakes can sometimes—sometimes—be a valuable part of the process:
A newspaper with a zero level of factual errors is a newspaper that is missing deadline, taking too few risks, or both. The public, despite the alarms raised [in studies by the industry], does not expect newspapers to be perfect. Neither do most of the sources quoted in the paper. The problem is finding the right balance between speed and accuracy, between being comprehensive and being merely interesting.
To date, The Guardian has published at least seven corrections related to its phone hacking reporting. Its sister paper, The Observer, issued at least two. (These numbers are based on Nexis searches.)
During their Watergate reporting, Woodward and Bernstein committed two critical mistakes. The latter almost completely derailed their work. Their first mistake came on October 6, 1973 when they wrongly accused three men of receiving information resulting from illegal wiretaps placed in Democratic Party headquarters prior to the famous burglary.
Then, a story on October 25 of that same year almost booted the pair off the Watergate beat. It was by comparison a less egregious error: the duo had misattributed information. But that misattribution undermined their revelation that President Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, had controlled a large slush fund for the re-election committee. Here’s how I described the error in my 2007 book:
The story said that the proof of Haldeman’s involvement had come from grand jury testimony by Hugh Sloan Their error was that Sloan, though he had confirmed the fact privately, had not told the grand jury that Haldeman controlled the fund. The Post’s story was true, but this single error, which didn’t change the fact of Haldeman’s involvement, threatened to unravel all the good work they and their editors had done.
Though less damaging than the first error, it ended up being far more costly. It gave the president’s press secretary the opening he needed to go after the Post and get the rest of the media to press the paper for answers.
“I don’t respect the type of shabby journalism that is being practiced by the Washington Post,” Ron Ziegler told reporters.