What The Guardian Can Learn from Watergate Coverage

On the importance of making the “right” mistakes

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.

“It kind of underlined the whole thing and the fragility of where we were,” Post executive editor Ben Bradlee said later. “It was hard to win and easy to lose.”

That final sentence seems to encapsulate how Rusbridger was feeling last year when he decided to ring up Bill Keller of The New York Times in a bid to get that paper to take up the story.

Faced with an immediate crisis, Bradlee took a different tact. He knew he needed to voice support for his reporters or the entire Watergate story was likely to crumble.

He issued a simple statement to the press: “We stand by our story.” (I know, there is an eerie similarity to the a recent statement from James Murdoch regarding new accusations that he misled Parliament.)

In its pursuit of the phone hacking story, The Guardian managed to avoid mistakes of this nature until very recently. Its biggest misstep came with a report that alleged Murdoch’s The Sun obtained health information about the son of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown via medial records. The Guardian issued two apologies after the Sun vigorously denied the accusation and supplied enough evidence to back it up.

This mistake resulted in criticism of the paper. But the fact that the story wasn’t directly related to phone hacking at the News of the World probably spared the paper some serious backlash. The mistake also came at a time when the scandal had fully broken in the news and there was no doubt that The Guardian had uncovered important new (and outrageous) evidence with its reporting. It had enough cover to ride out any resulting storm.

Now that the police, parliament, and press are all (seemingly) fully engaged, The Guardian faces new risks with its reporting. The danger is that the confidence that comes from having broken this wide open will cause the paper to relax and stop preparing its work with kind of paranoia that emerges when you feel like a lone voice against powerful forces. That situation breeds a special kind of diligence and caution that can be unconsciously lost now that everyone has seen the light.

Even with the new level of publicity being applied to the story, the phone hacking reporting is now linked to The Guardian, much in the same way Watergate was linked with the Post. A slip by the paper could still damage the efforts to get the whole truth.

Rusbridger and Davies would do well to embrace those lonely, isolated feelings of last year while bathed in the warm glow of today’s spotlight.

Correction of the Week

“A report in the Nocturnalist column on Saturday misidentified the material used to create a puppet of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that made an appearance at an exhibition of Jim Henson’s work at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Muppets, in general, are made of fleece, foam, fake fur and fabric. A spokeswoman for The Jim Henson Company refused to be more specific about the materials used to make Muppet Mayor Bloomberg (Bluppet to his friends), saying, ‘We consider the ‘magic’ that goes into how we make our puppets as trade secrets and beyond the info I gave, we really can’t be more specific.’ What is known is that Bluppet is not made of felt.” — The New York Times

Bonus Archival Phone Hacking Correction

“THE graphic accompanying yesterday’s article, ‘Police to reopen phone hacking investigation as more witnesses emerge’ ( 9 September 2010), we wrongly stated that Les Hinton had died in 2009. We are aware that he is very much alive and is the CEO of Dow Jones Company Inc. We regret our error and apologise to him.” — The Independent (U.K.)

Update and Correction July 26, 2011: I struck the sentence “No one else in the press wanted to touch the Watergate story” from this column after hearing from W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University and an expert in media myths. He gave me permission to quote from an e-mail in which he notes that other media were on the Watergate story:

That’s part of the mythology of Watergate, that the Post was alone on the story for months. Alicia Shepard, in her book about Woodward and Bernstein, says (p. 58) that “there was more reporting going on [about Watergate] than is generally acknowledged.”

During the period June 17-December 31, 1972, WaPo ran 201 staff-written articles on Watergate, according to figures Shepard cites. The NYT carried 99 staff-written stories, LAT published 45 staff-written stories. WaPo may have been ahead (it was, after all, a Washington story), but it wasn’t alone.

LAT’s most memorable Watergate coups was its report, published October 5, 1972, that quoted at length Alfred C. Baldwin, a former FBI agent who monitored the bugs that had been planted in the DNC’s headquarters at the Watergate.

I would add to your short list about Woodward/Bernstein Watergate-related mistakes their ill-advised approach to federal grand jurors hearing Watergate-related testimony. As they discuss in their book, All the President’s Men, that scheme nearly landed them in jail, as I discuss here:

http://wp.me/pGR12-2gS

I’m grateful to him for pointing out my error.

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,