In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, five men were arrested trying to burglarize the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Complex in Washington D.C. The arresting detectives found money and wiretapping equipment.
The next morning, the five men were arraigned in district court. In the courtroom that day was a young reporter for the Washington Post named Bob Woodward.
Woodward had only worked for the Post for a few months. Mostly, he had been reporting on the cleanliness of local restaurants and due to his reporting, several had been closed down.
The judge in the case asked each of the five accused to identify themselves for the record. As Woodward listened to the five men, he heard that one, James McCord, had previously worked for the CIA. That piqued his interest. Perhaps, he thought, there was a story here.
For the next 22 months, Woodward and Post reporter Carl Bernstein, followed every lead, worked every source, asked hard questions, and questioned every answer. Largely because of their work, President Richard M. Nixon resigned office in August 1974.
There is no doubt that what Woodward and Bernstein did was extraordinary. But the world has changed greatly in the last 44 years.
Today, news spreads around the globe in seconds. Social media provides an avenue for instant news. Evidence is revealed in posts and tweets, judgments are made, guilt is seemingly determined by popular response.
In 1974, there were limited forums for information. We had to trust Walter Cronkite, Woodward and Bernstein, and David Brinkley. Today, media is ubiquitous and highly partisan.
The ubiquity of media has made it vulnerable to hijacking. Misinformation spreads quickly and is targeted to audiences that are likely to believe it because their data, taken without permission, is being analyzed and marketed to. It’s no mistake that polls show that many Americans do not trust the media. It’s intentional.
So we are faced with a responsibility to be our own investigative reporters. That’s right, in 2018 we have to become our own versions of Woodward and Bernstein.
Approach all news headlines with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t rush to judgment. Give news stories a chance to age. Time, even in today’s fast rush to publish, usually brings out the truth.
In the early days, Woodward and Bernstein had an agreement that they wouldn’t publish anything until they had two independent sources on a fact. Touring recently to promote his new book, Woodward said that the idea of two sources on every fact is a lost methodology. He also said it was what was wrong with reporting today.
So if the reporters can’t do it, we have to. For every story, try to find collaborating sources online. Snopes is a good resource that seems objective. You may not like what they discover, but it is important to know. Don’t trust memes or conspiracy theories; get the facts as best you can. Investigate. Reach a decision based on your sources.
And who knows? Maybe we did land on the moon after all.*
*If you’re not sure, please consider this photo of the Apollo 17 landing site taken from space.