Advice from Bob Woodward

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I got a chance to hear Bob Woodward speak this past week at Elon University. He talked, quite humorously, about the campaign and the books he’s written about various presidents. He talked about Watergate. I wonder if he tires of that?

He also talked about journalism. As I was sitting there listening, I was thinking is there anyone better to learn from than Bob Woodward? I wanted to pass some of his knowledge on to you.

 “Learn to shut up.”

Woodward says he digs one of his nails into the side of his finger to remind himself not to interrupt or interject when he’s interviewing someone.

He lets “the silence bring out the truth.”

He told a story of interviewing President Obama and how the President offered up “what bothers him the most,” while they were sitting in silence.

My personal thoughts on the subject: There’s no reason for you, as the reporter, to say “right”…”I see”…”ok”…just because you want to fill the silence. Learn from Woodward and learn to shut up.

Learn to see past the BS

Woodward  told a story about interviewing Bill Clinton and how Clinton “doesn’t blink.” He explained how Clinton made him feel during an interview. He was going along thinking he was getting fabulous quotes. Then he got home, looked at the transcript and noticed it was mush.

I couldn’t help but think “been there!”

This happens to me a lot with experienced coaches. They are so good at the game that you don’t realize they are feeding you BS. I learned a lot from Woodward from this story about Clinton.

This goes back to listening. Are you really listening when you are interviewing someone? What are the REALLY saying?

“Never? Don’t ever tell me never.”

Woodward told the story of working on the Watergate story and a meeting he had with Katharine Graham, the Publisher of the Washington Post at the time.

She wanted to know when the truth of the story was going to come out…when the paper would be proven correct. He told her probably “never.” She looked at him and said “Never? Don’t ever tell me never.” The Washington Post is planning to put that quote up in the newsroom now.

Woodward said he left that meeting motivated.

I’m sure you have had a story (and if you haven’t you will) where you feel the answer is never. It’s probably best to not use the word.

Mistakes

Woodward talked about making mistakes in stories. Not really of the fact error variety, more on the lines of perception going in and thinking something means something when it really does not.

He used the example of Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon. He said it always felt like the perfect “corrupt ending to the perfect corrupt story.”

He interviewed Ford 25 years later and realized it was much deeper and much different than that.

He said “neutral inquiry” is very important. It gives you pause and lets you step back and look at what is really going on. Said there’s not enough of that in today’s journalism.

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