The Bob Woodward School of Journalism

On Sunday’s episode of NBC‘s Chris Matthews Show (4/3/11), the panel actually talked about criticism of the mainstream media, with some citing the media’s Iraq War debacle as a major factor in the rise of blogosphere-based media criticism.

The discussion got somewhat confused along the way, as this segued into a discussion of the entirely unrelated phenomenon of Republican political candidates who do not like to speak to journalists.

Then the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward weighed in with a solution. He explained that you can get in good with politicians–I mean, do investigative journalism–if you follow his simple advice: Tell your subjects exactly what you’re going to ask them ahead of time, giving them time to come up with answers, and then print their answers.

WOODWARD: I think the survival of the so-called mainstream media has to do with quality. And if you assemble a bunch of questions and go to a candidate and say, “Look, I’m serious. I really want to ask about this,” and you take them as seriously as they take themselves–and believe me, they all take themselves seriously.


WOODWARD: And you’ve done your homework, they–and you’re fair-minded and neutral, they are going to engage. When I’ve done these books on Bush and Obama, I send in–I hate to disclose trade craft here–20-page memos saying, this is what I want to ask about.


WOODWARD: People say, well, you’re telling them–you’re tipping them off. And I say, yes. I want them to do some homework themselves. I want them to be fully engaged. And I think you can do that with lots of work. And–but if it’s just we like to come in and chat about the news of the day, we’ll get stiffed.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, they don’t need–it’s too wild, it’s too crazy.


Today the Washington Post published a tribute to David Broder that featured a few former politicians recalling how Broder was remarkably interested in talking to them. All agreed that Broder was the kind of reporter who wanted to know what they were thinking.

That’s a great way to make friends with powerful people. Whether it produces good journalism is another matter entirely. The same can be said of Woodward’s advice, which is particularly strange coming after a discussion of the media’s Iraq failures. Getting too close to official sources was exactly the problem then; it’s unlikely to be the key to the corporate media’s “survival.” But it’s worked wonders for Bob Woodward.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.