From Nixon to Trump: Washington Post alumnus Bob Levey says trustworthiness, communication changed journalism post Watergate

Bob Levey, former columnist for the Washington Post, said that the "blurred lines" between opinion and fact journalism create extra hurdles for today's journalists. Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh

Eduardo Acevedo, Contributing Writer

Bob Levey, a former Washington Post columnist who covered D.C. during the Watergate scandal, was the guest speaker for the final Robertson School Speaker Series of the semester, “From Nixon to Trump: Why our democracy needs strong journalism” on Thursday.

During his seminar at the University Student Commons, Levey discussed the similarities between the treatment of the press during the impeachment processes of Nixon, Clinton and Trump, as well as the effect of the internet and social media on journalism.

Here are some of the questions from professors, students and others who attended the lecture. The questions and Levey’s answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Do you think journalism today has more of a trustworthiness problem than it did during the Watergate days?

Way more. Part of the problem is the blurring of the line between opinion journalism and the fact journalism. Sometimes it’s hard — even for graybeards like me who really know how the cookie is built and crumbles — to determine which is which. If big news organizations are not going to take this distinction seriously, you won’t take it seriously. And that just leads to endless trouble.

It is a really difficult line to draw. But the line has to be drawn. It was drawn so sharply when I started in journalism. Not now. You can help that line survive by being careful about what you consume, where you consume it, how often you consume it and why you consume it.

You said that in the past three years, the White House has stopped holding press conferences. I was wondering if they started holding official press conferences again, would they still be beneficial?

I think they’d be very beneficial, because how else can you gather the acorns that you need to gather as a reporter? You can’t be a good squirrel as a reporter unless you can get information, and getting information means access. It means gathering acorns from as wide a field as possible. If you are covering the White House, and the White House will not ever submit to an open-ended question from you, everybody loses, including your readers.

Journalism just cannot stand up to the tests of objectivity and depth as well as it could if there were regular press conferences.

Bob Levey said since his first day at the Washington Post in 1967, the amount of women in the office has raised from four — to half of the staff.  Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh

In comparison to the past three years, will a new presidential administration make journalism normal again?

Well, it depends on who the next president is. And if you can tell me who that is, I’m going to be the greatest journalist in history. I can’t tell you that it’s gonna be, but I think it’ll go back to more normal, because I think the people understand that this is to their benefit. This is not just about making journalists happy, it’s about making you happy. You, the consumers of journalism.

I think there’s going to be a more regular series of press conferences. I think the next president will be available much more often than this one has been. This one is available for chunks of a minute and a half as he’s about to get on a helicopter where you can barely hear the guy. That is not quite what we’re used to. John F. Kennedy, who was president when I was a teenager, had a press conference every single week for his entire administration, as well as private interviews arranged through his staff in the Oval Office for individual reporters. It was part of the deal.

Will we go all the way back to that? I don’t know. I think it’ll depend on the person. But yes, we’re heading that way.

What is your best advice for students just starting out wanting to be an investigative reporter?

First and foremost, do not let anybody take your dream away from you. Of course, it’s going to be difficult out there. I will bet you right now that as hard as you may try, you’re not going to have one linear career with one newspaper for 53 years, the way I have. That should never deter you from pursuing this.

Pursue it. Be ready to work hard at it. Be ready to do more than one thing, and be ready to have a series of jobs — particularly in your 20s — that will lead you to a job that you’ve always wanted.

Do you think there’s a place for feminism in journalism?

Well, I think there’s a place for women, and the difference between when I started and today is astonishing. 

The day I walked into the Washington Post on Oct. 2, 1967, the staff was about 140 people and there were four women. How many of those four women do you think covered serious, big time, high production beats? Zero. Today, more than half of the staff is female. More than half the editing staff is female. The editor is a man and the two managing editors are men, but there has been previously a female managing editor, and there will certainly be an executive editor someday who is a woman. 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, more commonly referred to as ISIS, killed himself after being pursued by the United States Special Forces. The next day the Washington Post published an obituary, and within the headline referred to Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar.” The headline was changed after it sparked widespread criticism. How can readers trust established outlets like the Washington Post and The New York Times if they use more harsh words against the president than they do in writing about one of the world’s most evil terrorists? If you can concede that bias reporting takes place inside these established outlets, what would you say would be the best way to fix these problems?

The reason you should trust these newspapers is that they are willing to correct an error like this and did right away. We make mistakes, we make them all the time, we will always make them. The issue is whether we own up to them, and whether we really try to be balanced over a period of time, not just on one headline, not just on one story. I happen to agree that that original headline was way off the mark, but listen to what really happened there. You just said it. There was an elastic conversation between the editors and the consumers of that headline and guess what. It got changed. That is what we want in our press. That is what we have at big time journalism. It’s not what you have everywhere.

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