Oct. 4, 2007
By Michelle Davey | Photo by Rick Fatica
You are an editor for The Washington Post in the mid-1970s. A couple of your reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, broke and are continuing to cover the Watergate scandal. Woodward tells you he received a call from Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell. She explained that her husband has moved out of their apartment, but he left several important papers behind. Martha Mitchell invites Woodward and Bernstein over to take a look. What do you advise the reporters to do?
This is the first of several questions Bob Woodward challenged Scripps journalism students to answer during a communication law class on Wednesday.
Before Woodward's entrance, Visiting Professional Mark Tatge, the course's instructor, encouraged the students to ask him tough questions. ("Grill him! Make him feel uncomfortable!" Tatge said.)
But it was clear that Woodward, who earned a standing ovation from the more than 80 students and faculty in attendance, would be the one grilling -- at least initially. (Read students' questions for Woodward.)
A student in the front row responded to the first query quickly, saying he would advise Woodward to go and get the papers.
Imagine you're John Mitchell, Woodward said. How would you feel about this offer by your wife?
"I wouldn't like it, but I'm sure I would've treated her better," the student replied, earning laughter from the class.
Another student suggests asking Martha Mitchell to send the papers so the reporters could avoid legal issues that might arise from entering the house.
But she might change her mind, Woodward points out. The reporters must act quickly.
Another student expresses concern over Martha Mitchell's right to offer up her husband's property.
Lawyers for The Post had told Woodward and Bernstein that John Mitchell essentially abandoned the apartment and that the papers he left behind are the equivalent of garbage he might leave on the street.
Finally, Woodward explains what actually happened. He and Bernstein go to the Mitchell home and take the papers from John Mitchell's office. The secrets of the Watergate scandal are not there, but there is newsworthy information, including personal notes later used for debriefings in the Watergate trial.
The reporters begin writing stories based on the information. The source is not named, but instead is attributed to "documents obtained by The Washington Post." After they've run a few stories, John Mitchell's lawyer calls Woodward and says he knows Martha gave him the papers. He tells the reporter he wants the papers on his desk by 3 p.m. If Woodward doesn't comply, the lawyer says, he'll go to Judge John Sirica and ask to have the reporters held in contempt until they release the documents. The lawyer appeals to Woodward to be a "fair man" and return the papers.
"What would you do?" Woodward asks the students.
A student near the back says she would photocopy the documents and send the originals to the lawyer.
"Why?" Woodward asks.
"He never said you couldn't photocopy them," the student replies.
Another student suggests the same route, but says he'd call his lawyer first. Woodward nods and asks the class members how many of them would talk to their lawyer before acting. Most raise their hands.
Woodward admits he didn't talk to his lawyer and asks the students why not.
One says the lawyer would have advised Woodward to do something he didn't want to do, like give up the documents without photocopying them.
Woodward agrees, but explains there is a deeper issue. Because the reporters got the documents from Mitchell's angry wife, they were worried the source would not look credible to readers. They did not want Mitchell's lawyer taking the issue public. Also, the lawyer needed the documents for the Watergate trial, which would decide Mitchell's liberty. Without the documents, the lawyer would not know what was in them, and it would not be a fair trial. Woodward explained he did not want to be responsible for John Mitchell getting off on a technicality.
Woodward said situations like this -- requiring decisions on fairness and legal matters -- are not unique.
"It happens a lot," he said, "and you have to make decisions."
Michelle Davey is a student in the communication law class in which Woodward spoke.