Garcia: Watergate reporters’ chronicle one of fame and fortune 

Heroic is hardly a word one would use to describe the state of American journalism, not in an age of instant blogs, majestic mistakes, talking heads and celebrity gossip that passes as real news.

But the term had real value and meaning once, and that is why there is a generation of reporters who credit their decision to go into the news gathering business for one primary reason: Watergate.

Now, more than three decades after the story that brought down an American president came out, the tale of the two Washington Post reporters who broke it has finally been captured in an insightful, detailed and well-written book. And for those of us who became journalists largely because of the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it seems amazing that it has taken so long for their account to surface.

I couldn’t be more pleased that the author of "Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate" is none other than Alicia Shepard, a talented journalist who was a former colleague of mine in the mid-80s at the San Jose Mercury News.

The Mercury was at the time stockpiling young, ambitious writers in its effort — mostly successful — to become one of the better papers in the country. It was a matter of time before other news organizations started plucking the talent off, and Shepard went on to be a senior writer for the American Journalism Review, doing lengthy, crisp accounts of some of the bigger issues facing the profession.

It ultimately led her to do a long story about Woodward and Bernstein and their use of the best-known anonymous source in U.S. history — Deep Throat, which became the genesis of her four-year journey doing the book. Shepard, who is in the Bay Area on a book tour, told me she moved to Austin, Texas, to do research on the book — Woodward and Bernstein sold their papers to the University of Texas for a whopping $5 million in 2002.

"What other journalists in America could command that kind of money?" she told me. "I found that what I wanted to do is tell what happened to them after Watergate and the book mostly focused on the concept of early fame."

By the time "All the President’s Men" came out in 1975, "Woodstein," as they came to be known, were the most celebrated journalists in the country, having the kind of fame and money (from the book and film rights) usually reserved for the stars who played them in the film — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Shepard says the spotlight inevitably changed them, and after they finished their second book, "The Final Days" (which, by the way, was nearly universally panned) the two reporters thought to be joined at the hip were barely speaking to each other.

"Bernstein had a much more difficult time," Shepard said. "Woodward fared much better because he’s the more grounded of the two. But they had similar trajectories after Watergate, each having incredible success and then stumbling and falling."

Bernstein, ever restless, quit the Post late in 1976 to go write a book about his parents, and then three years after that he joined ABC News as chief of its WhiteHouse bureau. It was viewed as something of a headline hire by ABC chief Roone Arledge, but it was a coup that failed. Bernstein, talented but disorganized, had no management or television background and he was suddenly charged with running a bureau of 300 people.

"He was totally unsuited for the job," Shepard said. "And his inability to focus on things resulted in his failure to complete a number of projects."

I’ll say. Bernstein inked a deal to write a book on Hillary Clinton in 1999 and it has still hasn’t been completed. It’s one case where the delay may have helped him. If she runs for president as expected this year, he should have some opening chapter.

Woodward, a prodigious writer, has done 11 books since Watergate. But before embarking on his publishing career he became Metro editor at the Post and oversaw the story written by Janet Cook, a journalist who penned an unbelievable tale of a young drug addict who won the Pulitzer Prize. It turns out the tale truly was unbelievable — it was made up — and the Post had to return the Pulitzer. Woodward, who was being groomed as a possible successor to the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, had his career sidetracked, but he recovered.

"Woodward and Bernstein have become historical figures, as much a part of the Watergate story as any of the people they reported on,’’ Shepard writes in the book.

That’s the truth — something journalists know is never easily obtained.

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Ken Garcia

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