About a year ago I wrote: Anatomy of a Twitter Screw-up: My Own. It was a post about a serious error I made on Twitter, linking two things that had no connection and thereby suggesting that someone did something he did not do. Since then, I haven’t screwed up like that.

Until last week: April 4th.

It started with this report in the Washington Post by Dan Zak: Woodward and Bernstein: Could the Web generation uncover a Watergate-type scandal? Zak’s article is about a panel discussion at the American Society of News Editors, which was titled: Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age? On the panel were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, among others. Woodward told of a class of college students at Yale who were asked to write papers on a similar theme. The instructor sent Woodward the papers and asked if he could read them and talk to the students on speakerphone:

“So I got them on a Sunday, and I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there.’ ”

“This is Yale,” Bernstein said gravely.

“That somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events,” Woodward said. “And they went on to say the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed, and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate.”

A small ballroom of journalists — which included The Washington Post’s top brass, past and present — chuckled or scoffed at the scenario.

When I read that I immediately doubted it, especially this part: The students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there.’” It just seemed… off to me. I have been teaching the born-on-the-web generation for a while now. It’s true that their knowledge of American history can sometimes be alarmingly thin, but among those with an interest in journalism I have not encountered an attitude like: “investigative reporting equals looking things up on the Internet.” I thought Woodward had taken some naive stuff the students had written and made it sound worse than it was, in “these kids today…” fashion.

So I expressed myself in a short Facebook posting, which included the link to Dan Zak’s story. This is what it said:

I don’t even believe this anecdote about moronic Yale students that Bob Woodward used to illustrate how clueless young people are today about journalism. It sounds made-up or very, very distorted from something one of them wrote.

Now that is something I should not have posted. I should not have typed it into that little “Update Status” box. Once I typed it, my internal editor should have started flashing and beeping until I changed it or killed it. Because it sounds like I’m saying he made up the whole thing, as if the Yale incident never happened. That’s bad. 

Over the weekend I was contacted by Micah Sifry, co-founder of techpresident.com and someone I know from many a conference. (We both study the Internet and we’re friends.) He explained to me that he too was struck by the story about Yale students and wondered if it happened that way, or got distorted somehow in the telling. He decided to do a post at techpresident about it. So he contacted Woodward to ask him for clarification. Woodward read him some quotes from the students’ papers that, according to Sifry, did indeed suggest extreme naïveté about what it takes to investigate a story like Watergate, as well as a breezy over-confidence in the Internet’s powers.

The part that had jumped out at me… Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there…. was not among the quotes Woodward read to Sifry. But he said there were sentiments that came pretty close to that. He also revealed a screw-up of his own. This is from the techpresident site:

For a few minutes earlier today, a draft post that I am still working on was accidentally published on this site. The draft was tentatively titled, “Did Bob Woodward Make Up His Anti-Yale Internet Story?” and was on the question raised earlier this week by Woodward at the American Society of Newspaper Editors, about how Watergate might have unfolded differently if the Internet had existed then. I have egg on my face, since the story was not finished when it was accidentally published, and I was in the process of tracking down various participants for their comments. I could blame Drupal for reverting to a default setting after I made a small change in the draft, but that would be bogus. I messed up.

One of those participants was me. He needed to contact me because he had used my Facebook post (“I don’t even believe this anecdote…”) in his draft, which was mistakenly published before it was done. Woodward had seen it. And Woodward was livid about what I’d said, to the point where he told Sifry that he thought I should resign from NYU. Sifry’s finished post is now published. You can read it–including Woodward’s comments about me–here. Sifry also got in touch with the instructor in the Yale class, Steve Brill. He backed Woodward’s account. 

Patrick Hogan, a young journalist at the Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was one of those who commented at my Facebook page. He wrote:

I’d like to hear from some of these Yale students to find out if their papers did in fact just amount to “Google ‘Nixon’s secret fund.'”

Patrick Hogan had it right. I was wrong. The way he put it is the way I should have put it. I had a visceral reaction to that quote… you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there… but that’s exactly why I should have waited to post my comment: so I could examine it with a cooler eye. And that’s what it was: a comment (38 words) not an attempt to report on the episode.

Still, I have 8,000+ subscribers on Facebook. I knew I was commenting publicly. I teach journalism and I study the Internet. I know a lot about how to avoid these things. That of course makes it worse. So there won’t be any “In my own defense…” paragraph. There is no defense. I apologize to Mr. Woodward. I’m sorry I wrote that, Bob. I was wrong. Full stop.

I also agree with the main point of his story: in big works of investigative journalism the truth that needs to get out usually lies with human sources. (Sometimes with documents, most of which are not online.) It is the job of the reporter to find those people and get them to reveal what they know. The internet can help, but it is not some “magic lantern” that illuminates everything. 

Hopefully I will not be back here soon with another one of these “anatomy of…” posts. They’re necessary, but I do not enjoy writing them. 

 

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