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With open mind, go where the story takes you

WASHINGTON — Go where the reporting takes you.

That pearl of wisdom came from an assembled panel I witnessed here last weekend as part of the Society of Professional Journalists' annual convention.

This was not just any assembled panel. If modern journalism has an aristocracy, this is it. On stage were Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee, the famed Washington Post reporters and their editor who changed the face of journalism and the nation three decades ago. Also up there were Daniel Schorr, now of National Public Radio but then with CBS, and veteran CBS newsman and anchor Bob Schieffer. And, for good measure, the panel also included Scott Armstrong, who was an investigator on the Senate Watergate Committee, and Alicia Shepard, author of a book on Watergate.

In the 35 years since the break-in at Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, these people may never have been assembled this way to talk about what happened and what it means to modern America.

And while they spent a good deal of the time reminiscing about their discoveries as the scandal unfolded (Bradlee when his reporters told him President Richard Nixon had tape-recorded White House conversations: "I didn't believe them. Who would be dumb enough to do that?"), and the way the Post initially had to carry the story alone while few other news organizations dared to join in, the bottom line was one with implications that go far beyond America during the Nixon years. It goes beyond reporting and journalism, as well.

The first lesson is that the Watergate reporting ended where it did (with Nixon's resignation) because, as Bernstein put it, "The system worked." Government institutions, including the courts and Congress, provided real oversight. They let the facts carry the day. In the end, key Republicans, led by conservative icon Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, marched to the White House to tell the president they were going to vote to impeach him if he didn't resign.

The panel seemed unanimously skeptical on the question of whether, in today's highly charged partisan atmosphere, the system would work similarly.

The other, more universal lesson goes back to that pearl about reporting. Don't begin researching a story with an assumption about what you're going to find. Keep an open mind.

Woodward had plenty of criticism for today's journalism. "The driving influence today is speed and impatience," he said. "Good reporting is exactly the opposite."

"Listen carefully," added Bernstein. "Too many reporters don't listen."

But what does it mean to follow the reporting?

In a free society, each of us is a reporter, of sorts. We are best served when we can watch and listen with open minds, freeing ourselves as much as possible from ingrained prejudices and assumptions. That is particularly true when approaching an election season. And yet most of the calls and messages I field each day are so laden with assumptions an avalanche of facts couldn't budge them.

I recently read this applicable quote from Daniel Okrent, the first ombudsman for the New York Times: "A very bad (and all too common) way to misread a newspaper: To see whatever supports your point of view as fact, and anything that contradicts your point of view as bias."

To underscore their point, Woodward and Bernstein spoke about their reaction to President Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Nixon. Woodward recalled a cynical and profanity-laced phone call from Bernstein when the news broke. To them, it seemed obvious some sort of deal had been made; that this was just another example of power being abused.

But then, Woodward said, he had the opportunity to thoroughly investigate the matter. "In fact, the record convinced me Ford did the right thing," he said. Later, his reporting led Caroline Kennedy to award Ford the Profiles in Courage award.

The facts didn't lead where Woodward and others thought they would. As I came home and looked at letters on my desk — one upset about the political bent of a political cartoon, another that disagreed with an opinion poll in the paper — I wondered. How many of us are willing to go where our own reporting might take us?


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com