No journalists in the last thirty years have built more of a legend than the old Washington Post pairing of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. As the Watergate wrecking crew that put Richard Nixon in the scrap yard, they are America’s most venerated “icons” of investigative reporting.
But since that event, the paths of Woodward and Bernstein have separated dramatically. Woodward is still considered the top-dog journalist in Washington, a titan no president can ignore if he cares about his historical legacy, or his short-term political standing. By contrast, Bernstein has bounced around to cushy media jobs, at ABC, and at Time magazine, rarely distinguishing himself, with a mere fraction of Woodward’s celebrity aura.
Note the contrast between this duo’s last two books. At the end of last September, Woodward’s “State of Denial” was a media monster, perfectly pitched for maximum anti-GOP impact just four weeks shy of the midterm elections. The first Woodward interview was scheduled for “60 Minutes” on October 1, but NBC broke out the hype on Friday morning, September 29.
Here’s how often chief NBC pundit Tim Russert discussed the Woodward book as a serious factor against the Republicans over the first six days on “Today” and the “NBC Nightly News.” Friday morning. Friday night. Monday night. Tuesday night. Thursday morning. Thursday night. That’s six times in six days. That’s publicity heaven.
Russert proclaimed Woodward’s book would resonate from coast to coast and be a very rough time for the White House: “Mr. Woodward will be all over the media talking about this book, talking about this issue. You know the Democrats will pounce on it. And again, if the debate is about the Iraq war rather than the broader war on terror, it's exactly on the field the Democrats want to play on.”
Bob Woodward knows that if you want to be all over the media, it doesn’t hurt to manicure the lawn the Democrats want to play on.
Woodward’s media tour included two stops on NBC, including a big Monday morning rollout on the October 2 “Today.” NBC gave the Woodward book launch 15 minutes of air time, including the author’s interview. The next Sunday, October 8, Woodward was Russert’s guest on “Meet the Press.” Weeks later, on October 18, Brian Williams was still asking Russert about “the Bob Woodward book” as a landmark political event.
Compare that to Carl Bernstein’s new book about Hillary Clinton, “A Woman in Charge.” Bernstein has never been a “Clinton hater,” but the reaction was quite different, because this time the target of the investigation was quite different.
NBC gained the first exclusive interview, and awarded Bernstein a respectable interview of six minutes on Friday, June 1 – which is about six minutes more than conservative authors of Clinton books typically receive. (Add Andrea Mitchell’s dismissive “pundits say it won’t hurt Hillary” news story on the book, and it’s eight minutes of airtime.) But the beginning of the “Today” broadcast, as the theme music played, carried no Bernstein hype. The top stories of the day were News Lite: the globe-trotting American man with tuberculosis, the desperate parents of a missing British girl, and the winner of the national spelling bee. Bernstein came, and Bernstein went.
Where were Tim Russert and Brian Williams to discuss the Bernstein book as an earth-shaking literary event? There were no trumpets of hype. On Sunday, May 27, weekend “Today” host Lester Holt told Russert “A couple of biographies are about to hit the newsstands,” but no author names were mentioned. How would this affect Hillary? Russert didn’t forecast a media avalanche. He said she wouldn’t benefit from revisiting the past, and predicted a campaign to yawn the books away.
“So look for the Clinton campaign to talk about the books as if they are nothing new. They have not yet been officially released. The authors will be out talking about them. I don’t think it will be the best period for the Clinton campaign, but it’s one that they realize they have to ride through.”
Woodward’s anti-GOP book was hyped on NBC as if it were a Hurricane Katrina that would wash Bush away. Bernstein’s book, hardly a hit piece on Hillary, was nevertheless presented as an annoying tropical storm that will quickly wash out to sea. That would be your impression if you watched the other networks. ABC aired one morning story, on Memorial Day (not a huge audience that day). CBS aired a Bernstein interview in the second half-hour of “The Early Show” on June 5 – hardly a plum “60 Minutes” spot.
The big question on political books is: will they resonate? The media’s promotional oxygen is a major factor in deciding precisely which books will score, and which won’t. Woodward trumped Bernstein at every network. It pays to hit Republicans, and only Republicans.