By Claire Walla
For a man whose image greeted us every night on the evening news for 30 years, and a reporter whose name is etched in history books across the nation, the quiet seaside community of Monterey Bay seems one of the least likely places to visit.
But on May 4, former CBS news anchorman and managing editor Dan Rather and Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward joined Leon Panetta — former congressman and Chief of Staff under Clinton — for Part II in a lecture series put on by the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University Monterey Bay. The topic of the evening was “The Race for the Presidency: The Role of the Press in Choosing a Candidate.”
The evening’s lecture, at a price of $90 a pop, drew a crowd of 500 people, all eagerly waiting to see two men who have surely influenced U.S. history.
At a small gathering before the event, guests dressed to the nines in pearls and loafers socialized over coffee and baked goods, but shed all sophistication to gush about the speakers.
UC Santa Cruz alumnus Loren Steck touted the prominence of the guests. “Bob Woodward is an icon for people of my generation,” he said.
Doug Garrison, president of Monterey Peninsula College, agreed.
“I had such admiration for Woodward!” he said as his eyes widened and a smile stretched across his face. “It was riveting on a daily basis to watch Watergate unfold.”
Fresh from a 10-person dinner with the two journalists, UCSC Acting Chancellor George Blumenthal expressed his admiration. “I can remember Rather covering the Nixon scandal on television,” he said. “It’s really great to see these icons of American journalism in person.”
Inside the auditorium, anticipation engulfed the room as the ticket-holders waited in silence.
Then there they were.
Three navy blue suits and three light blue oxfords took the stage.
Leon Panetta, Dan Rather and Bob Woodward, a refined trio of blue hues, humbly nodded and smiled in recognition of the roar of applause from the crowd sitting before them.
As the lecture began, these men of well-refined dignity and status submitted to something else: modesty.
All accolades aside, Rather and Woodward spoke of mistakes, weaknesses and the detrimental consequences of getting the story wrong.
Facilitated by Panetta, they answered questions about the press’s coverage of the war in Iraq, an issue that has especially wounded the media, which failed to discover the falsified nature of weapons of mass destruction. Many have argued the press fell asleep at the wheel when it came to events leading up to the war.
Dan Rather agreed, no contest.
“We were not aggressive enough,” Rather said in his booming broadcaster’s voice. “We didn’t have the spine or the wherewithal in terms of our own courage to ask the questions that should have been asked.”
Rather attributes this passivity to one blaring result of the 9/11 attacks: increased patriotism.
“The tough time comes when the band is playing, the flags are waving, and people can accuse you of being unpatriotic if you don’t go along to get along; and in too many cases I think that happened with this Iraq war.”
Woodward agreed that the press lacked aggression, but does not think that all media outlets were bogged down by fear.
“The failure, or part of the problem was a lack of imagination,” he said. “There should	have been an editor, including myself, who asked the question, ‘Suppose Suddam Hussein doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction? Is that possible, and what would it mean?’”
Earlier in the day, Rather and Woodward addressed similar issues with the same humility, when they met with students from local high schools and colleges, including UCSC. From within the chasm of bright midday light that was the CSUMB auditorium, the journalists elaborated on such topics as election coverage.
As to why candidates give canned answers, Rather had a quick response. “Generally speaking, candidates tend to be sun-powered, perpetual motion, all-American bologna machines,” to which the crowd reacted with rumbling sea of laughter, and respectful applause. “But there’s a reason for that,” Rather continued. “The magnifying glass is so large, and so strong, that one moment can ruin a campaign.”
The antidote to canned answers and money-charged campaigns, according to both reporters, is to dig deep into stories: a concept called vertical journalism.
Woodward went on to criticize the influx of superficial stories that bombard the news.
“There’s an appetite for something quick, short and direct, and there is impatience in the public,” he said.
Woodward cited a recent mainstream news story about a plane about to touch down without landing gear. “Billions of people — including myself, being an idiot — were watching this plane for 20 or 30 minutes: it was almost as if you thought, ‘if something bad is going to happen, they’re going to edit it out, so I better watch!’
“There is this craziness in the news. And we, as consumers of the news, encourage it too often.”
Enveloped in the thick fluff of mainstream news, Dan Rather and Bob Woodward could only speak for themselves, as reporters.
Woodward wrapped up the evening with these words:
“We have to put the burden on ourselves, as journalists, and say, ‘Are we presenting news and information that is essential to people?’
“In the old newspaper business they used to talk about a story that’s a bacon cooler.”
A bacon cooler, Woodward explained, is a newspaper story that catches your attention at the breakfast table so that, as you raise your bacon-wrapped fork to your mouth, you can’t help but pause to read the story, long enough so that the bacon cools.
“That doesn’t happen often enough,” Woodward said.
In an age of quick news, money-talking politics and fearful reporters, Woodward added, the media has to find a way to tell the news so that the bacon cools.