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Excerpt: Making room for Woodward and Bernstein

By Tom Plate
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Editor's Note: Tom Plate, former editorial pages editor at newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, teaches media and policy at UCLA, and writes a syndicated column on Asia. This is the first excerpt of three from his book, "Confessions of an American Media Man." Part 2 will run on Wednesday and Part 3 will follow on Friday.

At any internship or new job, your key move is probably to work longer hours than anyone. I suppose this is as true in law and medicine as it is in journalism, but it is an unvarying rule. When I am in doubt about what to do, I say: just be there, stay there, do something, make yourself useful! And forget the ease of the 9-to-5 job.

A young person who puts in but the minimalist seven or eight hours a day will go nowhere in an organization unless he or she is the scion of the owner, a mole for the CIA, a member of organized crime or incredibly lucky or gifted. So, sleep under the desk. Come in on weekends. Compensate for your inexperience by committing your time. Let them know that when the earthquake comes, when the roads are impassable and when the city's mass transit system is down, you will somehow get to the office -- even if on all fours. (Seriously, I mean this.)

The summer of my internship at The Washington Post in 1965, there being only three interns -- and many August vacationers -- we kids were given many chances to prove ourselves. And, on the whole, we did. Not because we were so terribly talented but because we were unblocked enough to be courageous and hungry enough to not feel exploited. We were too young to fully comprehend our limitations so we did not feel we had any (or perhaps, we were in a blissful state of youthful denial). Besides, journalism at the level we interns were permitted to practice was not exactly rocket science.

What was required to succeed at this level of reporting is indefatigable energy, the ability to shut up, deep-freeze your ego, listen carefully, and rely on common sense.

Ben Bradlee, back then the new editor of the Post, was fantastically supportive all summer. He obviously loved being around young people and was not overly concerned about their lack of experience. In fact, he probably viewed too much experience as an impediment to innovation. To him, it was far easier to program a green man or woman than to re-wire a far more established careerist. It was surely this philosophy that induced this great and bold editor to stick with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein when the Watergate Hotel break-in mushroomed into a major political mystery. He stuck with "the kids."

At the suggestion of Stephen D. Isaacs, then the energetic city editor (now an equally energetic and admired Columbia University journalism professor), I paid a final call on Bradlee before jumping into my erratic Triumph sports car and tooling back to Amherst for my senior year.

"So what are you going to do next?" he asked, feet propped up on the desk, a pencil in his ear, his jacket on the back of the chair.

"Back to school to finish up."

"Yeah, I know, but after that?"

"Graduate school."

"Why don't you come here and work for us?"

"Need that degree."

"Ah, *%#@ it. Graduate school ain't worth &%$#!"

That is actually what he said. He repeated it: "Graduate school ain't worth &%$#!"

So -- don't ask me why -- I went to graduate school!

And so thus was the "leave the kid alone" field left wide open for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- do they realize that they owe their fame mainly to me?!

Excerpted from Tom Plate's "CONFESSIONS OF AN AMERICAN MEDIA MAN: What they Don't Tell You at Journalism School," which has just been published by Marshall Cavendish Editionsexternal link.


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