Some reporters can build a career around their own personal brands. But doing great work requires an infrastructure, including a lot of talented people who don’t get bylines. Barry Sussman — the Watergate journalist named neither “Woodward” nor “Bernstein” — was one.
By Joshua Benton – Founder of Neiman Lab, IRE award winner
The headline in Time magazine — May 7, 1973 — was quite clear, numerically speaking: “The Watergate Three.” Not two — three.
When the Pulitzer Prizes are announced next week, the citation for public service by a newspaper — barring a last-minute reversal — will go to the Washington Post for its continuous digging into the Watergate case and related campaign scandals.
Certainly the Post deserves credit for its tenacity. But the trade knows that personal honors belong to an unlikely trio of relatively junior newsmen, the Post’s District of Columbia editor, Barry Sussman, 38, and reporters Carl Bernstein, 29, and Bob Woodward, 30.
Three. An unlikely trio. For generations of young reporters, the men who brought down Richard Nixon, who exposed Watergate, were two in number: Woodward and Bernstein. Woodstein, if you wanted people to know you’d mastered the lingo. Who’s this third guy — the one listed first?
Barry Sussman died a few days ago at the age of 87, and while his passing earned some notice, it wasn’t commensurate with the impact of his work. In the half-century since the Watergate break-in, the Watergate Three has become, in the popular imagination, the Watergate Two.
Part of that is just what it means to be an editor in a newsroom. No matter how much you shape, rewrite, or co-create the work, your name isn’t the one at the top at the piece — or the bottom, for that matter. Becoming an editor means giving up the authorial glory that comes with being a reporter. Your work will be valued internally, but the world won’t see your fingerprints on any of it.
But Sussman was also uniquely shortchanged by the transformation of the Post’s Watergate coverage from news story into cultural artifact. The real history got processed into something more easily digestible, and Barry wasn’t in it.
These days, talk about the future of journalism often circles around reporters’ individual brands — the sort of word journalists take a strange pride in hating. Build up a reputation with an audience? Quit your job, lose the constraints (however real or mythical) muzzling your voice, and start a Substack!
There are journalists for whom that model makes a lot of sense. But the story of Barry Sussman reminds us that many of the world’s most important journalists don’t get bylines at all. Their brand is invisibility. And whatever models, whatever systems of support inspire journalism’s next forms, they need to find a way to make sure they can do their work, too.
Barry Sussman was the city editor of The Washington Post on Saturday, June 17, 1972, when five men were arrested for breaking into and bugging the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex. A few hours later, after a tip from an attorney, Post managing editor Howard Simons called Sussman, still in bed, to tell him about the break-in. Sussman decided to assign two reporters to the story: long-time police reporter Al Lewis and a Post newbie named Bob Woodward.
Hanging around the newsroom that Saturday — because he still hadn’t filed a story that’d been due the day before — was another relative newcomer, Carl Bernstein. Lewis got the byline on the first-day story, with Woodward and Bernstein among the eight reporters getting “contributing to this story” credits. Sussman had to pick who would come in the next day, Sunday, to work on a follow-up; he picked Woodward and Bernstein. Not long after, Sussman took on the new job of full-time Watergate editor and again chose the two of them to work on it full time — fighting real opposition from higher-ups to put Bernstein on the story.
To give you an idea of the role Sussman played in the months that followed, I want to share a few excerpts from the many, many books written about Watergate in the years since. First, here’s how Woodward and Bernstein themselves described Sussman in All the President’s Men (1974):
Sussman was 38, gentle in his manner, slightly overweight, curly-haired, scholarly in demeanor. He had been a desk man on a small-town newspaper near the Virginia-Tennessee line, a speed-reading instructor at New York University, a society editor, and then suburban editor for the Post — a vagabond journalist who had left Brooklyn odd-jobbing his way to Washington.
Sussman had the ability to seize facts and lock them in his memory, where they remained poised for instant recall. More than any other editor at the Post, or Bernstein and Woodward, Sussman became a walking compendium of Watergate knowledge, a reference source to be summoned when even the library failed. On deadline, he would pump these facts into a story in a constant infusion, working up a body of significant information to support what otherwise seemed like the weakest of revelations. In Sussman’s mind, everything fitted. Watergate was a puzzle and he was a collector of the pieces.
At heart, Sussman was a theoretician. In another age, he might have been a Talmudic scholar. He had cultivated a Socratic method, zinging question after question at the reporters: Who moved over from Commerce to CRP with Stans? What about Mitchell’s secretary? Why won’t anybody say when Liddy went to the White House or who worked with him there? Mitchell and Stans both ran the budget committee, right? What does that tell you? Then Sussman would puff on his pipe, a satisfied grin on his face…
Since the break-in at Democratic headquarters, Sussman had been studying the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration. He had a theory about Watergate that Bernstein and Woodward did not quite understand — it had to do with historic inevitability, post-war American ethics, merchandising and Richard Nixon.
Here’s David Halberstam, writing in his classic The Powers That Be (1979):
[Sussman] was, the young reporters on the Post generally agreed, by far the best of the young editors at the paper. He liked softer leads and did not insist, if the substance of a good story was there, that a reporter had to fall back on the traditional and mechanical “who, what, when, where.” When a reporter came back to the office with the outline of a story, Sussman was often very valuable, not only fulfilling the editor’s function but also running the assembled facts through his mind as a reporter would, sometimes making better sense of them than the reporter was. He was a dreamer in the best way, and when he had flashes of insight they were seldom pedestrian. He was the first of a new generation of editors to deal with the new generation of reporters. He could ask the larger questions.
Thus almost from the start, before anyone else at the Post, Sussman saw Watergate as a larger story, saw that the individual events were part of a larger pattern, the result of hidden decisions from somewhere in the top of government which sent smaller men to run dirty errands. He did not smell Nixon on the very first day, but he sensed the President’s role earlier than almost anyone else, and he brought to the story a combination of suspicion and logic that allowed him to see the whole matter in perspective sooner than anyone else…
From the start, the Post was thus unusually lucky. It had the perfect working editor at exactly the right level. Sussman was not simply encouraging, he brainstormed the story, trying to put the pieces together, fitting them and refitting them until finally, slowly, there was the beginning of a pattern. More, he believed in the story, he was sure there was something there. Simons from the start had been good because, in the best old-style newspaper sense, he had thought that it sounded promising. Sussman, working at the foot-soldier level, was even better; where other editors on a story so difficult might have cast doubt upon the fragments the young reporters were bringing in, Sussman offered only constant encouragement. Sussman always believed there was more, and given Richard Nixon and Watergate, there always was.
This is future Washington Post executive editor Len Downie in 1976’s The New Muckrakers: An Inside Look at America’s Investigative Reporters:
More than anyone else in the newsroom that day, city editor Barry Sussman…journeyman from Brooklyn by way of Tennessee, recognized the Watergate burglary immediately as an event of potentially great significance. Sussman who had a sometimes wildly imaginative analytic mind, was not much interested in the predictable, if sometimes sensational events that consume so much of the average newspaper’s editorial resources and newsprint. He was fascinated by the unexpected-human actions and societal trends — and left supervision of much of the day-to-day coverage of the District of Columbia news to subordinates, so that he could concentrate on the longer range, in-depth projects of a few especially resourceful journalists…
It was Woodward’s and Bernstein’s ability to work flat out, with little rest, and in uncanny coordination under Sussman’s imaginative, constantly theorizing direction that put them well in front of everyone else.
From Adrian Havill’s Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (1993):
Sussman was becoming the chief appendage to “Woodstein” — the term by which the team was known in the newsroom. It could be argued that the team was often a troika in 1972-73, with Sussman as the head. “Woodsteinman” would have been more accurate.
As the story of Watergate swarmed across American politics, attention turned increasingly to the Post. The first major award it won for its Watergate reporting was the Drew Pearson Foundation award for investigative reporting, which at the time had the highest cash prize in journalism ($6,000, equal to roughly $40,000 today). The award (and the money) went to the Watergate Three: Sussman, Woodward, and Bernstein.
Then came the Time story.
The Post men came to share an obsession with the story that had raised them from professional obscurity. Otherwise, they have little in common other than youth. Woodward, an enrolled Republican, is a graduate of Yale and the Navy officer corps…He is considered a smooth interviewer but a mediocre writer.
Bernstein, long of hair and sloppy of dress, a college dropout, is something out of The Front Page. Despite his prose flair, he had a reputation for spotty performance, dating partly from the time a superior caught him apparently asleep in the city-hall press room…
Despite their differences in style and the fact that they see little of each other socially, the men work well together under Sussman’s avuncular guidance…The trio’s work has already won six major reporting prizes…
As Time had predicted, The Washington Post did in fact win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that year. Unlike other Pulitzers, the Public Service prize is given to a news organization as a whole, not to individual journalists. That didn’t sit well with Woodward and Bernstein initially, as Post editor Ben Bradlee recounted years later in his memoir A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures:
Woodward and Bernstein were pleased, of course, when I saw them next morning [after the Pulitzer announcement], but not overjoyed. They sidled into my office “to talk,” and it was quickly obvious that they had more on their minds than a mutual back-scratching session. They didn’t dare get to their point right away, but pretty soon it spilled out.
How come the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the newspaper, rather than to them, Woodward and Bernstein, who had done by so much the lion’s share of the reporting?
The supply of credit to go around is always limited.
As the Watergate scandal spiraled (but still more than a year before Nixon resigned), there was demand for a book on the Post’s reporting — the first step in its broader life beyond newsprint.
Initial talk was for the Watergate Three to write it together; that was how it was initially pitched to agent David Obst. But Woodward and Bernstein later decided to cut Sussman out. Here’s Alicia Shepard writing about it in her book Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate:
They didn’t want to hurt Sussman’s feelings, keenly aware of all he had done for them and how he had often improved their stories. They thought he was a brilliant editor, but they didn’t need an editor now. They would get that from Simon & Schuster.
“I feel sorry,” Woodward would say years later. “You know, it was a reporter’s story to tell. Not an editor’s.”
Before Watergate, Sussman and Woodward had been close friends — hanging out at Sussman’s house, setting up weekend touch football games, talking for hours about journalism. Sussman had been Woodward’s mentor at the Post. But cutting him out of the book broke the relationship. By the spring of 1974, when All the President’s Men hit bookstores, they were no longer talking to each other.
Sussman took time off from the Post to write his Watergate book, which became The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate. It was highly anticipated; shortly after All the President’s Men came out, one writer said “Barry Sussman, the District of Columbia Editor, is said to be writing the lasting book that will stand apart from all the others in the flood of Watergate books.” And after it was published in December, it was lauded by critics and historians alike. (“Sussman has done the best job yet of putting Watergate into the perspective of this country.” “The best and most lucid unraveling of Watergate.” “The best book to read on Watergate.”)
But of course it was no match for All the President’s Men in sales or cultural impact. (Deep Throat only gets a brief, second-hand mention.) The breakup of the Watergate Three is coded directly into its text: Woodward is absent from the book’s last 115 pages.
In the spring of 1976, the Post’s Watergate team gathered for a private screening of a nearly finished cut. The men in the room saw themselves reshaped on screen into big-name stars. Robert Redford played Woodward; Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein. Three Post editors were portrayed by award-winning character actors: Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee, Martin Balsam as Howard Simons, and Jack Warden as Harry Rosenfeld.
Most of them were happy with their portrayals. (Robards won an Oscar playing Bradlee, despite barely 10 minutes of screen time.) But Simons was hurt deeply by the way the film made him seem like a mere functionary under Bradlee; in reality, Bradlee was only lightly involved in the story until months after the break-in. One critic noted that Simons “is made to sound like a fool who wanted them taken off the story” when in reality he was “the reporters’ strongest defender.” (Simons was later curator of the Nieman Foundation until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1989. At his memorial service, Woodward apologized for how Simons was portrayed in the movie.)
But Sussman, the leader of the Watergate Three, wasn’t portrayed inaccurately — he just wasn’t portrayed at all. He’d been written out of the movie entirely.1 Filmmakers said they were worried that having three middle-aged white-guy editors on screen was already confusing for the audience, and four would’ve been too much.
But that it was Sussman they chose to cut — the editor most involved in the story from Day 1 — was galling to many, both in and out of the Post. When director Alan Pakula was doing his initial research for the film, both Simons and Rosenfeld had told him that, “if any one individual at the Post was deserving of a Pulitzer for the newspaper’s Watergate coverage…it was Barry Sussman.”
“Of all the filmmakers’ real and imagined derelictions, the elimination of Sussman as a character was the one that bothered Post staffers most,” Post film critic Gary Arnold wrote in his review. “Indeed, it has proved a more serious drawback than one might have guessed, because the picture needs a rumpled, avuncular, dogged editorial type to contrast with Robards’ flamboyant Bradlee and to supply some lucid updating and recapping of information as we go along.”
“As history, this is inexcusable,” wrote Jim Mann of The Baltimore Sun, “because it expunges from the record the editor who worked most intimately and directly with the reporters in the early days of Watergate.”
Post reporter Timothy Robinson told the Chicago Daily News he’d almost boycotted the movie because of Sussman’s omission. “The real hero isn’t even in it,” he said. “He was the guy who kept pushing and pushing that story.”
“When the celebrification of Watergate hit, Barry Sussman got cut out,” Mann, a former Post reporter, would say later. “If you take the hurt that Howard Simons felt, and you multiply that hurt by a thousand, you get to Barry Sussman.” In 1992, the Post itself would call Sussman’s omission “the most grievous example” of the movie’s “factual deficiencies.”2
After the film, the break between Sussman and Woodstein was total. Shepard describes the movie as having done “permanent psychic damage” to Sussman. Thirty years later, when she called Sussman to interview him about Woodward and Bernstein, his reply was: “I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them.”
The sociologist Michael Schudson has written a number of great books about the news business, but one that sometimes gets overlooked is Watergate In American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, And Reconstruct The Past (1992). Two decades past the break-in, Schudson detailed the stories Americans (and American institutions) told themselves about this national embarrassment. One of the institutions whose story was most affected, of course, was the press.
The story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in bold pursuit of the perpetrators of the Watergate break-in is resonant and powerful in both the world of journalism and the culture at large…The film, even more than the book, ennobled investigative reporting and made of journalists modern heroes. A mythology of the press in Watergate developed into a significant national myth, a story that independently carries on a memory of Watergate even as details about what Nixon did or did not do fade away.
At its broadest, the myth of journalism in Watergate asserts that two young Washington Post reporters brought down the president of the United States. This is a myth of David and Goliath, of powerless individuals overturning an institution of overwhelming might. It is high noon in Washington, with two white-hatted young reporters at one end of the street and the black-hatted president at the other, protected by his minions. And the good guys win. The press, truth its only weapon, saves the day.
This stripped-down morality tale, mano a manos, doesn’t leave much narrative space for other characters. The Post’s work required not just creative and dogged reporting by Woodward and Bernstein — it required editors, it required news librarians, it required lawyers, it required an owner, all willing to do their part and able to do it skillfully. It required an institution that could both commit the resources and then stand its ground against Nixon’s threats.
There’s no doubt that the technology-enabled rise of journalists-as-solo-practitioners has its benefits. But I worry that it’s better at incentivizing journalists to make themselves stars than it is at creating the editorial infrastructure they need to do the most meaningful work.
After Watergate, after Woodward and Bernstein became Redford and Hoffman, the temptation to follow their model was strong. Many years later, Ben Bradlee would remember younger reporters who “covered the most routine rural fires as if they were Watergate and would come back and argue that there was gasoline in the hose and the fire chief was an anti-Semite and they really thought that was the way to fame and glory.”
I first met Barry in 2008, when I joined the Nieman Foundation to start Nieman Lab. Barry had come aboard four years earlier to start a different publication here named Nieman Watchdog, a site with the tagline “Questions the press should ask” — a worthy match for what Halberstam had called his “combination of suspicion and logic.” As Barry put it when the site shut down in 2012, Watchdog’s goal was “to encourage the press to do better reporting on public policy issues…There just isn’t enough good journalism.”
The site was funded by a donation from Barry’s longtime Washington Post colleague Murray Marder. He’d had his own long list of exploits, including reporting that had helped take down Joe McCarthy and breaking the story of the Cuban missile crisis. Barry said he edited the site in the spirit of Marder’s journalistic motto: “Wake up angry.” It was a line he took from a 1949 speech by Louisville Courier-Journal managing editor James S. Pope:
I am convinced that the good editor — and perhaps any good and useful leader — has to wake up angry every morning. Not at the people who disagree with him on the numberless controversial topics of the day; in that arena he must maintain a tolerant calm. But he is not amused at all by the charming chicanery that surrounds him. He does not wait for the moment to crusade on a spectacular scale. He does not await an epidemic. He spots and cauterizes civic germs, regardless of the enemies gained, before an infection takes root.
An immune system is a fair metaphor for journalism. It can identify problems and make it more likely they get fixed. But doing so requires support that goes well beyond bylines. It doesn’t always generate sparkling open rates for your emails. Individual journalists can do great work, of course. But it’s usually much easier for institutions, packed full of those individual journalists, to do it — and to withstand those who don’t want to see those problems get fixed. David beating Goliath is a hell of a story, but in reality, the guy with the slingshot doesn’t win often.
It’s more than a little ironic that Barry died less than two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, a moment that will be endlessly mined for content. The scandal will likely be remembered at least as much through myth — Robert Redford questioning Hal Holbrook in a parking garage — as through reality. Hollywood wrote Barry out of Watergate; mortality wrote him out of its anniversary. There’s plenty for journalists to celebrate about that particular Story of the Century; let’s just remember the cast of characters wasn’t a short one.
- As was Post owner Katharine Graham. At the time, she told a reporter that she hadn’t wanted to be in the movie, but in her memoir Personal History, she says she was “hurt by having been omitted.” “At one point, I got a message from Redford that they had decided not to shoot the one scene in the movie in which I was to be portrayed. I was told that no one understood the role of a publisher, and it was too extraneous to explain. Redford imagined that I would be relieved, which I was, but, to my surprise, my feelings were hurt by being omitted altogether, except for the one famous allusion to my anatomy.” ↩︎
- Sussman was also upset that the film version of All the President’s Menappeared to steal its opening scene from his book, not Woodstein’s. “They stole that right out of my book,” he said. “It was no coincidence.” ↩︎