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I've long held the theory our nation came close to never learning why the Watergate break-in was much more than a penny-ante robbery.

If The Washington Post had not assigned two young metro reporters to the story and had instead given it to its White House contingent, I believe the truth about Watergate as part of an elaborate dirty tricks scheme would never have become known. The White House press corps, not known for its gumshoe abilities, would have written the episode off as a two-bit break-in of the Democratic National Committee's office without wider implications.

But as it turned out the Post gave the story to two inexperienced reporters. Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein handled the assignment, was the lowest-paid reporter on the newspaper.

I had the opportunity the other day to ask Bob Woodward about my theory. He was spending the day at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and I was on campus for a meeting to update us on the progress of DePauw's Center for Contemporary Media.

The thrust of Mr. Woodward's remarks to the students and faculty was not about Watergate but about his contention that the press was "not up to the task before us to explain what's going on." He said the media "missed the big change" in their pre-election coverage and so failed to prepare readers and viewers about the momentous implications of the Republican sweep.

The election, for my money, was covered as a horse race with almost all speculation confined to how many seats the Republicans would pick up in the House and Senate and whether the Democrats were making a last-minute surge. Almost nothing was said about what would happen if the Republicans managed to control both chambers of Congress-and how they would be likely to make their presence felt.

Mr. Woodward's view is that we in the media, as well as the recipients of our products, are too focused on the latest development. But, he said, the latest is often "irrelevant or untrue."

What people want, Mr. Woodward said, is "straight talk. Error is the trajectory of learning, but the problem is we don't have the culture to admit an error and move on." After all, he added, "inconsistencies are not unusual in life"-although politicians, and indeed journalists, are loathe to admit them.

What makes a good story, he emphasized, is the "quality of the information." He said he, as a young reporter, was able to cultivate his anonymous source in Watergate, Deep Throat, "because I had high quality information. Information has power, not reporters."

Mr. Woodward, much to my disappointment, did not support my theory about Watergate. He contends the Watergate burglary "was like a string on a sock. Pull it and the rest unravels." Watergate was the "triggering event."

I'm not convinced. President Nixon's mistake was in trying to cover up the Watergate burglary. That's what brought him down. If the two young Washington Post reporters hadn't linked it to a broader pattern of disruption, history would have been very different.

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