Alicia Shepard, Media Writer and Watergate Biographer, Dies at 69

REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang HK/ME
The Watergate hotel and condominium complex pictured on the Potomac River in Washington, June 17, 2002.

Alicia C. Shepard, a writer and media observer who served as ombudsman of NPR, examined the lives of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a book about the legacy of the Watergate investigation, and once chronicled her adventure sailing across the South Pacific with her infant son in tow, died April 1 at her home in Arlington, Va. She was 69.

The cause was lung cancer, said her son, Cutter Hodierne.

Ms. Shepard – a journalist who proudly described herself as “the nosiest person I know” – spent the early years of her career as a general-assignment reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.

She later established herself as a respected voice on media ethics, writing extensively for the American Journalism Review before her tenure as NPR ombudsman from 2007 to 2011. She freelanced over the years for publications including The Post, the New York Times, USA Today and Washingtonian magazine.

Ms. Shepard, who came of age amid the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard M. Nixon from office, was among the first researchers to examine the papers that Woodward and Bernstein sold in 2003 to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin for $5 million. She conducted months of research at the archive in the course of writing her 2007 book “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.”

Woodward and Bernstein led The Post’s coverage of the scandal that began with a break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic national headquarters in 1972. Their sleuthing inspired the 1976 movie “All the President’s Men,” a blockbuster that starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein and made the two young reporters international celebrities.

The movie helped fix them in the popular imagination as a sort of journalistic odd couple – Woodward, a former Navy lieutenant and son of a Republican Illinois judge, and Bernstein, a shaggy-haired college dropout raised by onetime Communist activists.

“They couldn’t be more different,” Ms. Shepard once observed in an interview on CBS News, “but together they did something that neither one of them could do individually.”

Legions of journalists and authors including David Halberstam, in the 1979 book “The Powers That Be,” had profiled Woodward and Bernstein, exploring the talents and idiosyncrasies behind their bylines. But Ms. Shepard was among the first with access to their papers. The trove, she wrote, consisted of 75 boxes brimming with “250 reporter pads, interviews, book galleys, typed notes, letters, and memorabilia, covering nearly 40 feet of shelf space.”

From those materials, other archival research and interviews with more than 175 people, Ms. Shepard produced a vivid portrait of the two reporters. There was Woodward, a journalistic workhorse who was seemingly born inquisitive, rifling through the papers of his father’s law office when he worked there as a janitor in his youth. And there was Bernstein, “the big thinker during Watergate,” as Ms. Shepard described him, who had flashes of brilliance even as he frustrated editors with his aversion to deadlines.

“Alicia Shepard does an admirable job of detailing the work they did in their Watergate sleuthing,” Lee Coppola, then the dean of the journalism and communication school at St. Bonaventure University in New York, wrote in a review published in the Buffalo News.

“But she does an even more admirable job,” the review continued, “of digging into their personalities, exposing their foibles and tracing the paths their lives have taken in the more than 30 years since Watergate entered the nation’s vocabulary.”

Ms. Shepard was relieved of the duty of confronting one of the most enduring secrets of the Watergate saga: the identity of Deep Throat, the highly placed unnamed source who was depicted in “All the President’s Men” meeting with Woodward in shadowy parking garages and keeping him on track in the Watergate reporting.

In 2005, 91-year-old W. Mark Felt, the FBI’s second-in-command at the time of Watergate, identified himself as Deep Throat in an article published in Vanity Fair magazine.

“I just thank my lucky stars that Vanity Fair revealed Deep Throat,” Ms. Shepard told the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call. “I was happy I didn’t have to write some baloney chapter.”

Alicia Cobb Shepard – she went by Lisa – was born on April 27, 1953, in Boston and grew up in Montclair, N.J. Her father, a sales manager at the Allied Chemical Corp., died when Ms. Shepard was 12. Her mother was an actress.

Ms. Shepard received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from George Washington University in 1978. She landed her first job in journalism as a reporter in the Washington bureau of Scripps League Newspapers.

She and her husband at the time, Robert Hodierne, moved to California, where both were ultimately hired at the Mercury News. In 1987, the couple sold their belongings, bought a 32-foot cutter rig sailboat – named Yankee Lady – and, as Ms. Shepard put it, “shed our city lives” to set sail for the South Pacific. They had been planning for the trip for years and by the time they embarked on it had a 9-month-old son, Cutter, who was named for the boat.

“The thought of having a child along had never entered the picture, but by the time I reached my thirties and we had the money to realize the dream, I wanted to do both: sail and have a baby,” Ms. Shepard later wrote.

Together they explored the South Pacific for three years, with Ms. Shepard filing regular dispatches for the Mercury News and at least one for The Post in 1989.

“We both would do the trip again in a heartbeat and are convinced, despite obvious dangers, that it shaped our boy’s thirst for adventure, his willingness to take calculated risks and most importantly, his curiosity,” she wrote years later of her son, who is a filmmaker.

The family spent two years in Japan, where Ms. Shepard taught English, before returning to the United States and settling in Arlington.

Ms. Shepard resumed her journalism career, writing for AJR on topics including the use of anonymous sources and the extravagant fees paid to reporters for speaking engagements. She was honored multiple times by the National Press Club and received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in 2002.

With Cathy Trost, Ms. Shepard was the author of “Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11” (2002), a volume written for the Newseum in Washington about the reporters who covered the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As ombudsman for NPR, Ms. Shepard acted essentially as the public radio outlet’s internal critic during debates about political bias in NPR reporting and controversies including the firing of Juan Williams, an African American journalist and commentator who had remarked on Fox News that he became “nervous” when he boarded an airplane and saw passengers in “Muslim garb.”

She agreed that Williams had become “more of a liability than an asset” to NPR, but faulted the outlet for not applying a “more deliberative approach” to “avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.”

Amid debate over the treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody, Ms. Shepard objected to the use of what she described as “bureaucratic euphemisms” such as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But she also upset some listeners by counseling NPR to avoid the use of the term “torture” – a word “loaded with political and social implications,” she wrote – and instead explain in detail the treatment to which detainees were subjected.

Ms. Shepard’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 2014, she moved with her future husband, David Marsden, to Afghanistan, where he was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ms. Shepard worked as managing editor for Impassion Afghanistan, a digital media agency, and as a press liaison for USAID.

She taught over the years at institutions including Georgetown University, American University, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the University of Arkansas.

Survivors include her husband, whom she married in 2021, of Arlington; her son, of Washington; two stepsons, Bill Marsden of San Francisco and Ted Marsden of Los Angeles; a brother; a half sister; and a grandson.

Ms. Shepard discovered in 2019 that she had lung cancer but kept her diagnosis largely private. Her husband had learned several years earlier that he had melanoma that had spread to the brain. Until days before her death, her son said, she was at work on a memoir with the working title “The Luckiest Unlucky Couple.”