Thursday, November 24, 2005

One Watergate Era Reporter Confronts Another

All the Reporter's Men
Woodward's turn to answer questions about breaking—and not breaking—news
by Sydney H. Schanberg
November 22nd, 2005 11:06 AM

I have no stake in whether any Bush White House heavy goes to jail in the Plamegate scandal; incarceration is not required for the public to recognize a failed presidency. But I do care about what happens to Bob Woodward in this stew, because he became the success model for modern journalism. And to my mind, he has, over the years, drifted away from the principles he and Carl Bernstein represented when they broke the Watergate scandal three decades ago and exposed another dark presidency, which then imploded.

Then, Woodward was a striving beginner newspaperman. Now, still hardworking, he's a millionaire courtier of the Washington power elite. He has used those Watergate-baptism skills to gain access to the White House and get its big players to talk, mostly anonymously, thereby producing a series of successful insider books about government decision making. Most of the books come across as meticulously reported, but the problem is, the reader cannot tell what Woodward may be leaving out—to protect his sources and not lose his rare and coveted access.

He has a special arrangement with his newspaper, The Washington Post, where he carries the title of assistant managing editor, though he neither manages nor edits. The arrangement is known in the newsroom and acknowledged publicly by the paper. As follows: He writes an occasional story for the paper as he goes about reporting for his books and also occasionally passes tips to investigative reporters on the staff. In his book research, he grants confidentiality to his anonymous sources—they are not named or identified in any way in the books. He also promises all his interviewees that he will make no immediate use of what they tell him and will publish it only much later, in the book, which means perhaps too late for the electorate or Congress to act upon it before the White House makes and carries out crucial decisions—such as sending troops into combat.

Here, from page 423 of Plan of Attack, is an example of Woodward's agreement not to publish right away. It comes after a long interview with Bush in his office in the White House residence on December 10, 2003:

The president said he wanted to make sure that his acknowledgment that no weapons of mass destruction had been found so far would not be published in The Washington Post until the book was released. "In other words, I'm not going to read a headline, 'Bush Says No Weapons.' " I promised he would not . . .

To me, giving such assurances is the opposite of what journalists are taught and trained to do. The creed says you publish when the story has been properly confirmed, so that the public can make informed decisions.


A what-if question is needed here: What if Woodward had told the public—as soon as he found out—all the revealing material about how the White House pulled the nation into war, instead of holding it back for Plan of Attack, which was published in April 2004? It's not unrealistic to think this might have altered the course of events. The book, like several other of Woodward's works, was a major bestseller.
Now, the Voice, being the liberal bastion that it always has been, gives Woodward a chance to respond.


To Sid Schanberg!
But what about getting information to members of the public sooner so they can make informed decisions? "My mission," he said, "is to get information out as soon as possible that's relevant."

Well, I asked, if you weren't going to write a story for the Post about your role, why didn't you pass the information to someone else in the newsroom—while still protecting the source's identity? He said: "I did tell someone. I told Walter Pincus [a national-security reporter]." But Pincus has said he doesn't recall the conversation. "I did tell him; we have different memories," Woodward said, his voice sounding sad and hurt. Woodward has been the recipient of near constant acclaim for more than 30 years; this is the first time he has faced a serious wave of negative comment, including from his own newsroom and the paper's latest ombudsman, Deborah Howell (in a column in Sunday's Post).

Our talk was not testy or uncivil—two journalists with different career arcs and different approaches to journalism trying to explain that divergence to each other. I said I was a newspaperman who had covered third-world tragedies and wars and lots of killing of innocents, who was therefore motivated and trained to get stories confirmed and to the reader as soon as possible. To me, I said, that was the specialness of the reporting he and Carl Bernstein had done on Watergate. I said I felt he had several sometimes conflicting loyalties now, such as to his book publisher. He said that he shared my goals but that he felt his present process of "very aggressive, incremental reporting in different forms—books, articles, and going on television"—also served the public well.

"I think it's a good-faith effort," he said. "I'm comfortable with it."

Maybe presumptuously, I suggested that, to make his readers more comfortable at this time, he write a full, personal account about this saga that would make his processes more transparent. He said he started to write just that kind of piece—a 20-page account to go with the paper's story about his testimony last week. But he said his editors and the paper's lawyers convinced him it was imprudent, for reasons Woodward didn't make clear. He said he was trying to get his story out by talking to journalists outside the Post and making TV talk show appearances.

"We have lots of problems now," he said, speaking of the journalism community, "and it looks like I've added to that."
Uh, yea, Bob. All you did was tear a huge hole in the facade that journalists are independent, tough-as-nails fact-finders that you spent decades flouting as YOUR main quality!

You created this myth of integrity, and while Republicans (and to be fair, some Democrats) have worked hard to cut little bits out of it, it took you to slice it wide open.

I hope you're happy.