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December 9, 2005

Grokking Woodward

"Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk."

“I think none of us can really understand Bob’s silence for two years about his own role in the case,” said David Broder of the Washington Post on Meet the Press, Nov. 27. Broder—an elder in the church of shoe leather reporting—had been asked about reactions at the Post to Bob Woodward’s confession and apology for keeping secrets about the leak investigation from his editor.

Eugene Robinson, a columnist and editor at the Post, was on the program with Broder. He said there was “consternation” in the newsroom, plus “a certain amount of embarrassment” that Woodward would keep the Post in the dark. “And, you know, the fact that we can’t understand why Bob did what he did.”

About the “why” Woodward said that when he received the leak a special prosecutor later took to investigating, he “didn’t attach any great significance to it.” It was casual, offhand, just chatter.

Jane Hamsher, a lawyer and writer who is tracking the case at firedoglake (I read it every day) found this plausible: “Because sadly, I don’t think Bob did understand the significance of what they were telling him. Matt Cooper tipped to it instantly, but whoever told Woody was just a smidge too ‘casual’ about it and dogged, simple Bob just didn’t get what was going down. Still doesn’t.”

True. The best thing I read about Woodward not telling us what he knew was Nora Ephorn’s post at Huffington’s, What About Bob? “Itís hard to sit by and watch the man be unjustly attacked by people who donít understand the most fundamental truths about him,” she wrote. The fundamental things that to her apply:

“They were outsiders, and their lack of top-level access was probably their greatest asset,” she writes. It’s an asset Woodward conspicuously lacks today, but he seems not to realize it. His editor, Len Downie, told Washington Post readers that “Woodward’s access to the inner corridors of power” has for “over three decades of extraordinary reporting, beginning with Watergate,” produced “a great public service for our readers and all Americans” by revealing, more than any other journalist has, “how our government works— and holding it accountable.”

Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn’t have such access, and this probably influenced—for the better—their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn’t broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk. The more experienced White House reporters didn’t think much of the story. Nor did they get wind of the extraordinary abuses of power that were going on at the time.

Once married to Carl, Ephron has an insider’s take on Bob. About Woodward’s disputed claim that he mentioned what he had been told about Joseph Wilson’s wife to another Post reporter, Walter Pincus, in June 2003, she writes:

One of the things investigative reporters like Pincus and Woodward do is to rub up against one another and say things like, ďI had that story last week.Ē This is the sort of remark that is not so much informational as testosterone-driven, and it seems to me it could easily slip your mind.

That would be the mind of Walter Pincus. She’s saying Woodward probably did mention it, not because he wanted to inform anyone at the Post but simply to show another reporter who’s the man. The worst thing I read about Woodward’s secret-keeping is just as Ephron says: testosterone-driven, eager to tell us who The Man is. William Powers in the National Journal— Getting Bob. (Sub. required.)

Powers discloses that he and Woodward are close friends. Woodward gave him his first job: research assistant on The Commanders in 1991. Powers agrees that Woodward screwed up by keeping his editor in the dark. But the criticism coming from peers (like David Broder and Eugene Robinson) is just professional jealousy.

You see, Bob is bigger than everyone in journalism, way, way bigger. And more right too. His critics are small men, small women, with small minds and small scoops compared to Woodward’s amazing record. Big, big, big. This is his entire theory of the case. “Woodward hasn’t changed at all,” says Powers. (Really? Still that guy on the Metro Desk?) “He’s where he always is, somewhere close to the center of the big Washington story, and that’s what really drives other media people crazy.”

To say Woodward is where he always is (at the heart of things) denies that there’s any price to access. It asserts—falsely, I think—that if something as bad as Watergate were happening in Washington today Woodward would be the one uncovering it. I don’t buy a word of what Powers is selling about his friend and benefactor, but then I didn’t enjoy jock culture, either. That’s what “Getting Bob” reminds me of: the twelth guy on the team bragging about the star player. And I don’t think Bob Woodward is going to uncover what really happened during the two terms of George W. Bush.

If he were trying to uncover what really happened during the two terms of George W. Bush he would have talked to everyone on this list: The Fallen Legion: Casualties of the Bush Administration by Nick Turse. Forty two men and women “who were honorable or steadfast enough in their government duties that they found themselves with little alternative but to resign in protest, quit, or simply be pushed off the cliff” by Bush forces. (That’s Tom Englehardt, who published the list at TomDispatch.) They may not be well-connected or inside the action any longer, but these people certainly know a lot about “how our government works.” They can tell you what the current White House is capable of.

If Woodward were trying to find out what really happened he would make sure that every person in the Fallen Legion catgeory (and it’s way more than 42) was found and interviewed; that assistants on the third floor of his home (where Woodward, a rich man, runs his reporting operation) were cross-checking and piecing together the individual stories; that insiders still in the government were aware that this harvesting was going on; that others who had similar things happen to them, or a story to tell, were encouraged to come forward and talk, and not only tell what happened, but suggest places to look, questions to ask, people to confront for explanations.

And then, in addition to informing Stephen Hadley “I’ve already talked to four people who were in the 8:00 am meeting with you” (the Woodward way) he would let the entire Bush team know: the Fallen Legion will be speaking through me, so get ready to answer for what happened to them, and what I’ve figured out with their help. Now that would be “accountability journalism” (Downie’s term) but it is not Woodward’s way.

And so he will not be the reporter who uncovers what I see as the untold story in Washington these days. Not the missing weapons of mass destruction, or misleading the nation into war, or bungling the job in Iraq, or getting D’s and F’s in protecting the country from another day like 09/11, but something larger: the retreat from empiricism throughout the government (so that the general who tells you how many troops you’ll need is forced into retirement), and the emergence of a President who is not to be questioned (as when Bush spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations this week: no questions permitted.)

Faith-based policy-making needs to “fix” the facts, and this means it must cut off disagreement or kill it, even among friendlies. The Bush Bubble protects the President from the consequences of trying to drive empiricism—and professionalism—out of government. How did these fantastic things happen? Why are they necessary? Where did they come from? Have they helped Bush with his agenda or hurt it? Woodward could try to find out. But he won’t. He’s inside the bubble now; the only journalist who gets to interview the President for hours at a time.

Woodward the reporter is a singular, not a type; Powers and Ephron agree on that, and so do I. But whereas she sees the greatness of Bob’s method and the absurdity of it (“He knows everything. Whatís more, he has no idea what it adds up to….”) Powers knows only Woodward the Great, a man of awesome truthtelling powers who bats away rivals like flies:

Imagine the agony of other hardworking Washington reporters. They’ll toil away for years on a big beat — the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, the White House, the CIA — and feel they’ve done a bang-up job. After all, they broke some news, scored big interviews, revealed the “inner workings” of government. Then Woodward comes along, spends a year on the same subject, and launches the news equivalent of an atomic bomb: a week’s worth of jaw-dropping headlines that obliterate everything the regulars have done.

Watch out Landy and Strobel of Knight-Ridder. Watch out go-getter Murray Waas. Woodward’s gonna obliterate you! You’ll be crushed like a paper cup when his next book comes out. Powers thinks we’re “in giddy celebration of Woodward’s fall” because when a giant is brought down by his own mistakes we all feel a little bigger for it. Tina Brown tried this too:

…When Woodward hears political gossip it’s not a couple of lowly hacks at the office water cooler — it’s a transaction between one Big Beast at the heart of the power jungle and another. He hoarded the info for some larger reportorial purpose because that’s what Big Beasts do. They don’t waste time fiddling around with the quotidian crumbs from the dish of the day when they’re aiming to haul in the big, fat story we’ll all be chewing on for months.

For Powers it’s “a week’s worth of jaw-dropping headlines.” For Brown “the big, fat story we’ll all be chewing on for months.” Woodward’s the king of the jungle. Those who are baffled, angry, or dismayed by his recent actions: field mice! Brown shows off her listening skills:

Woodward works from home! Sometimes Woodward’s editors don’t hear from him for months! Woodward gets to write books without taking a leave! Woodward knows everybody! Everybody knows Woodward! Time to send Woodward to the woodpile! It must be the crowning irritation to smaller woodland animals that once again the Big Beast knew the name of a prime leaker before anyone else — and that, once again, he wasn’t talking till he was good and ready.

The best thing ever written about Woodward is nine years old, but its fundamentals still apply. It is Joan Didion’s portrait, “The Deferential Spirit,” published in September, 1996 by The New York Review of Books (subscription required.) It’s a character study disguised as a book review, and concentrated on Ephorn’s “Truth #2: Bob has always had trouble seeing the forest for the trees.”

Didion’s piece is especially valuable because it was written during the Clinton years, and so it illuminates Woodward’s method and “spirit” in their constancy from White House to White House. Among her observations is a single theme: Woodward can’t think, or won’t; and he knows better than to try. To think too deeply would bring him into conflict with his sources.

She refers to “Mr. Woodward’s rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him.” She talks of his “refusal to consider meaning or outcome or consequence.” More vividly: “this tabula rasa typing…” Or: “this disinclination of Mr. Woodward’s to exert cognitive energy on what he is told.”

About an attempt to supply the necessary “why” paragraph that explains why the book was written and what it’s about: “That these are questions with which he experiences considerable discomfort seems clear.” Again: “Woodward has crashed repeatedly when faced with the question of what his books are about, as if his programming did not extend to this point.”

Woodward says he’s known for being fair and doing his homework, and that’s why people talk to him. Didion says “fairness” is here abused. It means “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” Those who talk to Mr. Woodward can be confident “that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known.”

Thus: “The very impulse to sort through the evidence and reach a conclusion is seen as suspect, something to be avoided in the higher interest of fairness.” And in a final flourish she calls his book writing “political pornography.” How’s that? It exposes what’s hidden without showing what’s real.

In Howard Kurtz’s man-in-a-storm profile, David Gergen, the consummate White House insider, calls Woodward “one of the most seductive individuals in the whole world.” I talked to Kurtz for that profile, and I advised him to read Didion to understand why Woodward’s seductions don’t work on everyone. He said he would. (Arianna and Frank Rich did.)

“Woodward for so long was a symbol of adversarial journalism because of the Watergate legend,” Rosen says in Kurtz’s “The Man With the Inside Scoop,” Nov. 28. “But he really has become an access journalist, someone who’s an insider.” I put it better in the Q and A I did with readers (Nov. 22):

In theory we send these people out to report back to us. Some of them penetrate the secret worlds of national security and government policy-making on our behalf. But if they keep going into the secret world they can come under the gravitational pull of another planet— the people in power, the secret-makers themselves. They’re still sending back their reports, but have “left” our universe, so to speak. I think this definitely happened with Judith Miller, who is very far gone by now. It may have happened with Woodward too. The mysterious part is you never know exactly when that point is reached.

There were many Post readers who wanted to know if Woodward should be fired for keeping the paper in the dark. They thought yes. I said no. Woodward is technically an employee and Downie is technically his boss; in reality, the Post has an alliance with the sovereign state of Woodward, which has independent power because Bob is a best-selling author with a long track record who gets millions of people to buy his books because they do have “inside” revelations in them. On balance the alliance is probably good for the newspaper. But it’s absurd for Downie to say about Woodward: “There is only one of set of rules for everyone working in our newsroom.”

Different fundamentals apply to him. Woodward is richer, more famous and will be in power longer than almost anyone he interviews. This means that no situation where he’s the reporter is a “normal” one. Frank Rich had it right (Dec. 4):

Mr. Woodward knows more about the internal workings of this presidency than any other reporter. He has been granted access to all its top officials, including lengthy interviews with the president himself, to produce two Bush best sellers since 9/11. But he was gamed anyway by the White House which exploited his special stature to the fullest for its own propagandistic ends.

And it will probably happen again because among those grokking Woodward we do not find the big beast.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…


grok (grŏk)
tr.v. Slang., grok∑ked, grok∑king, groks.

To understand profoundly through intuition or empathy.
(Coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his Stranger in a Strange Land.)

Wowzer: (Dec. 13)

Howard Fineman, Newsweek’s chief political correspondent, said Monday night in the first program of a Drew University lecture series, that Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward had become a “court stenographer” for the Bush administration.

Standing before a crowd of nearly 300, Fineman, said Woodward went from being an outsider “burning the beltway”with his investigative work in the 1970s Watergate scandal under President Nixon to being, ” an official court stenographer of the Bush administration.”

Recommending this post, Jane Hamsher writes:

Entering “the club” seems to come at the price of perspective. For Plan of Attack, Woodward conducted 75 interviews, all of them anonymously sourced except for two — Bush and Rumsfeld. Nowhere in the book is mention made of, say, Richard Clarke. How are we supposed to evaluate the veracity of this information? Obviously the opinions of dissenters were not cultivated.

Atrios replies: “The reason Booby can get away with this is kind of thing has to do with the general culture of Beltway journalism in which Republican ‘senior administration officials’ are privileged over all else.”

Susie Madrak responds to this post at Suburban Guerilla:

As an editor, I often dealt with reporters (and editors) who had this very problem; they seemed utterly incapable of connecting dots, of telling readers what a story actually meant. (Many of them are still in journalism, by the way.)

These werenít stupid people, either. I finally realized it was a fundamental personality flaw, at least for a journalist Ė they simply didnít want anyone to be mad at them! They wanted to maintain easy access.

Christopher Fotos of PostWatch responds with Results-Based Journalism. “I am going to propose a radical idea: Bob Woodward doesn’t impose grand conclusions or Explain What It Means because he doesn’t think that’s his job. He thinks he’s a reporter, not a columnist or an editorial writer.”

Surprising developments on the presidential infallability front. From Peter Baker’s report in the Post (Dec. 8) about Bush’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations:

The address, the second of four in the days leading up to the Iraqi parliamentary elections Dec . 15, continued an effort to reach out to an increasingly disillusioned public with a more detailed and less triumphal portrait of the advances and setbacks on the ground. While still projecting confidence about the prospects for victory in Iraq, the speech included striking concessions for a president who has repeatedly avoided admitting mistakes out of the conviction that it signals weakness.

Meanwhile, on the Bush Bubble beat, patterns held. The president still judged himself not strong enough to take questions. The news was: the Council slimed itself by agreeing to that demand. Apparently members weren’t too happy about it. The CFR had to send out a last minute plea as it tried to fill the seats, according to Think Progress. (Read the e-mail: wanna bring someone? sure, you can bring someone… ) Certainly a low moment in that institution’s history, caused by a president who cannot be questioned.

If any sharpies in the DC press happen to be reading this post, get to Council boss Richard N. Haass first and ask him how he thought this week’s experiment in self-muzzling went, and how Council members responded to the opportunity to be good backdrop for Bush while hitting pause on the CFR mission, which is to be a forum for discussion. You know, back and forth, Q and A. Why did he do it? What was his price? Would Haass do it again? Then make your call list of Council members and you have a nice little story.

More bubble news: Newsweek’s Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe: Bush in the Bubble. “Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon.” (Dec. 11)

News on the retreat from empiricism front, science division— from a Noble Prize winner yet. The AP reports:

”There is a measure of denial of scientific evidence going on within our administration, and there are many scientists who are not happy about that,” said Roy J. Glauber of Harvard University, who shared this year’s physics prize with fellow American John L. Hall and Germany’s Theodor W. Haensch.

The guy just won the Nobel Prize for the US of A. And he sees “a measure of denial of scientific evidence” in the behavior of this White House. So if you can’t quite grok “retreat from empiricism,” it’s what Glauber is complaining about: beyond-the-norm evidence denial.

You can find these and other Bush-Cannot-Be-Questioned items (one press conference in six months…) at Dan Froomkin’s Indispensible White House Briefing. Where I got it all. Go there now for how the NAACP is down with the Bush bubble.

I’m telling you it’s a great story for the reporter who could put all the pieces together. Here’s your ur text. Also see PressThink: Rollback.

On October 21 I said I was switching from blogging to book and wouldn’t be posting until December, when I expected to be done drafting it. It’s December 8, I’m not done drafting it, but here I am.

In reply to my taking-a-break post, Daniel Conover, a regular in comments (also a journalist) said, “Why not find some experts, scholars and wise folk you trust to keep things going here during your hiatus?” His point was that PressThink in “forum” mode should continue, but it needs posts. (He also said, “You’re making a mistake if you read your creation at PressThink as being only what you write for it.”)

Made sense. So I asked a few people—wise folk—to fill in. Ron Brynaert, Jenny DeMonte, Lisa Williams, Steve Smith, and Liz George did an excellent job. (Thanks to each one.) It was a pleasure to read their posts, and see the reactions they caused.

The New York Times tells its staff: yes, we will have blogs. Read Jonathan Landman’s note about it:

Our bloggers will have editors. They will observe our normal standards of fairness and care. They wonít float rumors or take journalistic shortcuts. Critics and opinion columnists can have opinion blogs; reporters canít.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 9, 2005 1:27 AM