Sunday, November 20, 2005


I never did like Bob Woodward.

I was working as a newspaper reporter in Flint, Michigan in the early 70s when Woodward and Bernstein were getting famous as investigative reporters for The Washington Post, reporting on the Watergate scandal. I thought they got too much credit for breaking Watergate when it was really Judge Sirica, the no-nonsense district judge, who made the White House plumbers talk.

Part of the frustration of being a newspaper reporter is that you're always on the outside looking in. Woodward and Bernstein couldn't make anyone talk; only a judge, with threats of jail time for contempt of court could make an unwilling witness sing. The best a newspaper reporter can do is try to find out what is going on in the grand jury room. It's the difference between watching a game and being in the game. For much political reporting, it's not even watching the game, it's being locked out of the room where the game is being played and being dependent on the participants occasionally coming out of the room and telling you what's going on. Such information is inherently unreliable. The person leaking the information to the reporter is going to make himself look as good as possible. That's called "spin," nowadays, but the process was the same before the term was ever invented.

Memories are short and people now don't remember how much of what Woodward and Bernstein reported was wrong. The good their reporting did was not the content of the information they conveyed, but that they kept the Watergate story on the front pages of the newspapers for so long that Congress was finally forced to do its own investigation, which created yet more publicity.

Conservatives argue that the mainstream media have a liberal agenda which they try to impose on the rest of the country by the stories they publish. I used the term "argue" deliberately because thinking conservatives know better. The mainstream media are big business. They are all Wall Street traded companies whose only agenda is making a profit for their shareholders. They need to attract viewers and readers, and so they publish stories that will do that. Hopefully the stories will be more or less accurate because if the viewers and readers decide they can't rely on the particular media outlet, it will lose customers.

When I was a reporter we rarely used anonymous quotes. Woodward and Bernstein did great damage to the media by popularizing the use of anonymous quotes. While, arguably, anonymous quotes are necessary in order to get information out of government that officials want to stay hidden, politicians soon learned to use anonymity to their own advantage. They would leak information to make themselves look good without the readers being able to tell who was giving the information and thus be able to judge motivation and accuracy.

Woodward has made a career out of anonymous inside sources. The suspicion is that some of his material comes from his own head not from any anonymous inside source. The most egregious was a book about the CIA in which he claimed to have reported the dying words of William Casey, the ex-CIA chief, when no one was there except Casey's wife and she denied ever having talked with Woodward.

Woodward has had unparallelled access to the Bush White House, having found favor with The Lying Turd by publishing a laudatory book about the administration's reactions to the 9/11 attacks. Woodward was one of the cheerleaders in the run up to the Iraq invasion, and is the source of the unlikely story that at one point, asked the likelihood of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, CIA Director Tenet jumped to his feet and yelled, "It's a slam dunk." I doubt very much that incident ever took place. I very much doubt that Bill Clinton would have appointed as CIA director someone with that kind of childish demeanor.

The latest episode, with Woodward being told by "a senior administration official," that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA weeks before even the New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, was told about it, and then sitting on the information, never writing a story about it; not telling anyone about it (he claims he told Walter Pincus but Pincus denies it) demonstrates how distorted the practice of using anonymous sources has made the practice of journalism. To make matters worse, he then went on many talk shows and trashed the Fitzgerald investigation, saying that it wasn't going to amount anything, without revealing his own involvement in the matters Fitzgerald was investigating.

Woodward is supposed to be a newspaper reporter. If Dick Cheney told him that Wilson's wife is a CIA operative; that's news. He should have reported who told him, when they told him, what they told him and why they told him. Otherwise, he's simply being used as an administration public relations flack.

Maybe I'm just jealous that I never raked any muck in my short newspaper career, but I'm still never going to buy any of Woodward's books. His credibility is less than zero with me.

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