Every few years, Bob Woodward offers up a best seller and a news cycle. By now, the ritual is as reliable as a deadlocked Congress. Woodward, every J-School’s chief deity, upchucks a book with a bevy of interviews with powerful men and women, sometimes named, usually not. News outlets dutifully report on revelations from these interviews, often deemed “explosive” or “bombshells,” since analogies of death and destruction tend to be the best we have. Woodward pronounces that he has created the narrative of this or that White House, and we are left to nod along gravely, accepting that a man played by Robert Redford in a movie all those years ago could not steer us wrong.
Woodward’s latest news cycle concerned whether he was right or wrong to not publish an interview he conducted with Donald Trump in March for his book Rage, in which Trump proclaimed he was “playing it down” in regards to the threat Covid-19 posed to the public. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump said. Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Woodward, in every journalistic sense, was wrong to choose his presumably lucrative book advance over the well-being of the American public. No journalist should suppress information. For that alone, Woodward should be dislodged from journalism’s Olympus. He put himself ahead of the truth.
Yet media commentators and the left writ large, in their scolding of Woodward, treated his decision as an aberration, or at least an example of a Great Man erring in judgement. How could he? The same pattern seemed to repeat itself last week when Woodward, making one of his regular pilgrimages to cable TV, asserted that journalists should stop asking too many tough questions about Trump’s faltering health—he had tested positive for Covid-19 and would soon be transported to Walter Reed Medical Center—and instead focus on wishing him well. It was the antithesis of what any journalist is supposed to do in a time of crisis, but, for Woodward, it was a natural extension of what he has been doing for most of his adult life. Trump is one of his great sources, after all, and sources must be safeguarded.
Any reasonable study of Woodward’s post-Watergate career would demonstrate that Washington’s most famous and successful journalist has been making bargains like these in search of access for decades now, elevating himself at the expense of a commitment to truth or even worthwhile insight. Unlike Robert Caro, perhaps the most esteemed journalist beyond Washington, Woodward has been dogged about allowing others to steer reality for him, to genuflect at the feet of power and ask simply that it all stays on deep background.
Trump is one of his great sources, after all, and sources must be safeguarded.
There is a particular insight that the New York Times’ Jennifer Szalai produces in her review of Woodward’s Rage, one that would be familiar to anyone who has tracked the media icon’s career since he teamed with Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post to break open the Watergate scandal. “The universe that Woodward comes from is where the old-school establishment is still venerated, and where Woodward thinks he can ask a president windy, high-minded questions like ‘What are your priorities?’ and ‘What’s in your heart?’ in the hopes that he’ll get some profound material for his book.” This is the apotheosis of D.C. access journalism, a mode of inquiry that, unlike phrenology, cannot be made extinct, no matter how useless and wrong it may be. In an administration of serial liars and malcontents—a White House that is, quite literally, run by whatever urge passes through Trump’s brain on a particular day—it is unclear what necessary information can ever be procured by these means. What is it, through supposedly sober interviews, you are getting access to? The Trump interview has become, in this age, the ultimate booby prize, with righteous, pursed-lipped journalists trekking to the Oval Office to seek the sort of breaking news that will make careers and Twitter followings, even though every interview proves, without exception, to be a forgettable waste. Trump is the most unreliable narrator.
Here’s a test: Can you recall a single, specific Trump interview in the last four years in which important news was made? Trump knows nothing of policy or procedure. We can keep arguing about whether he is a fully functioning fascist or a tin-pot dictator, but what is beyond doubt is that Trump knows little about anything pertaining to the intricacies of domestic or foreign affairs. We do not need Woodward’s sources to tell us this. In fact, we don’t need Woodward’s Trump-era projects for much of anything. It was clear, publicly, that Trump was downplaying coronavirus, lying about its impact, contradicting public health experts, and making absurd proclamations about all of it being gone by Easter so we could get back to church. Woodward is not offering crucial revelations; he is ensconced in the court of a mad king, hoping to translate drivel into English while buttering up the servants and jesters for their gossip.
This isn’t to say access journalism was a more reasonable or worthy approach before the ascension of Trump. For decades, Woodward has been a channel to entrenched power, happily transcribing falsehoods from the men he reveres. He wrote four books about George W. Bush. Enmeshing himself in the Bush White House, Woodward utterly believed the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the false pretext for the catastrophic Iraq War. When asked on Larry King Live whether there was the possibility of going to war and not finding WMDs, Woodward replied with certainty, “I think the chance of that happening is about zero. There’s just too much there.” Years later, Woodward conceded he “dropped the ball here,” as if getting Iraq wrong was like forgetting to refill the parking meter. Woodward explained his gullibility: “And that was intelligence people telling me this, all of the arguments.”
Journalism that relies solely on the arguments and insights of sources who have granted access and favor to the journalist is bound to fail because it amounts to compromised stenography. Most esteemed reporters can’t acknowledge this truth because it renders them little more than handmaidens to the powerful, ferreting out information that has been pre-approved for dispersal. Most sources choose their journalists for a reason; they want reporters who will do what they are told. They do not want Robert Caros. But they do want Bob Woodwards.
In 1996, when a second military invasion of the Middle East was still lacking a pretext, Joan Didion deconstructed Woodward’s career in the New York Review of Books. At the time, Woodward had published The Choice, an account of the 1996 presidential race between incumbent Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole. The book had received breathless coverage in Woodward’s newspaper, the Washington Post, where choice anecdotes about how Hillary Clinton met with the spiritual adviser Jean Houston and Dole deliberated over a running mate were printed. Plumbing the depths of Woodward’s oeuvre, Didion came to a startling conclusion: Woodward had written books “in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”
Sources jockey to feed their small-bore propaganda to Woodward, understanding he is always willing to be spun if the dirt is supreme enough.
Didion was the ideal writer to take a scalpel to Woodward because she had not been reared in the world of Washington inside baseball. The rituals and favor-seeking were alien to her. Again and again, Didion finds, Woodward had a remarkable “refusal to consider outcome or meaning or consequence.” Unlike Caro, who achieved his fame investigating and explaining how two of the most powerful men in American history, Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson, accrued their inordinate power, Woodward has been content to function as a glorified transcription service. People in government continue to talk to Woodward because Woodward is famous enough to be talked to, and they understand he will be a straightforward conduit for whatever self-serving point of view they wish to launder. Woodward, Didion notes, is unusually deferential to those who grant him time. Dole, the Republican nominee, is described as wearing a “handsome green wool shirt” and is asked, without irony, if he believed he was the “best candidate” when he sought the Republican nomination back in 1988. “Thought I was,” is Dole’s bombshell reply.
The crux of Woodward’s method, parroted to our detriment throughout the media power centers of New York and D.C., is taking inside spin and presenting it as unvarnished fact, always to the benefit of those who have the ears of journalists. “The informant who talks to Mr. Woodward, on the other hand,” Didion writes, “knows that his or her testimony will be not only respected but burnished into the inside story, which is why so many people on the inside, notably those who consider themselves the professionals or managers of the process—assistant secretaries, deputy advisers, players of the game, aides who intend to survive past the tenure of the patron they are prepared to portray as hapless—do want to talk to him.” This is the danger in the deep background Woodward is so fond of, which lends his reporting an undeserved air of enigma and shields his interview subjects from the consequences of lying. It is easy to lie when your name is not attached to the record—far harder if a good journalist challenges you to fuse your reputation to what you say. Sources jockey to feed their small-bore propaganda to Woodward, understanding he is always willing to be spun if the dirt is supreme enough. So much reporting on the Trump White House boils down to this: yet another D.C. journalist laundering the anonymous snipes and complaints of beleaguered aides attempting to grasp some upper hand in the madhouse.
Trump has merely heightened an already extant genre. Unfortunately, a potential Biden presidency will not snuff it out. The stakes may grow lower—the absurdities more subtle, the players more circumspect—but reporters will still be out for their source lunches and gossip, competing for the premium scoops from the West Wing aides, in this case likely Obama and Clinton veterans well-practiced in the game. Woodward, in due time, will come out with another book. All of the great newspapers will publish excerpts. He will sit for his television interviews. The cycle will complete itself. Woodward, and perhaps we, will have learned nothing.