All the Reporter's Men

Woodward's turn to answer questions about breaking—and not breaking—news

From my 45 years as a reporter, this doesn't persuade me. Government officials with a mission to leak often affect a casual, innocent manner when dropping the information into a conversation. Woodward has been fielding leaks for too many seasons to be unaware of this tradecraft.

And also, in my experience, important conversations about important stories do not fade quite the way Woodward intimates they do when he says he doesn't recall whether Libby or Card brought up Wilson's wife. Reporters almost always remember such things.

I can remember clearly the moment in 1971 when the CIA station chief at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi approached me on a parade ground at the embassy's July 4 celebration and asked me casually, as we ate hot dogs, if I had heard about the Bangladeshi freedom fighters who had blown up a key power station in East Pakistan earlier that day, blacking out the entire capital city of Dhaka. I replied, obviously lying to go along with the game, that I had heard something about it but no details. He then offered several details, offhandedly. I finished my hot dog and went off to confirm the story at other Western embassies. I filed it that evening, and it was on the front page of The New York Times the next morning.

I—and every other seasoned journalist—have lots of memories like that. Woodward has always been proud about keeping detailed records of his reporting, especially interviews. His memory is as sharp as a sushi chef's knife. "I don't recall" was halfway believable with Ronald Reagan. Not so with Woodward.

He openly says that protecting his sources is his highest priority. Here's a response he gave to Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post: "I apologized [to the executive editor, Leonard Downie] because I should have told him about this much sooner. I explained in detail that I was trying to protect my sources. That's Job No. 1 in a case like this. . . . I hunkered down. I'm in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn't want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed."

Again, something is missing. Reporters have lots of different thoughts and emotions when they come across an important story. In my life, and the lives of most reporters, "Job No. 1" is getting the story confirmed and into the paper quickly. Get it to the readers now, not two years from now, so they can assess it and act on it, if they choose. A second emotion: Get it to them before the competition gets wind of it.

I believe it's fair for a reasonable person, without being inside Woodward's head, to listen to his explanations and arrive at the notion that his main priorities are protecting his sources and protecting the exclusivity (and therefore marketability) of his next book. That wasn't true when he and Bernstein were prying open the Watergate story. He didn't have any book contracts then to muddle and infect the issue. In this instance, his explanations include no thoughts about writing an early story for his paper, no reservations about holding back information from the public.

No one is questioning Woodward's reporting skills or his intelligence. And I don't want to know the names of his sources. I believe in granting confidentiality when it's the only way to get a story out—and in going to jail if that's the consequence of refusing to identify a source or turn over notes. But when your modus operandi is to hold on to information instead of publishing it right away, then, in my opinion, you are not serving the public.

Worse, in his many recent public appearances on television and elsewhere, Woodward dismissed the Plamegate investigation as so trivial as to be "laughable" and used scornful language to describe the prosecutor, who has a long history of being apolitical, thoughtful, and wedded to the law. And he did all that without revealing, even to his own newspaper, his own role in the story. Only Woodward can explain that performance.

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