. . . a media marketplace that long ago concluded having access to power is more important than speaking truth to it. —Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey, October 2005 essay
Bob Woodward rightly became a beacon in the journalism world for the groundbreaking shoe-leather reporting he and Carl Bernstein did on the Watergate scandal in 1972 for The Washington Post. Since then he has become known for his books gleaned from rarely given interviews with presidents and other powerful people in Washington’s high places. He appears often on television talk shows, giving inside looks at major stories as well as orotund comments on the practice of good journalism.
On October 27, Woodward appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and pronounced that the current Plamegate scandal in the White House was really much ado about nothing.
Here are some of his words: “First of all, this began not as somebody launching a smear campaign. . . . When the story comes out, I’m quite confident we’re going to find out that it started kind of as gossip, as chatter, and that somebody learned that Joe Wilson’s wife had worked at the CIA and helped him get this job going to Niger to see if there was an Iraq-Niger uranium deal.
“And there’s a lot of innocent actions in all of this. . . . Well, this is a junkyard dog prosecutor and he goes everywhere and asks every question and turns over rocks, and rocks under rocks, and so forth. . . . I think it’s quite possible, though probably unlikely, that he will say, you know, there was no malice or criminal intent at the start of this. Some people kind of had convenient memories before the grand jury.
“Technically they might be able to be charged with perjury. But I don’t see an underlying crime here, and the absence of the underlying crime may cause somebody who is a really thoughtful prosecutor to say, you know maybe this is not one to go to the court with.”
Is this the same Bob Woodward whose Watergate scoops were dismissed by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, the late Ron Ziegler, as piddling stories about a “third-rate burglary”? Doesn’t Woodward remember the reaction by many in the White House press corps, who initially sneered at the story and brushed it off as the fevered product of two lowly cityside reporters covering crime and the courts—which is what Woodward and Bernstein were at the time?
I wish I were wrong, but to me Woodward sounds as if he has come a long way from those shoe-leather days—and maybe on a path that does not become him. He sounds, I think, like those detractors in 1972, as they pooh-poohed the scandal that unraveled the Nixon presidency— the scandal that Woodward and Bernstein doggedly uncovered.
The day after that Larry King show, the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, picked by George W. Bush’s own Department of Justice, handed up a grand jury indictment of I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, for perjury, false statements, and obstruction.
Fitzgerald—who in his televised press conference came across as a very thoughtful prosecutor—stressed that there was nothing technical about these charges. They were serious crimes, he said. He also said his investigation into the White House doings was continuing.
It is clear that Fitzgerald does not share Woodward’s view that this scandal grew out of idle chitchat and wasn’t really a campaign to “out” a CIA operative and punish her husband for challenging the president’s weapons-of-mass-destruction rationale for going to war against Iraq.
I wonder what Woodward’s newsroom colleagues at The Washington Post think of his put-down of this investigation, especially the reporters—Dana Priest, Walter Pincus, Barton Gellman, Jim VandeHei, and others—who have been doing such an impressive job of digging deep and informing the public about the White House machinations and the larger Iraq story. I doubt they’re throwing him any parties.
To write his books, Woodward needs special access to major people in the White House and the key cabinet departments. He is presently working on what he says may be a multivolume treatment of Bush’s second term. He had access to the president himself for his book on the first term. But with this scandal still unfolding, lots of government biggies have suddenly zipped their lips. This has complicated Woodward’s work. Perhaps that explains, in part, his reluctance to mouth any full-blown criticism of Bush administration missteps.
Also, the indicted Libby has reportedly been a source for Woodward in the past. Critics in the press have suggested that Woodward is too close to some of his sources to provide readers with an undiluted picture of their activities.
His remarks about the Fitzgerald investigation convey the attitude of a sometime insider reluctant to offend—and that is hardly a definition of what a serious, independent reporter is supposed to be. It’s a far piece from Watergate.
People in glass houses
Last week’s New York magazine carried a lengthy article about the Voice and the proposed merger with New Times Media that will put it under new ownership. The thesis of the piece by Mark Jacobson, a former writer for the alternative weekly, was that the Voice, which has just celebrated its 50th birthday, wasn’t what it once was. That’s true, but it’s hardly an electrifying revelation. No newspaper of any importance in this country is what it used to be. All have adapted to—and continue to grapple with—the changes in our culture and in the technology of news gathering and delivery. And to the shrinking readership and advertising revenues these changes have wrought.
Jacobson, to his credit, doesn’t pretend he’s discovered something new. Here’s a candid passage about his interview with Village Voice Media’s CEO, David Schneiderman:
” ‘I don’t even know why you came over here,’ Schneiderman said, smiling. ‘Because you’re going to write the same story everyone does, how the Village Voice isn’t what it used to be anymore. But those people say they don’t read the paper, so how would they know?’ He could keep using that line to his uptown friends, but it wasn’t going to work with me. Because I read the Voice—every week, if only because there was stuff in there worth reading: my homey Hoberman’s movie reviews, the great Ridgeway, Wayne Barrett, and Tom Robbins, still kicking municipal butt. Still, it was so, the paper wasn’t what it used to be.”
My only reason for writing this postscript is that I wish Jacobson had given a little more space to the “stuff in there worth reading”—which would include the standout work by those he mentioned but also the contributions of newer arrivals like Jennifer Gonnerman, Jarrett Murphy, and many others.
I’m also a newcomer to the Voice, an alien immigrant from The New York Times and Newsday, mainstream papers that, most of the time, determinedly ignore the Voice‘s singular coverage of New York politics and government corruption. Is there some other publication in New York that exposes city and state malfeasance and nonfeasance the way the Voice consistently does? Certainly no other newspaper. And surely not New York magazine, which chose to omit this truth.