If Bob Woodward Is Really Trying to Help Journalists, He's Doing It Wrong

The iconic newspaperman says his criticism of the White House was grounded in concern for young reporters. He isn't doing them any favors.

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Associated Press

When last we visited Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter was everywhere complaining about an email he received from a White House aide. "I've tangled with lots of these people," he told Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei of Politico. "But suppose there's a young reporter who's only had a couple of years -- or 10 years' -- experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, 'You're going to regret this.' You know, tremble, tremble. I don't think it's the way to operate." 


As it turned out, the email wasn't as intimidating as Woodward led everyone to believe. He nevertheless reiterated his complaints in an evening segment on Fox News, telling Sean Hannity that he worries about young reporters getting "roughed up in this way."

To me, it's farcical to imagine a White House reporter trembling or feeling "roughed up" by an email stating, "You may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim." Especially if the reporter has known the author of the email for two decades, as is the case here. Of course, it's possible that Woodward overreacted in this one instance and that the Obama Administration regularly behaves in inappropriately adversarial ways toward the press. I'm most concerned about its attacks on whistleblowers and spying on the private communications of journalists. My colleague Ron Fournier says he has received a series of abusive emails. Mike Riggs of Reason compiles many examples of Team Obama misbehaving in this realm.

So is Woodward going to maintain his uncharacteristically adversarial posture toward the Obama White House until it keeps its transparency promises and behaves better toward journalists?

Nope:
BOB WOODWARD: I have had a back and forth with Gene Sperling. Now today, this morning, I understand he said, you know--

BOB SCHIEFFER: What he said was, "I hope we can put this behind us."

BOB WOODWARD: And-- and the answer is yes. You know, he's a peacemaker. I am in the business of listening, and I'm going to invite him over to my house if he'll come and, hopefully, he'll bring others from the White House, or maybe the President himself, and we can -- you know, this is -- talking really works.

BOB SCHIEFFER: It really works on this. All right. 
Isn't that cozy?

This outcome won't surprise anyone who has read "The Deferential Spirit," Joan Didion's 1996 review of six Woodward books. I cannot do justice to her entire insight here -- if you click through, do read the apropos part about Bob Dole and Bill Clinton ending their quarrel -- but I can offer this excerpt:
Washington, as rendered by Mr. Woodward, is by definition basically solid, a diorama of decent intentions in which wise if misunderstood and occasionally misled stewards will reliably prevail. Its military chiefs will be pictured, as Colin Powell was in The Commanders, thinking on the eve of war exclusively of their troops, the "kids," the "teenagers": a human story. The clerks of its Supreme Court will be pictured, as the clerks of the Burger court were in The Brethren, offering astute guidance as their justices negotiate the shoals of ideological error: a human story. The more available members of its foreign diplomatic corps will be pictured, as Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan was in The Commanders and in Veil, gaining access to the councils of power not just because they have the oil but because of their "backslapping irreverence," their "directness," their exemplification of "the new breed of ambassador--activist, charming, profane": yet another human story. Its opposing leaders will be pictured, as President Clinton and Senator Dole are in The Choice, finding common ground on the importance of mothers: the ultimate human story.
That this crude personalization works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation, is, for the people who find it useful to talk to Mr. Woodward, its point. 
A man in Woodward's position could do a great deal to shed light on the obstacles that the Obama Administration is putting in the way of journalists -- but not if he behaves as if the fears he professed about the White House making young journalists "tremble" are somehow resolved by Sperling making peace with Woodward and a friendly gathering at Woodward's house.

That doesn't make sense even on its own terms.

Woodward having access to a friendly White House is the status quo ante (credulous transcript available at Barnes and Noble circa 2015). That's just reality. But in the narrative Woodward has created, where the spat supposedly isn't about him but the larger issue of White House relations with the press, a Sperling rapprochement makes it seem as if, via Woodward, some larger problem has been solved; as if, thanks to Woodward, calmer heads in the Obama Administration have prevailed, and its relations with those young reporters aren't anything to worry about after all. Why, Team Obama is even willing to make amends with the icon who brought down a president!

What "peacemakers" they must be. 

My sincere thanks for Woodward's best scoops, but as one of those younger journalists he invoked -- 10 years on the job -- all I can say in this instance is thanks for nothing. He's making things worse by personalizing an issue that is not personal, and creating a phony impression of resolution. Of course, that could change. Take that proposed gathering at the Woodward house, or barring that, Woodward's inevitable next interview at the White House, where he could ask:
  • Since 9/11, how often have the private communications of journalists been spied on by the federal government?
  • Why did the Obama Administration decide to so aggressively pursue Bush-era whistleblowers?
  • How often are interviews with President Obama or other administration officials subject to preconditions about what can be asked? How often are questions or answers submitted to the White House before publication?
  • How common is it to classify information even when its release would do no harm to national security?
  • Why do White House officials so often insist on anonymity even for information they are authorized to release?
  • What justifies the White House practice of bragging about successes in programs that they treat as classified when asked about potential failures?
  • How often does tough coverage result in less access -- and vice versa?

I don't expect the White House to answer those questions willingly; but Woodward really pursuing them, and writing about whatever he finds or fails to find, would do far more for the nation and its rising generation of journalists than any falling out (or reconciliation) with Sperling -- not to mention any possible reporting on the inside baseball surrounding the sequester. If Woodward is disinclined to pursue these subjects, that's his prerogative. But he should stop talking as if the battles he has chosen are undertaken for the benefit of journalism writ large. Or if that is his motive, he should started tackling the problem in a way that could actually make it better.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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