Getting Bob

Why are some journalists giddily celebrating Bob Woodward's fall from grace?

Let's review the ostensible reasons that Bob Woodward has been on the griddle the last few weeks: 1) He didn't reveal what he knew about the Valerie Plame affair, not even to his own newspaper; 2) he went on TV and radio and dismissed the Fitzgerald investigation as a pointless charade.

I say "ostensible" reasons because, while they're absolutely newsworthy, I don't think they fully explain the ferocious media uproar about Woodward. Something deeper is going on here.

Before I get to that, a product warning: Woodward hired me for my first job in journalism, as his research assistant at The Washington Post and on his 1991 book, The Commanders. We are close friends, and I sometimes talk to him about columns I'm working on, though we did not talk about this one. So, if you're looking for an unbiased take on him, this wouldn't be it.

A lot of people, inside and outside journalism, were understandably incensed at Woodward's Plame revelation. He made a mistake in withholding what he knew for so long, and he has said as much. Because his explanation is consistent with what we've always known about Woodward—that he can keep a secret and protect a source—I'm not sure that this should have been such a stunner. But then, the biggest stories tend to be those that are both surprising (Woodward knew!) and familiar (of course he knew!). News is a lot like a pulp novel—shocking yet formulaic.

In any case, that initial reaction quickly morphed into something different, a giddy celebration of Woodward's fall. The festival unfolded on Romenesko, a Web site of the Poynter Institute where journalists flock to track news about each other and where the recent headlines have included "Why Woodward Foolishly Trashed Fitzgerald's Investigation"; "Woodward Seemed Evasive, Self-Absorbed on King's Show"; and " 'I Liked the Old Bob Woodward Better,' Says Media Professor."

The last one is the most telling. In fact, Woodward hasn't changed at all—he's where he always is, somewhere close to the center of the big Washington story, and that's what really drives other media people crazy. Imagine the agony of other hardworking Washington reporters. They'll toil away for years on a big beat—the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, the White House, the CIA—and feel they've done a bang-up job. After all, they broke some news, scored big interviews, revealed the "inner workings" of government. Then Woodward comes along, spends a year on the same subject, and launches the news equivalent of an atomic bomb: a week's worth of jaw-dropping headlines that obliterate everything the regulars have done.

For those other reporters, including Woodward's Post colleagues—especially them, in some ways—this is painful stuff. So when the Woodward-Plame news broke, the reaction was inevitable. Like a younger child long overshadowed by the star sibling, the media establishment finally had something bad on Bob. Finally, an occasion to say, "Oh, yeah, all those gigantic stories, the ones that have run on the front pages of America's newspapers for decades and set the bar for Washington journalism, well, they weren't valuable or even all that great. Woodward just got them because he's a suck-up to power."

Of course, the reality of journalism is that everyone has to suck up—request the interview, make the small talk, form the connection, try to pry out the bits of information that journalists sausage into news. It just happens that some of us—or rather, one of us—is a lot better at getting news, news so fresh and inside it astounds even the insiders.

The other reason for the Woodward backlash is a simple lack of imagination about journalism. First, you've got the nitpickers and journalism-school types who are obsessed with Woodward's dual role as a Post editor and an independent author. "Tsk tsk tsk," these critics say, "can't serve two masters, rulebook says it right here." To which the only sane response is: What?!?! If Woodward chose books and left The Post, how would that be good for journalism, or for the reportedly dying beast known as the American newspaper? It wouldn't, and I can't imagine Post Chairman Donald Graham doesn't know this.

Second is the need to have history repeat itself over and over. Thus, because George W. Bush is going through a scandal-plagued second term, he must be Nixon redux, and there must have been a secret meeting where the fiendish plotters met and decided to undermine democracy. And there must be a smoking gun and Bob Woodward must find it, because nobody else can, and that's what the script says.

But what if there was no dark, secret meeting, no smoking gun? What if this whole war happened more or less as we already know it did, and as Woodward has already laid out—a president who believes he has a direct line to God led us recklessly into Iraq? In short, what if it was just a case of stupid thinking and bad leadership?

This is a possibility that's very hard for the media to stomach. A lot of powerful journalists and outlets bought the administration's war arguments, and intelligence claims that turned out to be false. They don't want this war to be based on mere stupidity—because that implicates them. They want a fiendish plot, and they feel that it's Bob Woodward's duty to produce one. Just one problem: He doesn't work that way.