Whatever Bob Woodward did or didn’t do, should or shouldn’t have done, knew or didn’t know, several lessons can be drawn from this latest of media scandals-and none of them speak well of journalism as it is practiced at elite levels today.
For one thing, the very definition of an “investigative reporter,” as Woodward is labeled these days ad nauseum, is a pretty elastic one. Meeting a source in a parking garage as a way of identifying abuses and high crimes by powerful insiders is one thing. Dining off that for the next three decades while chumming it up with well-placed insiders for their “exclusive accounts” is another.
In my book (and in most journalism textbooks), investigative reporting-as distinguished from other journalism-involves self-propelled inquiry into secrets that need to be uncovered. True investigative reporters struggle to obtain confidential or hard-to-obtain documents; elicit whistleblower testimony from those who could get in trouble for talking; track down elusive and obscure sources of valuable information; undertake painstaking, time-consuming efforts to construct elaborate charts and timelines based on hundreds or thousands of disparate elements. It is exhausting, often unglamorous work, not usually carried out within easy reach of champagne or $100 meals.
Investigative journalism rarely involves asking powerful people what they think or how they would like to characterize their actions. And that’s really what Bob Woodward has been doing for a long time: he has the fame and manner to gain access to sovereign and court jester alike, he gets them talking, and then he sells books full of what they have to say. Whether they are telling the truth, we have no way of knowing, because analysis and perspective are not Woodward’s strong suits. And reporters who produce a book a year can’t be doing a whole lot of investigating.
Woodward’s investigative appetites are further called into doubt by his claim to have realized his first-place finish in the Valerie Plame leak sweepstakes only after he watched Patrick Fitzgerald’s indictment press conference. If he were as savvy and interested as he suggests, he would have been preparing timelines based on the case since last summer at least, and therefore would have long recognized he could and would be a central player in the scandal.
Equally improbably, he asserts that by the time he thought fit to tell his boss (in late October) that he too had spoken in 2003 with White House officials about Plame, he was belatedly but “quite aggressively reporting” a story related to the Plame case. But why did it take the Libby indictment to prod him into aggressive-reporting mode when he himself had been privy to White House leaks whose only purpose was to discredit critics of the administration’s false WMD claims? In media appearances, he’d long pooh-poohed Fitzgerald’s investigation, while dismissing the outing of Plame altogether as a “non-story.”
Notwithstanding his newly declared enthusiasm for the story, one has to wonder what might be the outcome of the “aggressive reporting” he is now engaged in. Something that incriminates high White House officials? Not likely, or there will be no more insider access-not with this administration, in any case. Besides, that “aggressive reporting,” based on his track record, probably means more conversations with the players themselves-conversations that are more likely to comprise artful positioning on the part of the players rather than true confessionals.
There’s a self-serving aspect to so much of this business. “I explained in detail that I was trying to protect my sources,” Woodward said in an interview this week. “That’s job number one in a case like this.” What went unsaid was that protecting his sources-while maybe in the public interest-is definitely in his, since his entire genre is based on serving the interests of the powerful enough that they will continue to give him the unusual access that has made him rich.
The still-aborning Woodward controversy (with all the words already spoken and published in just a few short days) tells us something else about today’s breed of superstar journalists (and the wannabes): Given a choice between uncovering elusive but crucial new insights, or merely commenting on the work of others, they will often choose the latter. Not that reporters are proscribed from taking shots-this article certainly qualifies-but the basis for the criticism ought to be a track record of seeking the truth about the WMD disinformation campaign itself-and not merely playing telephone within the make-believe world of the DC snowglobe.
The same can be said about coverage of Patrick Fitzgerald. I suspect that the journalist-hours so far devoted to speculation about Fitzgerald and what his grand juries might be up to far outweigh the time and effort spent investigating the underlying story: exactly how the Bush administration got us-America and the world- into the mess we’re in.
Finally, there’s Woodward’s universally acknowledged special status. He is an “assistant managing editor” who does no managing, no editing and precious little daily journalism at all, but gets to carry a business card from a major daily while churning out bestseller insider tell-all books and earning a fortune for public speaking. The reality is that The Washington Post is a for-profit business, and so is Bob Woodward. Together, based mostly on advance excerpts from his books, they make money. Whether the public benefits-really truly benefits-as it does from fearless, exhaustive, plain vanilla investigative journalism is another question. (Other Posties do the real heavy lifting, but you’ve never heard of those poor schlubs.)
On Sunday, in a piece that was relatively tough on the wayward son, the Post’s own ombudsman referred to Woodward as “a relentlessly aggressive reporter and a rock-solid member of the Washington Establishment”–a characterization that gives a whole new meaning to the term oxymoron. Woodward’s knack for making nice with the people he should, by definition, be at odds with, is evidence anew that journalism must be reformed, rather dramatically, if it is to survive. Let the revolution begin…right now.
Investigative reporter and essayist RUSS BAKER is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is the founder of the Real News Project, a new organization dedicated to producing groundbreaking investigative journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.