An old journalist friend of mine is fond of saying that “the press can dish it out, but we don’t have to take it.” I thought of that great one liner as what might have been – should have been – a serious discussion of federal budget policy over the last week turned into a junior high school style story about Bob Woodward, the ultimate Washington insider, being “threatened” by a mild-mannered White House economic adviser.
By now, unless you don’t follow what passes for serious news these days, you know that Woodward, the more famous half of Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame, has been all over the tube expressing dismay at White House staffer Gene Sperling for suggesting that the famous reporter might “regret” pushing his version of a story on the origins of the dubious sequester idea.
As a one-time reporter who was “threatened” over the years by tougher guys than Gene Sperling, I offer a couple of observations on the Washington culture of political reporting, at least as practiced by Woodward.
First, it’s impossible to believe that Bob Woodward hasn’t been roughed up in private before by a White House official who took umbrage at something he was about to write or had written. This is the guy after all who helped unravel the Watergate affair during the Nixon Administration; a White House staffed by a bunch of guys who maintained an “enemies list” that included at least two serious and often critical reporters – Daniel Schorr and Mary McGrory – not to mention Paul Newman and the president of the National Education Association. If Woodward can be “threatened” by an email from a presidential economic adviser - an email where Sperling apologized for losing his temper in an earlier phone call – he either has been living a charmed existence as the only reporter on the planet never cussed out by a source or he truly has a journalist glass jaw that can’t absorb even the lightest tap. I suspect his motives for making a big issue of this little matter are more complex.
Second, this entire tempest in a thimble casts truly unfavorable light on what many serious people have know for a long time to be Woodward’s dubious methods to gain and hold access to the powerful in Washington, D.C. and, of course, those who hope to be powerful. The dirty little secret of politics and journalism is that reporters and political people engage daily in a carefully choreographed kabuki dance that involves the constant trading of little favors – information, access, quiet confirmation, invitations, tips – that ultimately works to the benefit of those doing the reporting and those in constant need of exposure. Woodward has developed this dance into a lucrative publishing and speaking career that mostly involves repeating the completely predictable wisdom of those willing to provide him access for what he then usually reports as the exclusive inside story of big decisions.
Writing in The New Yorker John Cassidy nailed it when he said Woodward’s real beat has become the Washington establishment; the Georgetown, Wolf Trap, Charlie Palmer Steak, K-Street crowd that lives and breathes the kind of gossip the Washington Post Style section exists to deliver.
“The real rap on Woodward isn’t that he makes things up,” Cassidy writes (and Woodward has been accused of that). “It’s that he takes what powerful people tell him at face value; that his accounts are shaped by who cooperates with him and who doesn’t; and that they lack context, critical awareness, and, ultimately, historic meaning.”
Or as Joan Didion wrote in a critical assessment of Woodward’s work in 1996 his books involve “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” The reality Didion describes is at the core of much of the alternative reality, fact-free debate that permeates American politics today. Woodward’s books top the best seller list – therefore, the logic goes, they are important – but when the real history of the Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations is written the Woodward tomes, free of footnotes, devoid of real analysis and based mostly on comments from unnamed sources, won’t be cited for the simple reason they can’t be trusted. After all Woodward hasn’t really been writing a first draft of history, but a thinly sourced account of people in power who provide access that they hope will, in the short term at least, cast them in the best possible light. What Woodward does is really not journalism, but more like the first draft of self-serving conventional wisdom from the people in the Washington establishment who will talk with him.
No one can take away from Bob Woodward’s (and Carl Bernstein’s) legacy as the shoe leather reporters who uncovered one of the great scandals in American political history and brought down a president. But the young Bob Woodward, who did old fashioned, grind it out police reporting to illuminate Watergate, has become at age 70 as much a fixture of the Washington establishment as the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel. His professional oxygen, just as with the people who cultivate his approving coverage, is publicity and acceptance. Without it he’s just another D.C. reporter in a wrinkled trench coat and not a real player, and to be somebody in D.C. you simply must be a player. Woodward has chosen to chronicle the conventional and the predictable and that will eventually be the way he is remembered – as the court reporter of the Washington establishment.
You could take Bob Woodward more seriously if he both dished it out and took it. Go back, if you can stand it, and read his account of George W. Bush’s decisions to go into Iraq and the subsequent make-up books critical of Bush. The latest Woodward non-scandal, after all those breathless books, is proof that he doesn’t really either dish it out or take it very well. How Washington of him.