It is hard to know where to place our anger: On President Trump or on Bob Woodward.
Woodward, famed Watergate journalist, is rolling out his new book, “Rage,” about Trump. In it, following a dozen interviews with the president, he reveals Trump deliberately downplayed the severity of the deadly coronavirus to avoid, Trump told Woodward, public panic.
Woodward knew this information months ago, and sat on it until the days leading up the marketing blitz for his book.
“Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives?” Trump tweeted Thursday. “Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
In an interview with media writer Margaret Sullivan for The Washington Post, Woodward said during the month of February, when the president made his statement, there was not a panic in reaction to the virus and no calls for Americans to take social distancing or other precautions.
“(T)he biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true,” he told her. The goal, he said, was to get the bigger picture and to publish before the election.
Here is an excerpt of Sullivan’s column, summarizing Woodward’s justification:
What’s more, he said, there were at least two problems with what he heard from Trump in February that kept him from putting it in the newspaper at the time:
First, he didn’t know what the source of Trump’s information was. It wasn’t until months later — in May — that Woodward learned it came from a high-level intelligence briefing in January that was also described in Wednesday’s reporting about the book.
In February, what Trump told Woodward seemed hard to make sense of, the author told me — back then, Woodward said, there was no panic over the virus; even toward the final days of that month, Anthony S. Fauci was publicly assuring Americans there was no need to change their daily habits.
Second, Woodward said, “the biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.”
Trump spoke with Woodward on more than a dozen occasions, and in some cases, “he started calling me at night.” It took months, Woodward told me, to do the reporting that put it all in context, which is what he believes his mission as an author is: “My job is to understand it, and to hold him accountable, and to hold myself accountable.” He added: “I did the best I could” toward those ends.”
We all know that authors, especially individuals writing nonfiction books, love to tantalize a prospective audience with juicy tidbits, like a trailer for a movie. But extending that analogy, oftentimes, the trailer proves to be better than the movie itself. The same thing has been happening with the tell-all books, including recent Trump-targeted works by John Bolton and Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump. Neither one of those books revealed anything more than what had been openly reported in both newspapers and news magazines, in part because this administration leaks information like a sieve, and the president can’t help but keep rolling out more information.
Woodward actually withheld news. Many present-day journalists — many of whom were likely inspired to get into the business because of the work he, Carl Bernstein and the staff of The Washington Post did during the Nixon era — know that such important information was critical to the nation. Sitting on it for months was self-serving and, as Sullivan posits — might have even cost American lives.
Journalists are defenders of facts and truths. They seek it out.
Plus Woodward acknowledges a motive to provide a broader context in the lead up to the presidential election. That is its own torpedo.
It is true, Woodward is no longer a daily journalist and has no affiliation with the Post except he is listed in the paper’s masthead. He purports to have the skills, gleaned as a news reporter, to be able to ferret out information and get people to say things they would not otherwise say. But a journalist who has that skill — writing for a daily newspaper or as an investigative reporter — has an obligation to the greater good.
Woodward’s ethics here are being called into question. And rightly so.
At a time where the media is being denigrated, mocked, marginalized and characterized by Trump himself as the “enemy of the people,” why would one of media’s most iconic individuals toss his ethics aside? We all know the answer.
Even small-town journalists in little Vermont understand that Woodward has brought shame on himself to further line his pockets. The public interest was what motivated the rise of his career. He can watch it crumble around him as it falls.