The 'Dumb Blonde' of Journalism
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"I've spent my life," Bob Woodward told Larry King last week, "trying to find out what's really hidden, what's in the bottom of the barrel."
I found myself thinking about Woodward and his barrel-searching as I read Frank Rich's latest takedown of the administration's cover up of "wrongdoing in the executive branch between 9/11 and shock and awe:"
Each day brings slam-dunk evidence that the doomsday threats marshaled by the administration to sell the war weren't, in Cheney-speak, just dishonest and reprehensible but also corrupt and shamelessâ€¦ The web of half-truths and falsehoods used to sell the war did not happen by accident; it was woven by design and then foisted on the public by a P.R. operation built expressly for that purpose in the White House.
During this time, Woodward was writing two books on the administration -- Bush at War and Plan of Attack -- and enjoyed unparalleled access to many of those guiding the aforementioned P.R. operation, including head shills Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, and Andy Card.
So how come Woodward, supposedly the preeminent investigative reporter of our time, missed the biggest story of our time -- a story that was taking place right under his nose?
Some would say it's because he's carrying water for the Bushies. I disagree. I think it's because he's the dumb blonde of American journalism, so awed by his proximity to power that he buys whatever he's being sold.
In her scathing 1996 essay in the New York Review of Books , Joan Didion criticized Woodward's reporting as marked by "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."
And far from shying away from his reputation as a stenographer to the political stars, Woodward has embraced his inner bimbo and wears his "scrupulous passivity" as a badge of honor, proudly telling Larry King that his "method" means that "everyone in the endâ€¦ pretty much gets their point of view out." Woodward also told King: "I am strictly in the middle." The problem is, the truth isn't always in the middle; it's often located on the sidelines, or hiding in the shadows amidst the endless rush of detail Woodward so loves to fill his books with.
What Woodward fails to do again and again is connect the dots. He prefers to gather as many dots as he can, jam-pack his pages with them, and then let the little buggers hang out by themselves. Critical thinking that draws conclusions can be such a messy thing.
For a taste of how the Woodward Method plays itself out, let's look at one of the big headline-grabbing moments from "Plan of Attack" -- the scene where George Tenet, at a meeting in December 2002, assures the president that the intel on WMD is a "slam dunk."
After Tenet goes Dick Vitale, Woodward writes:
Card was worried that there might be no 'there there,' but Tenet's double reassurance on the slam dunk was both memorable and comforting. Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenet's assertion. He was, after all, the head of the CIA and would know the most.
It's hard to believe that Woodward was able to type this last bit without breaking into hysterics. "Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenet's assertion?" Is this the same Cheney who has been at odds with the CIA for more than a decade, frequently challenged CIA findings in the run-up to the war, and once wrote on an intel report prepared by DoD's Doug Feith, "This is very good indeedâ€¦Not like the crap we are all so used to getting out of the CIA?"
But does Woodward say any of that? No. He doesn't even present those Cheney-CIA dots here -- let alone connect them. He just gives us Cheney's POV. As for the president, in this scene, Woodward paints him as a scrupulous, meticulous, and honest leader who "told Tenet several times, 'Make sure no one stretches to make our case.'"
For those keeping score: Tenet twice said the intel was a slam dunk, while Bush warned against stretching to make the case "several times."
Again, did Woodward have to stifle his outrage when he wrote this? Or just his memory? Remember, this key meeting took place in December 2002 -- by which time the president and his team had been stretching to make their case for months. And not just a little -- their elasticity with the facts would put Mr. Fantastic to shame.
Here's just a little of what they'd been saying:
Bush: "The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weaponsâ€¦And according to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes." (9/26/02)
Bush: "You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam." (9/25/02)
Cheney: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." (8/26/02)
Condi: "We do know that [Saddam] is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon." (9/10/02)
Rummy: "[Saddam has] amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of biological weapons, including Anthrax, botulism, toxins and possibly smallpox. He's amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons, including VX, Sarin and mustard gas." (9/19/02)
Any reporter worth his salt would have used these publicly available quotes to -- yes, connect the dots -- and show Bush's "make sure no one stretches" comment to be the PR pap it so obviously was. But Woodward just swallowed it. Nor did he stop at failing to connect the dots in his book. He went on the air and repeatedly presented a presidential portrait belied by endless facts available on LexisNexis without any special access. Here he was on Jim Lehrer in the spring of 2004, gushing about the president's "moral determination, which we've not seen in the White House maybe in 100 years." This in the wake of Abu Ghraib. "Moral determination" indeed.
In a conversation with Carl Bernstein on Monday, I mentioned what Woodward had said on Lehrer. Bernstein continued to defend his former partner but did draw my attention to an op-ed he had written for USA Today which ran a month after Woodward's appearance on The NewsHour. It was filled with dot-connecting and bristled with outrage:
"At a juncture in history," Bernstein wrote, "when the United States needed a president to intelligently and forcefully lead a real international campaign against terrorism and its causes, Bush decided instead to unilaterally declare war on a totalitarian state that never represented a terrorist threat; to claim exemption from international law regarding the treatment of prisonersâ€¦ Instead of using America's moral authority to lead a great global cause, Bush squandered it."
It is indeed a tale of two reporting styles, one that makes you wonder what All the President's Men would have been like if Woodward had written it alone.
What makes matters worse is that a whole year before "Plan of Attack" was released Woodward had helped Walter Pincus put together a story challenging the White House's claims on WMD. "I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder," he told Howard Kurtz in August 2004 (four months after his book came out). "We should have warned readers we had information that the basis for this was shakier [than widely believed]."
The question is: why didn't he warn the readers of his book? He repeatedly boasted on Larry King about his "aggressive reporting mode." So why not aggressively report the WMD story and connect those dots in his book? Woodward is a master of offering readers minute details that give them a sense of being a behind-the-scenes observer of history in the making, but which, in fact, mask the real story of what is going on.
Check out this tidbit from "Plan of Attack" in which Woodward recounts a meeting the Bush team had with outgoing secretary of defense William Cohen and the Joint Chiefs of Staff just before taking office.
The JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] staff had placed a peppermint at each place. Bush unwrapped his and popped it in his mouth. Later he eyed Cohen's mint and flashed a pantomime query. Do you want that? Cohen signaled no, so Bush reached over and took it. Near the end of the hour-and-a-quarter briefing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Henry "Hugh" Sheldon, noticed Bush eyeing his mint so he passed it over.
Feel like a fly on the wall? Perhaps, but wouldn't you rather hear more about the fact that, according to Woodward, Cheney had told Cohen that 'Topic A should be Iraq.' Iraq as Topic A -- months before 9/11, indeed even before Bush was inaugurated. But instead of connecting those dots we get not a vice president ravenous for Saddam's head but a president ravenous for mints.
Thanks to reporting like this, the sum total of the abundant facts Woodward always gives us is actually less than its parts. Instead of the truth, we get these shiny baubles of information. Shiny baubles that distract us, diminish our understanding of what is really going on, and -- as the lies that led us into war are revealed -- ultimately delay our discovery of what's really hidden in the bottom of the barrel.