Monday, November 28, 2005

WaPo's Kurtz on Woodward

Washington Post staff writer and Media Notes columnist Howard Kurtz has a lengthy article in Monday's edition devoted to Bob Woodward called "The Man With the Inside Scoop," but it's the subtitle that really captures Kurtz' piece: "For Bob Woodward, Proximity to Power Cuts Both Ways."

And Kurtz certainly cuts both ways in this sometimes piercing must-reader which alternates between praise and condemnation for the secret Plame leak non-sharer. While some of the praise may get a little thick at the start of the column, from the second page and on there's so many sharp thrusts directed at Woodward from an assortment of peers, critics and once-admirers that - for more than a few seconds - you almost kind of feel bad for him.

Other Woodward issues that have "rankled" (yesterday's word) liberals for roughly the last five years are broached in the article. Much of this criticism has only been online, however, so Kurtz might be reaching a surprised and astonished audience (white is black and black is white). Once a hero, Woody has been more of a letdown to most astute liberals.

Kurtz has taken his share of licks from the left for his own familial proximity to power and has been attacked as a conservative shill and worse but - with exceptions - I've been a fan of his usually fair criticism ever since I read his talk radio takedown book, Hot Air, a few years back.

Since it's a long article I'll cut to the best parts - trapped in the middle - before weighing in on what is the most galling part of this whole Woodward story that he and his editor, Downie, refuse to really acknowledge (in other words: why I believe Woodward should be fired by The Washington Post).

Kurtz reveals that not everyone at WaPo is happy about Woodward's actions before and after he joined the Plame leak cast:

Woodward, who once headed the Metro staff, is widely admired at The Post, but a series of incidents has made some staffers question his loyalty to the paper. The Post was scooped on his book "Plan of Attack" in April 2004 when the Associated Press obtained an advance copy. Vanity Fair, not The Post, was the first to reveal this past spring that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, although in that case Woodward believed the 91-year-old former FBI official lacked the mental capacity to release him from his long-ago pledge. Metro reporters who wanted to know where they held their parking-garage meetings were miffed when Woodward revealed the Arlington location first to NBC's Tom Brokaw.

And a former Woodward source shows the danger of Woodward's reliance on access to power, in that the ones that talk to him may be given a larger role in the narrative than they might deserve:

Each Woodward book has generated its share of controversy -- particularly a hospital bed scene with a dying CIA chief William Casey in "The Veil" -- but nothing like the impassioned debate surrounding the Bush volumes. His books about Bill Clinton's administration, while nowhere near as polarizing as the work on Bush, were also dependent on top-level sources.

"He needs as his window into history the people who talk to him," says former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, noting that not everyone in that White House cooperated with Woodward. "That gives you a very flawed and distorted view.

"I certainly was a source on some of his books. I felt like I ended up having a prominent role that really didn't reflect reality. My role was inflated because I talked to him. You become part of the breathless narrative."

That - in a nutshell - is the problem with mainstream journalism. Rather than spending the time digging and researching, most reporters just write down what people tell them. Getting the interview is a bigger coup than finding that document (through a FOIA request perhaps) or digging through Congressional records like the great Izzy Stone used to do.

Back to Kurtz (and the reason why Woodward should get shitcanned):

Woodward made a "serious mistake" in not informing him about the Plame conversation, Downie says, even as Woodward was repeatedly criticizing special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald as a "junkyard dog" whose conduct in issuing subpoenas to reporters was "disgraceful." But, says Downie, "the fact that people would see that as a firing offense is unfathomable to me.

It's "unfathomable" to us "armchair critics" that we have to spell this out...because even Kurtz lets this go with no response.

First off, the "junkyard dog" epithet was a compliment so it's stupid to keep pounding on Woodward about this. Go to the Larry King CNN transcript and see for yourself:

"And, there's a lot of innocent actions in all of this but what has happened this prosecutor, I mean I used to call Mike Isikoff when he worked at the "Washington Post" the junkyard dog. Well this is a junkyard dog prosecutor and he goes everywhere and asks every question and turns over rocks and rocks under rocks and so forth...And it doesn't leak and I think it's quite possible that though probably unlikely that he will say, you know, there was no malice or criminal intent at the start of this. Some people kind of had convenient memories before the grand jury. Technically they might be able to be charged with perjury."

Woodward was clearly saying that Fitzgerald, like Isikoff, was so proficient an operator that he would go everywhere and anywhere to finish his job. No malice at all was meant in that off-hand remark that's taken up too much of the debate.

But Woodward was clearly advocating a position on national television which was designed - most of all - to cover his own ass.

Woodward was scared of being indicted. So he kept shut about his role in the affair and did his best to dissuade a prosecutor who has been keeping a very close eye on press coverage as shown in his indictments and letters to assorted attorneys.

If Woodward had only been guilty of lying that would be a far lesser offense. But by covering up his own involvement Woodward has 'forever-more' crippled his credibility and stature.

And...then there's the matter of that 18 page list of questions that Woodward sent to Cheney.

Apparently, it's "unfathomable" to Woodward and WaPo why that should be a no-no as evidenced by Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell's most recent column on all things Bob:

In a statement about his deposition, Woodward said that he submitted an 18-page list of questions to Vice President Cheney before he interviewed him for "Plan of Attack." Many readers were surprised that Woodward would tell a source what he intended to ask and said they thought he was going easy on a source. It is not uncommon in journalism, especially in highly complex stories, to let sources know what questions or issues will be asked. That doesn't mean that a reporter won't ask questions not on the list.

Why don't they get it?

It's not about whether or not Woodward won't be able to ask other questions it's that giving the questions well in advance allows his subject to closely vet and discuss with others the appropriate responses. That's not good journalism (sometimes it can be...but not as a rule). When Bob sends in his questions he's not getting a straight answer...he's getting a well-rehearsed one.

(I'm working on an article which will use Washington Post journalism rules to show what exactly Woodward did wrong...kind of like the piece I wrote for Jay Rosen's Press Think on The New York Times and Judith check back in a few days for that...and speaking of Jay...he's quoted in the Kurtz piece so make sure you read the whole darn thing)


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