*He was once a great journalist, but his obsession with "access" turned
him into a palace courtier and shill for the GOP.*
*By Joe Conason*
Nov. 19, 2005 | Forced to reveal his strange secret about the Valerie
Plame case, Bob Woodward has humiliated his trusting bosses at the
Washington Post and exposed something rotten at the center of
journalism's national elite. By withholding critical information from
the Post's editors and pretending to be a neutral observer, Woodward
badly compromised the values that he and his newspaper once embodied. A
living symbol of the great constitutional role of a free press -- to
hold government accountable -- has evidently degenerated into another
obedient appendage of rogue officialdom.
With his relentless pursuit of "access," the literary formula that has
brought him so much money and fame, Woodward placed book sales above
journalism. Boasting of his friendly relationship with the president who
facilitated his interviews with administration officials, he now behaves
like the journalistic courtiers of the Nixon era.
To those who have observed Woodward's career since the glory of
Watergate, including readers of his many bestselling books, the change
in his role and outlook have long been obvious. For him, the cultivation
of high-ranking sources is the very essence of journalism. And while
there is no question that reporters owe a duty of confidentiality to
their sources, it is also true that they owe candor to their colleagues
and transparency to their readers.
Sadly, Woodward not only served as a silent accomplice of the Bush White
House in its attack on Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, but went
much further by publicly criticizing special counsel Patrick
Fitzgerald's investigation of that attack -- and suggested repeatedly,
up to the eve of the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby,
that the investigation should be curtailed. Now, instead, his own
admission of involvement may have figured in Fitzgerald's indication
Friday that he plans to call a new grand jury in the case.
Indeed, Woodward abused his position as a journalistic authority on
intelligence and national security issues to denigrate the Fitzgerald
probe. Last July 7, on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," he claimed
to know that the outing of Plame's identity had created "no national
security threat" and "no jeopardy to her life." He went on to mock the
case: "There was no nothing. When I think all of the facts come out in
this case, it's going to be laughable because the consequences are not
that great." He didn't say then how he supposedly knew what consequences
did or didn't flow from the CIA operative's exposure.
Ten days later, on CNN, Woodward told host (and Post colleague) Howard
Kurtz that he didn't think any crime had been committed. He went on to
complain about how long the leak investigation had taken. "The special
prosecutor has been working 18 months. Eighteen months into Watergate we
knew about the tapes. People were in jail." That kind of spin is more
worthy of a Republican pundit than a Post editor (and of course Woodward
never complained about the extraordinary length and expense of Kenneth
Starr's Whitewater investigation, presumably because the sources in that
case were leaking to the Post).
Woodward reiterated his exoneration of the White House on Oct. 27 -- and
on that occasion, he told CNN's Larry King that he knew the CIA had
completed its own assessment of the affair and found that no damage had
been done in exposing Valerie Plame Wilson.
Only two days later, however, his own newspaper reported that the CIA
had performed no formal damage assessment -- a process that doesn't
begin until after any criminal investigation is finished. And Woodward
neglected to tell King's audience that the CIA had originally demanded
that the Justice Department investigate the leak because of its
potentially serious effects on national security.
Those misleading remarks were only exceeded by his disingenuous
statements about how the leak might have occurred. Denying that there
had been a "smear campaign," he assured King that "when the story comes
out, I'm quite confident we're going to find out that it started kind of
as gossip, as chatter."
Of course, Woodward knew then how the leak began, in very specific
terms, and used his privileged position to help promote the Republican
line. (For a full catalog of Woodward's media misbehavior in this case,
see MediaMatters.org. <http://www.mediamatters.org>)
According to the Post's ombudswoman, Deborah Howell, the public is now
outraged over Woodward's conduct. They are confused by his actions and
unconvinced by his explanations, which are contradicted by the timeline
of the investigation. Post executive editor Leonard Downie, who bravely
engaged in a chat with angry readers
on Friday, was reduced to offering testimonials about Woodward's
truthful character and bromides about his exceptional record.
"Bob Woodward never lied," declared Downie. Yet at another point in the
same conversation, the Post editor conceded that a reader was "correct"
in saying Woodward had been "dishonest in the extreme" and "probably
destroyed his credibility." Those consequences of his "mistake," said
Downie, would have to be measured against "Bob's exceptional record."
So will the contents of Woodward's next book on the Bush administration.
* -- By Joe Conason*