The Reporter-Author Balancing Act  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2004

The Reporter-Author Balancing Act   

Despite Bob Woodward's newsy books, he says his philosophy is the paper comes first.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      


Readers of the five-part, front-page serial of Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack," wondered to Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler if they had been shortchanged on the news for the sake of a publication deal.

"Plan of Attack," which shot to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction not long after its release, has prompted a good deal of discussion about what might be termed the three As: access, attribution and the arrangement. Post readers were particularly interested to know whether or not Woodward, who is an assistant managing editor at the paper, withheld breaking news to add impact to his book.

"Plan of Attack" is Woodward's detailed, insider reconstruction of 16 months--from November 2001 to March 2003--inside the Bush administration, leading to the war in Iraq. The book is an attempt to understand the leadership and character of President George W. Bush.

The intense scrutiny of Bush's war policies has caused some to question whether or not news gathered by Woodward for the book would not have been put to better use had he written and published stories for the Washington Post as he went along in the reporting.

What, exactly, is the arrangement between Woodward the author and reporter, his newspaper and the book's publisher, Simon & Schuster?

Both Woodward and Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Post, say that had there been breaking news coming out of the reporting for "Plan of Attack," the stories would have run first in the newspaper after getting permission from the sources.

The book developed organically from reporting Woodward says he launched in the days and weeks after 9/11. Woodward's 9/11 reporting was part of a package of Post stories that won 2002's Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. As Bush administration priorities changed, Woodward says he began gathering material for stories he hoped would explain the decisions that might lead to war with Iraq.

"I was trying to do something similar to this before the war started. Quite frankly, I was making meager progress. Before the war I could not get quality, multisourced documentation," Woodward says.

After the war began, the decisions already made, Woodward says he shifted to what Downie calls "accountability reporting," backtracking to find out the reasons behind those decisions. Woodward reported and researched for more than a year before drafting in November 2003 a 21-page memo to the White House. Woodward outlined the information he had and included a list of questions for President Bush.

After the Bush administration concluded Woodward had enough material for a book with or without the cooperation of the president, Bush consented to be interviewed. The administration had decided that only a book could give full voice to the myriad choices made on the way to war, Woodward says. The choice was a book or nothing. Without a book, there'd be no access to Bush, no smaller-scale stories.

On December 10 and 11, 2003, Woodward interviewed President Bush for three-and-a-half hours. That fall, Woodward had spent a good deal of time with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"The president wants the long story and so do I," Woodward says he told Downie. "Len Downie's point is that if we don't do this in the long form, we don't do it."

Downie says Woodward's fealty, first and foremost, is to the paper. Woodward kept the editors he worked with apprised of his progress with the book and, once the Post began its series, when asked, he shared with them notes and transcripts of the officials he was interviewing, Downie says. In his note to readers at the beginning of "Plan of Attack," Woodward says he interviewed 75 officials in the White House, the Department of Defense and the CIA. Downie was more than satisfied that those interviewed could remain anonymous.

"This was very, very good for Washington Post readers and the country, providing a wealth of new information about an issue very important right now," Downie says. "I'm very proud of the work that was done."

Without question, "Plan of Attack" performs a tremendous public service by giving people information they wouldn't otherwise get, says Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman. Woodward's work has opened avenues for other reporters who will amplify the revelations in the book. Woodward has earned the public trust through years of reporting that holds up, McMasters says.

But he is troubled by any arrangement like the one made with the president that suggests a public official is dictating terms. Even as he says it, McMasters realizes that such compromises are made every day in the business of gathering news.

"What I find unfortunate is that reporters are so at the mercy of newsmakers," McMasters says. "Today we see manipulation of the media in ways we've never seen before. You wind up with the public out of the loop."

Woodward's reputation should alleviate worries readers have that the book was planned without the public interest in mind, according to Stephen Kinzer, the Chicago-based national culture correspondent for the New York Times. Like Woodward, Kinzer writes serious books ("All the Shah's Men" about the 1953 coup in Iran) while he works for a newspaper. Unlike Woodward, Kinzer's books fall outside his beat.

"Let's face it, the rules are flexible for certain people like Woodward, and there ought to be special arrangements for those adding to the body of human knowledge," Kinzer says.

William Powers has seen the same questions raised about Woodward's work from the time Woodward began writing this kind of immediate history. Powers, media critic for National Journal, served as Woodward's researcher during the reporting of his book on the military, "The Commanders." He makes no secret of his family's close relationship with Woodward and his family.

Woodward is a reporter first, Powers says. As each of his books has demonstrated, Woodward's loyalty is to the broadest dissemination of government information, he says. Powers has seen firsthand Woodward's striving for comprehensiveness on the subjects he tackles.

"I think time and history determine how we should think of this work," Powers says. "In Bob's case there is a cultural understanding developed over decades that this is a guy we can trust."


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