Say It Isn’t So, Bob  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2005

Say It Isn’t So, Bob   

Woodward keeps a secret—from his bosses

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It was inevitable.

Bob Woodward, Mr. Anonymous Sources himself, has become embroiled in a saga that's all about anonymous sources.

Sadly, he's become involved in a shocking way that raises huge questions about his role at the Washington Post.

It turns out that an unnamed Bush administration official told Woodward in mid-June 2003 that Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative. It wasn't until July 14 of that year that columnist Robert D. Novak made that fact public.

Once Novak's column hit, the debate about whether the Bush administration had "outed" a CIA agent to punish Wilson for criticizing its rationale for going to war in Iraq became a Washington mega-story.

But Woodward didn't tell his editors at the Washington Post about the encounter.

In recent months, Judith Miller and her role in the Plame case have become a veritable obsession of the chattering classes. But even then Woodward didn't tell his nominal bosses.

But, according to the Post, it wasn't until last month that Woodward told Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. – not long before his mystery source mysteriously approached Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

I've long been an admirer of Bob Woodward the reporter, the man who helped break the Watergate story and has broken so many others since. He has consistently and forcefully made a compelling case for why in some instances it is not only acceptable but laudable to use unnamed sources. Lots of important stories wouldn't come to light without them.

But I've also been troubled by his dual role as Post scoopmeister and assistant managing editor on the one hand, and Bob Woodward Inc., producer of numerous best-selling books, on the other.

Woodward has been criticized over the years for withholding juicy tidbits from the Post for use in his books. It makes you wonder where his loyalty lies. And by keeping silent about the Plame leakage, he casts himself as an independent operative accountable to no one.

To his credit, Woodward has apologized to Downie. But that hardly undoes the damage.

I love the fact that Ben Bradlee jumped to his friend Woodward's defense, telling Editor & Publisher that it was OK that Woodward kept mum for more than two years. "I don't see anything wrong with that," Bradlee said. "He doesn't have to disclose every goddamn thing he knows."

If a reporter had held out on Bradlee in such a manner when he was running the Post (where I once worked), he probably would have had to be restrained from throwing said reporter out the window.

Also troubling is the way Woodward belittled the Fitzgerald investigation in television interviews, without giving a hint that he himself might be part of the story.

There are a number of ingredients in this unsavory stew that weirdly echo the Judith Miller imbroglio.

The Post's story on Woodward's Plame source and his testimony before the grand jury contains this line: "He would not answer any questions, including those not governed by his confidentiality agreement with sources." Now keeping a pledge is commendable (the source freed Woodward to testify in secret, not to go public). But to take no questions at all, to discuss things in no way connected to his confidentiality obligations, is just wrong, just as Miller was wrong to cooperate so halfheartedly with Times reporters reconstructing her case.

Then there's the memory issue. Miller "didn't think" she had heard about Valarie Plame from I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the recently indicted former top aide to Vice President Cheney. Woodward says it's possible that he asked Libby about Plame or Wilson, but he had "no recollection" of doing so.

And just as Miller and New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson had disagreed over whether Miller asked to pursue a story about Plame and Wilson, Woodward and Post reporter Walter Pincus differ over whether Woodward told Pincus at the time about his conversation about Plame. Woodward says he did. Pincus says he doesn't remember that happening. "Are you kidding?" the Post quoted Pincus as saying. "I certainly would have remembered that."

Ever since the Bush administration – at the urging of, among others, the New York Times – fired up Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the Plame case, it's been an unmitigated disaster for journalism. Court setbacks for the right to protect anonymous sources. Reporters hauled before the grand jury (with more courtroom appearances on the horizon). The Miller affair and all of its damage to both the reporter and the New York Times.

Now a journalistic icon has been caught up in the machine.

The hits just keep on coming.

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