By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
Two waves of outrage greeted the news on Wednesday of Bob Woodward’s latest White House chronicle, a book titled “Rage.”
The first was President Trump’s disclosure to Woodward that he knew as early as February — even as he was dismissing the coronavirus publicly — that the looming pandemic was far deadlier than the flu.
The second was that Woodward, long associated with The Washington Post, didn’t reveal this to the public sooner.
The fact that this second outrage mostly circulated among journalists talking to each other made it no less furious: If the famous Watergate reporter knew that Trump was lying to the public about a matter of life and death, why didn’t he reveal it immediately?
Woodward is hardly the first journalist to save juicy information for a book. But “is this traditional practice still ethical?” tweeted David Boardman, dean of the Temple University journalism school and the longtime editor of the Seattle Times.
Other critics were less circumspect: “This is really troubling. As journalists we’re supposed to work in the public interest. I think there’s been a failure here,” wrote Scott Nover, a reporter for the industry journal Adweek.
In fairness, it wasn’t just journalists raising concerns. A reader wrote to me arguing that Woodward’s revelation “could have been helpful in the spring, both explaining the seriousness of the disease to the public, showing the Trump administration’s bungled and inept response, and pushing the Trump administration to do more.” He added with a touch of cynicism, that he hoped the author’s advance fee made the delay worthwhile.
The questions are valid, and as Boardman notes, far from new. They surface almost every time a journalist writes a book that contains newsy information, especially about matters of national security or public well-being: Why are we only reading about this now?
As recently as last week, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt was criticized for withholding some meaty revelations for his book about the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia and the Robert Mueller investigation. “It is not immediately entirely clear why these reports, many dating back as far as three years, made it into the pages of Schmidt’s book rather than the subscription-based newspaper that employs him,” wrote Roger Sollenberger in Salon.
I took the questions and complaints to Woodward, who initially was reluctant to speak on the record until after a “60 Minutes” segment airs on Sunday because he had promised the publisher and CBS not to give any interviews until then. But because my questions were about process, rather than the content of the book, he agreed to address the ethical issues.
Woodward told me that — contrary to speculation — he did not have any signed agreement or formal embargo arrangement with Trump or the White House to hold back their conversations until the book published.
“I told him it was for the book,” he said; but as far as promising not to publish in real time, or signing such an agreement, “I don’t do that.”
Woodward said his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.” (Former Washington Post publisher Phil Graham famously called journalism “the first rough draft of history.”)
What’s more, he said, there were at least two problems with what he heard from Trump in February that kept him from putting it in the newspaper at the time:
First, he didn’t know what the source of Trump’s information was. It wasn’t until months later —in May — that Woodward learned it came from a high-level intelligence briefing in January that was also described in Wednesday’s reporting about the book.
In February, what Trump told Woodward seemed hard to make sense of, the author told me; back then, Woodward said, there was no panic over the virus; even toward the final days of that month, Anthony Fauci was publicly assuring Americans there was no need to change their daily habits.
Secondly, Woodward said, “the biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.”
Trump spoke with Woodward on more than a dozen occasions, and in some cases, “he started calling me at night.” It took months, Woodward told me, to do the reporting that put it all in context, which is what he believes his mission as an author is: “My job is to understand it, and to hold him accountable, and to hold myself accountable.” He added: “I did the best I could” toward those ends.
But why not then write such a story later in the spring, once it was clear that the virus was extraordinarily destructive and that Trump’s early downplaying had almost certainly cost lives?
Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture; one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.
Woodward’s effort, he said, was to deliver in book form “the best obtainable version of the truth,” not to rush individual revelations into publication.
And always with a particular deadline in mind, so that people could read, absorb and make their judgments well before Nov. 3. “The demarcation is the election.”
Woodward, despite his longtime association with The Post, is no longer a Post employee, though he maintains an affiliation and the honorific title of associate editor. He’s no longer in the daily journalism business.
The Post, like CNN, received the book galleys only recently, so that it could ready today’s article based on the book.
I don’t know if putting the book’s newsiest revelations out there in something closer to real time would have made a difference. They might very well have been denied and soon forgotten in the constant rush of new scandals and lies.
Still, the chance — even if it’s a slim chance — that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument against waiting this long.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.