Falling into Woodward's Den of Iniquity

When I got to my computer this morning and saw how many people were blathering about Bob Woodward, a wave of despair washed over me. First, because this is the kind of stupid argument from which we thought we could get something of a reprieve once the campaign ended, and second, because Bob Woodward himself, and the deference with which he is treated, just make me depressed.

It's not that Woodward isn't a good reporter, of a sort. But Watergate was pretty much the last time his reporting enhanced public understanding in a meaningful way. Woodward's modus operandi since then has been to approach powerful people and convince them to tell their side of major events through him. Knowing that if they don't, someone else will and they might come out looking bad, many of them give him their spin in great detail, which his books then pass on to a wide readership. They aren't so much a record of events as a record of events as the people who talked to Bob Woodward would like us to see them. Nobody has done more than Woodward to elevate insiderism, the belief among many journalists that what matters isn't the effect government has on people's lives, but who said what to whom when, that if you can get the Secretary of State to tell you what he said to the National Security Advisor while they were at the urinals in the bathroom down the hall from the Oval Office, then you're a hero of democracy.

I'm not saying there's no value in that kind of reporting—we do want to know what policy makers are thinking, how they interact with each other, and so on. The mistake is to think it's the only thing that matters. And I think that explains why Woodward is now finding himself at odds with the White House.

This whole thing started because Woodward had previously reported that the idea for the sequester originally came from the White House, in his last book. When the book was published it seemed like just one detail among many, but as we approached the sequester, Republicans decided that it was hugely important, making "Don't blame us, it was all his idea!" their primary talking point, and citing Woodward again and again. Now the truth is that the question of who thought of it first is completely irrelevant; Republicans agreed to it and voted for it, so they can't absolve themselves of responsibility for it, not to mention the fact that this all came about because of their hostage-taking, and we're only in the position we are now because they refuse to compromise with Democrats. But now that important people in Washington were talking about a piece of information that came out of his reporting, Bob Woodward rushed to tell everyone that this piece of information is the most important thing to understand about this debate. After all, it was his scoop! And he got it by getting powerful people to tell him about their conversations with other powerful people. So that must be what matters.

When asked, he might have said, "Sure, I reported that the idea first came from the White House, but at this point, who cares?" Instead, he decided to wade in like he was auditioning for a job at the Daily Caller. He went on television to talk about this fantastic scoop of his. Then he wrote an op-ed charging that because the sequester itself doesn't have tax increases in it, Obama is "moving the goalposts" by demanding that a deal to replace the sequester have at least some revenue in it, which is kind of like arguing that if yesterday we said we were going to have pizza for lunch today, but it turned out nobody wants pizza, you're being unfair by suggesting sandwiches, because yesterday you had agreed to pizza. Then he poured contempt on Obama for not just breaking the law and having government do everything it was otherwise doing, regardless of the sequester (this is a variant of the most bizarre delusion currently gripping centrist Washington, that any problem could be solved if Obama would just "lead," or maybe make a "firm presidential statement").

Then after White House Budget Nebbish Gene Sperling yelled at Woodward about that op-ed, he gave an interview to Politico claiming Sperling had threatened him in an email. In fact, in the email Sperling apologized for yelling at Woodward, and the "threat" was this: "But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand bargain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start..." That's some terrifying threatening, which is probably why Woodward replied, "You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance." You can just smell his fear, can't you?

Anyhow, Bob Woodward is very good at getting powerful people to tell him their side of a given story, when they might ignore similar requests from other reporters. The mistake is to assume that once you've gotten that, there isn't much more to know. I'll leave you with this, from Jonathan Chait, who argues persuasively that Woodward's problem is that whatever his abilities as a reporter, he's a terrible analyst:

To reconcile Woodward's journalistic reputation with the weird pettiness of his current role, one has to grasp the distinction between his abilities as a reporter and his abilities as an analyst. Woodward was, and remains, an elite gatherer of facts. But anybody who has seen him commit acts of political commentary on television has witnessed a painful spectacle. As an analyst, Woodward is a particular kind of awful — a Georgetown Wise Man reliably and almost invariably mouthing the conventional wisdom of the Washington Establishment.

His more recent books often compile interesting facts, but how Woodward chooses to package those facts has come to represent a barometric measure of a figure's standing within the establishment. His 1994 account account of Bill Clinton's major budget bill, which in retrospect was a major success, told a story of chaos and indecision. He wrote a fulsome love letter to Alan Greenspan, "Maestro," at the peak of the Fed chairman's almost comic prestige. In 2003, when George W. Bush was still a decisive and indispensable war leader, Woodward wrote a heroic treatment of the Iraq War. After Bush's reputation had collapsed, Woodward packaged essentially the same facts into a devastating indictment. Woodward’s book on the 2011 debt negotiations was notable for arguing that Obama scotched a potential deficit deal. The central argument has since been debunked by no less a figure than Eric Cantor, who admitted to Ryan Lizza that he killed the deal.

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