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Tough Week for The Post and a Star

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Post took a hit to its credibility with readers last week when Bob Woodward revealed that he had been told about the identity of CIA analyst Valerie Plame more than two years ago but had kept it to himself for fear of being subpoenaed. Readers in droves wrote that they were angry and disappointed. That disappointment was rife in The Post's newsroom, too.

Since Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story more than 30 years ago, they have been heroes to many. Woodward is part of the DNA of the Post newsroom. He is widely regarded as a relentlessly aggressive reporter and a rock-solid member of the Washington establishment.

While Woodward is listed as an assistant managing editor, he has no management duties. He comes and goes as he pleases, mostly writing his best-selling books on what happens behind the doors of power, and he reports only to Executive Editor Len Downie. He is allowed to keep juicy stories to himself until his latest book is unveiled on the front page of The Post. He is the master of the anonymous source.

Last week we found out that he kept the kind of information from Downie that is a deeply serious sin not to disclose to a boss -- the kind that can get even a very good reporter in the doghouse for a long time. He also committed another journalistic sin -- commenting on National Public Radio and "Larry King Live" about the Plame investigation without disclosing his early knowledge of Plame's identity.

The Post's story Wednesday put the paper in a terrible light. Woodward refused to answer Post reporters' questions beyond a prepared statement about his deposition to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald -- even questions unrelated to his pledge of confidentiality to his source in the Plame case.

One reader among hundreds said: "This is a test of the paper's credibility as to whether your loyalty to Bob supersedes your loyalty to readers."

A District reader said, "The Post has its own rock star journalist as a Page 1 story, which I would think many folks, maybe in your own newsroom, might lament. For my 35 cents, I certainly do." Other readers weren't so temperate.

Even admirers of Woodward in the newsroom wish he had done the right thing in the first place.

Dan Balz, a political reporter who has collaborated with Woodward, was "totally stunned" by Woodward's disclosure that he had not told Downie until the week before I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. "It was very disturbing that Bob had kept Len in the dark on something of that magnitude for that long." Yet Balz said the episode should not obscure the fact that Woodward has provided "a more revealing look at the inner work of government than anyone in contemporary journalism. I have tremendous respect for him."

This is not just about The Post's credibility; it touches all of journalism.

Jennifer Seavey, a journalism teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, wrote that this story "sends chills down my spine because it adds another layer to the ongoing impression that reporters are literally or figuratively in bed with their subjects."

Many readers think Woodward ought to be fired or disciplined. "That's ridiculous," Downie said. "Our readers have gained so much from the depth of his work. His total work and reliability outweigh one mistake."

But Downie comes down strongly on two things: Woodward should have told him that he knew about Plame and he should not have spoken out about the Plame investigation. "He's really famous, and he can't stop being famous," Downie said. "But he is not bigger than the newspaper. He has voluntarily humbled himself and acknowledged his errors."

Many readers think there is more to the story -- that Woodward "is deeply involved" in the Plame case, that he is covering for someone big or trying to get Libby off the hook.

Woodward says no. He presents his learning of Plame's identity much as columnist Robert D. Novak does -- as casual and offhand. I asked Woodward if they had the same source, whom Novak has not revealed -- a source holding Woodward to a confidentiality pledge that prevents him from writing a story he would like to write. "That is a good question. I wish I could answer it."

He believes that "when it all comes out," readers will understand a lot more.

Woodward said he hadn't told Downie about what he knew because he was afraid of being subpoenaed and was focused, "laser like," on writing "Plan of Attack," the story of how the Bush administration went to war in Iraq and a book that both Republicans and Democrats have used to bolster their arguments about the war.

He made his disclosure to Downie when the executive editor called to ask Woodward to help on the Plame story the week Libby was indicted, but the disclosure wasn't made public because Woodward's source wouldn't release him from the pledge of confidentiality. Woodward said it was only after he watched Fitzgerald's news conference that he realized that he knew about Plame before other reporters who had been subpoenaed.

"My news juices started. It was a catalyst to going back" to the source who had given him Plame's name. "But I couldn't get a release" from the pledge. His source went to Fitzgerald and requested that Woodward testify. At that point, The Post had to do a story.

Woodward and Downie were more forthcoming after they had breakfast Wednesday at Woodward's house, where Woodward apologized and ground rules were set.

What now? Woodward ought to have an editor; every reporter needs one. Downie needs to meet with him frequently or assign him to another top-line editor here. In any case, an editor needs to know what he's working on and whom he's talking to. The Post needs to exercise more oversight. Woodward needs the grounding a good editor gives.

It boils down to this: There ought to be clear rules, easy for readers and Post staffers to understand, about Woodward's job at The Post. He has to operate under the rules that govern the rest of the staff -- even if he's rich and famous.

Deborah Howell can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.

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