The Man With the Inside Scoop
Monday, November 28, 2005
It was a cinematic image that lured thousands of young people into journalism, Robert Redford coaxing information out of Hal Holbrook in a dimly lit parking garage.
And since, in real life, Bob Woodward fiercely protected Deep Throat's identity, what lingered was the mystique of a dogged journalist, plying his trade in the shadows.
Three decades older and millions of dollars richer, Woodward still has plenty of secret sources, but they work in the highest reaches of the Bush administration. They are molding history rather than revealing Watergate-style corruption. Some have even used the press to strike back against a critic of their war by revealing the identity of a CIA operative. And the public is no longer as enamored of reporters and their unnamed informants.
In the days since the Washington Post assistant managing editor apologized to his paper for failing to reveal his role in the CIA leak controversy, Woodward, 62, has found himself under fire not just over this incident but for his very approach to journalism. His unusual relationship with The Post, and whether he hoards newsworthy material for his books, have also come under fresh scrutiny.
Although he has spoken to CNN's Larry King and the Village Voice in the past week, Woodward declined several requests for an on-the-record interview with The Post, saying only that "I think the work speaks for itself."
In today's polarized political atmosphere, Woodward's journalistic methods have been assailed by those who view him as dependent on the Bush inner circle for the narratives that drive his bestsellers.
Still, his track record of consistently breaking news -- the New York Times ran two front-page pieces on his book "Plan of Attack," examining the prelude to the Iraq war -- is probably unmatched by any other journalist. In his 14 books since helping to unravel the Watergate scandal as a 29-year-old local reporter, Woodward has penetrated such varied institutions as the Supreme Court, the CIA and the Federal Reserve.
Most reporters -- whether they cover city hall, Hollywood studios or the local baseball team -- depend on access to the decision makers or celebrities who populate their beat. But they also publish or broadcast most of their stories as events unfold. Under Woodward's unusual relationship with The Post, he stays on the payroll while mainly writing books from his Georgetown home, with the paper carrying excerpts -- and providing a publicity boost -- upon publication. This has sparked some resentment among the staff.
Executive Editor Leonard Downie, maintaining that The Post benefits greatly from the arrangement, says Woodward "has gone from being someone who was on the outside to someone who has such access, who's famous, who's recognized on the street, who's treated by celebrities and very high officials as an equal." And, says Downie, "his access has produced a lot of information about the inner workings of this White House, the Clinton White House, the first Bush administration, and documents, actual documents, that nobody else has gotten."
Downie concedes that months sometimes go by without any contact with Woodward, adding that they have now agreed to communicate more often. He says Woodward occasionally volunteers to break off from his book research to produce news stories for The Post, especially with material too timely to be held, and sometimes does so at Downie's request. In fact, it was when Downie asked Woodward to work on the CIA leak case last month that the reporter acknowledged that a senior administration official had told him in 2003 that Valerie Plame, the wife of White House critic Joseph Wilson, worked for the CIA.
A Special Niche
Woodward, of course, is hardly the first Washington journalist to move easily in the corridors of power. In earlier eras, Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop and James Reston had the ear of presidents and prime ministers. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Reston if he would say on his own authority, in his New York Times column, that the administration would respond militarily if the Soviets tried to block U.S. access to Berlin. Only toward the end of his career, as the media culture turned more adversarial, did some critics question whether Reston should have allowed his column to be used as an instrument of diplomacy.
Woodward's role is different in that he weaves the intelligence he collects from the powerful into book-length form, freed from regular deadlines, with hundreds of pages to flesh out his instant histories. He is different in that he takes no unpaid leave to produce his books -- unlike most working reporters -- crafting his volumes for Simon & Schuster while retaining The Post's cachet. He is different in that he is a brand name, returning to the same cast of characters again and again, a luxury afforded one of the few nonfiction authors whose books consistently hit No. 1. He is different in that he is more famous than most of the people he interviews.