Books and the Breaking Story

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Stories that couldn't be more different -- Bob Woodward's new book and the Mark Foley sex scandal -- are examples of the difference between get-it-in-the-paper-now journalism and how-did-it-really-happen journalism. Readers questioned both.

Of Woodward's book, "State of Denial," reader Laura Pratt of Garrett Park wrote: "Isn't it immoral for newspapers and journalists to publish 'tell-all' books in preference to publishing timely news?" On the Foley story, readers questioned whether Post staffers want Republicans to lose control of Congress.

Post reporters rightly gang-tackled the Foley story, but they would have pursued it just as diligently if the Democrats controlled Congress. Whatever private political views reporters may hold, a big breaking story trumps everything. Remember how vigorously The Post covered the Clinton-Lewinsky saga?

Post political and congressional reporters have done well at covering the politics of the Foley story. I would like to see stories that would also explore more of the human angle. Were the pages vulnerable to a powerful man seeking inappropriate relationships? This has happened before in the page program.

Laura Pratt's question about breaking stories vs. books was echoed in queries about three other recent books by Post staff writers: Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City"; Thomas E. Ricks's "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq"; and Karen DeYoung's "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell." All were excerpted in The Post, and all three reporters wrote their books while on unpaid leave.

The authors had previously reported many elements of these books in The Post. Books add the long view. Ricks said he was able to obtain and plow through thousands of documents. DeYoung said Powell and other sources agreed to be interviewed only for a book. "People are more willing to go on the record for posterity," she said.

The prominent display given to book excerpts, for which The Post gets exclusive first rights at no cost, irks some readers and some Post staffers. Longtime book critic Jonathan Yardley said, "I'm always glad to see my colleagues enjoy success with their books, but I lament the use of news columns for the purpose of what looks to many people, myself included, like plain old publicity."

To this, Executive Editor Len Downie said, "So be it." He trusts these reporters, and showcasing their work makes sense to him. "Woodward goes back to his sources over and over again, deeper and deeper into the story until he gradually peels away the onion. He enriches my understanding of something I already knew," Downie said. Woodward interviews sources at length; former White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., sat for five interviews over seven hours, creating 207 pages of transcript.

It wasn't exactly news that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is imperious or doesn't have a great relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But Woodward's book gives insider detail: Rumsfeld wouldn't return her calls until she complained to Bush. (Rice denies this.) Rumsfeld brushes off Card, saying that he is in the chain of command and that Card was not.

But the now-disputed account of a July 10, 2001, meeting -- for which an almost-frantic CIA Director George Tenet arrived without an appointment to lean on Rice about intelligence regarding al-Qaeda plans for an attack -- was a newsworthy revelation. Should the account of that meeting have been in the paper earlier? Woodward said, "I didn't think it was that significant because the all-important specifics were missing -- when, where and how."

Woodward said that if he uncovered a truly critical story, "I would go back and tell sources I have to put this in the paper."

Woodward is in a class by himself when it comes to reporting and status at The Post. He and the paper are joined at the hip by history, Watergate, and the strong ties of Downie, Woodward and Post Co. Chairman Don Graham. Woodward is The Post's most famous reporter; he said he "loves The Post" and wouldn't want to leave. He said he is now the lowest-paid reporter in the newsroom, as he was during Watergate. "I insisted on it," he said, because he wanted to help a newsroom undergoing cutbacks.

Woodward works at home and hadn't had a recent byline before the excerpts. He carries the mostly honorary title of assistant managing editor. Downie said he consults on stories; Woodward met recently with national desk editors and national security reporters on ideas for follow-up stories out of his book.

Page 1 excerpts help sell books, and the Post benefits from getting the revelations first. The big question is: Should readers know some of these details sooner, or does the writing of a book allow us to learn important history we would not have known otherwise? Woodward said his last interviews with Card and his only sessions with Rumsfeld didn't take place until July. "It would be pretty astonishing to get that information in the Post for a series, let alone publish in a book by October," he said.

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


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