Bob Woodward has a new book out, and the usual; buzz is on: How does he get all these people to talk to him? Who gave him this insight or that quote? And what of the challenges by some sources, who don't like what their off-the-record talk turned into in "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate"?
Meanwhile, I'm wondering something different: What's the impact on journalism of the unorthodox methods of America's best-known reporter?
The media have been suffering a credibility slide, which has journalists pondering how to restore public trust. One suggestion is education: Help the public understand what distinguishes journalism from other sources of information -- principles such as a commitment to fairness and balance, checking and verifying facts, and telling readers where you got them.
Not a bad idea -- but there's more strength in applying our principles than in talking about them. If newspapers do behave differently, then those who consume information will have greater confidence in them than in a random Web site, special-interest magazine or word-of-mouth report.
Now consider Woodward's methods. In his books, he recreates behind-the-scenes events as if he'd been in the room -- full of detail, characterizations and direct quotes, much of it unattributed. Thus "Shadow" quotes Hillary Clinton from conversations she held alone with individuals such as former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry and former White House lawyer Jane Sherburne -- in passages written as if Woodward were present and describing the scene.
This causes confusion, and not just for readers wondering who told Woodward what and why. Both McCurry and Sherburne said recently that the conversations Woodward reconstructed between them and the First Lady are inaccurate. "The dialogue that Woodward describes or has in my mouth and hers . . . does not resemble what I recall of the conversation," said Sherburne.
McCurry said, "If I left Bob Woodward with that impression that I was giving him direct, verbatim quotes, then we must have had a serious misunderstanding, but I would not have quoted her. That's not the way I remember that moment."
Woodward stood by his account. He told The Post that McCurry had not objected when Woodward read him the passages before publication. And he called Sherburne's account "false."
When The Post recently published three days of excerpts from "Shadow," plus a fourth in its Sunday magazine, I was reminded of a conversation that followed The Post's excerpts of Woodward's previous book, "The Choice." Lissa Muscatine, then Hillary Clinton's chief speechwriter, told me she was disturbed by Woodward's depiction of meetings Mrs. Clinton had with Jean Houston -- a "New Age spiritual guru," as the press called her.
Woodward described an emotional session in which Houston invited Mrs. Clinton to close her eyes and imagine a conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt -- a scene tailor-made for derisive commentary. Plenty of derision came. And Muscatine, herself a former Post editor and reporter, found the whole thing misleading and unfair. "I was there, and I have a very different recollection about what happened," she recalled on the phone recently. She said that she had spoken with Woodward off the record at the time, but didn't see her viewpoint reflected in the reporting: "I explained to him exactly what happened, which was so far from what he said happened in his book. . . . The whole experience made me feel so cynical about modern journalism."
Journalism's rules exist to help readers sort out the fairness and reliability of a report. How much did the reporter actually witness? Are quotes straight from the primary source? Who is telling me this, and what is her or his motivation? Are all viewpoints fairly represented? The less the writer follows the rules, the freer his hand in writing -- but the less the reader has to go on in judging the credibility of the report.
Explaining his decision not to be interviewed for "Shadow," former President George Bush wrote Woodward, "When I read books by today's new school journalists, I see my name in direct quotes, words in my mouth I never uttered. I talked to our publisher at Knopf about this method. `Literary license,' says he. But I don't like it."
In an era of Oliver Stone movies, docudramas and historical fiction, why should Woodward's books conform to journalism's rules? For one thing, in excerpting Woodward's books, The Post -- where he still works -- affords them the journalistic impact of its powerful front page. For another, Woodward is a journalistic icon, the reporter other reporters want to be. If he disregards the rules, what are the rules worth? For a craft in search of definition and respect, that's a powerfully damaging question.