Those squirreling tendencies received something of a beatdown Wednesday on Twitter, following a story in The Post derived from findings in Woodward’s latest book, “Rage.” Attention focused on two interviews that Woodward had done with Trump, one on Feb. 7 of this year and the other on March 19. In the former, Trump told Woodward that the coronavirus was “deadly stuff” — a position that conflicted with optimistic statements that he made in public. In the latter, he declared, "I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” Audio excerpts accompanied the package in The Post.
There were many other similar sentiments, advancing the argument that Woodward chose book profits over informing the public in the midst of a public health crisis — that properly timed journalism, in this instance, could have saved lives.
Story timing is a worthwhile obsession for media watchers. News organizations should run stories when they are ready, not when editors believe they’ll land with the greatest impact. Woodward’s case, however, is a bit distinct: Though he retains the title of associate editor at The Post — for which he draws a monthly salary of $25 — and publishes exclusives in The Post, he doesn’t answer to any directives from editors. Leonard Downie, who served as executive editor at the newspaper from 1991 to 2008, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that when Woodward spotted something of immediate interest in his book reporting, he’d raise the issue. If Downie agreed on the urgency, “We did it,” he says. “In terms of Bob’s books, I never felt that our readers were cheated.”
In the course of his reporting for a book on the Obama presidency, Woodward in 2009 obtained a 66-page report on Afghanistan from Gen. Stanley McChrystal to President Barack Obama. The Post printed the story. The scoop would have been “overtaken by events when the book comes out next year,” said Woodward at the time, according to a Politico story by Michael Calderone. But speeding up the revelations on McChrystal’s report required Woodward to circle back to his sources to reset the terms of their cooperation. The author, after all, approaches his sources with the promise that he’ll take their input and weave it into other reporting for publication in a book, not some up-to-the-minute newspaper story.
In a Wednesday interview, Woodward said that Trump’s comments on that Feb. 7 call came “out of the blue" and prompted inquiry. “He’s talking about something no one is focused on. Is this true and how did he learn it? It took three months to determine how he learned it and from whom and when,” says Woodward. Anyone who has read Woodward’s books knows the goal here: Take a quote from the president, bathe it in context, describe the meetings and consultations that preceded it and drop it all in the finished product. All of which was to say that Woodward wasn’t going to take a few loose quotes from the president and publish them.
That’s what so many others in journalism do every day. And that work is critical. White House correspondents who evaluate every last statement and press briefing and tweet out their analysis have a secure foothold in our democracy. But so do magazine writers — Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent piece in the Atlantic about Trump and the military comes to mind — and book authors chugging along at a different pace.
When asked directly about the criticism that he could have mitigated a public-health crisis, Woodward replied, “No! How?” By the time Trump admitted to playing down the virus in the March 19 interview there were already very public indications of its impact: Trump, after all, had made an Oval Office speech on March 11, and case counts were spiraling upward. “You have to think about, ‘Are you going to give information to people that has to do with life-saving?’” says Woodward. "And there was nothing here at a point when I could make sense of it.”
That’s a non-trivial point: Woodward’s critics have the hindsight of a death toll that now stands at around 190,000. Feb. 29 marked the first reported, confirmed covid-19 death in the United States — three weeks after Trump’s “deadly stuff” conversation with Woodward.
That said, the notion that another set of stupid and contradictory comments from Trump would have saved the world runs contrary to every depressing news cycle that has piled up in the past five years. As this blog noted, Trump has been a prolific participant in Q-and-A sessions with reporters, opportunities that he uses to lie and to contradict the message coming from his staffers and himself. Or he tweets, as he did on Thursday regarding this very controversy:
So there you have it: Another small contribution to the endless transcript of Trump’s documented bad faith and deception. Just like the stuff he told Woodward.
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