Woodward's disgrace

He was once a great journalist, but his obsession with "access" turned him into a palace courtier and shill for the GOP.

Published November 19, 2005 1:30PM (EST)

Forced to reveal his strange secret about the Valerie Plame case, Bob Woodward has humiliated his trusting bosses at the Washington Post and exposed something rotten at the center of journalism's national elite. By withholding critical information from the Post's editors and pretending to be a neutral observer, Woodward badly compromised the values that he and his newspaper once embodied. A living symbol of the great constitutional role of a free press -- to hold government accountable -- has evidently degenerated into another obedient appendage of rogue officialdom.

With his relentless pursuit of "access," the literary formula that has brought him so much money and fame, Woodward placed book sales above journalism. Boasting of his friendly relationship with the president who facilitated his interviews with administration officials, he now behaves like the journalistic courtiers of the Nixon era.

To those who have observed Woodward's career since the glory of Watergate, including readers of his many bestselling books, the change in his role and outlook have long been obvious. For him, the cultivation of high-ranking sources is the very essence of journalism. And while there is no question that reporters owe a duty of confidentiality to their sources, it is also true that they owe candor to their colleagues and transparency to their readers.

Sadly, Woodward not only served as a silent accomplice of the Bush White House in its attack on Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, but went much further by publicly criticizing special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of that attack -- and suggested repeatedly, up to the eve of the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, that the investigation should be curtailed. Now, instead, his own admission of involvement may have figured in Fitzgerald's indication Friday that he plans to call a new grand jury in the case.

Indeed, Woodward abused his position as a journalistic authority on intelligence and national security issues to denigrate the Fitzgerald probe. Last July 7, on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," he claimed to know that the outing of Plame's identity had created "no national security threat" and "no jeopardy to her life." He went on to mock the case: "There was no nothing. When I think all of the facts come out in this case, it's going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great." He didn't say then how he supposedly knew what consequences did or didn't flow from the CIA operative's exposure.

Ten days later, on CNN, Woodward told host (and Post colleague) Howard Kurtz that he didn't think any crime had been committed. He went on to complain about how long the leak investigation had taken. "The special prosecutor has been working 18 months. Eighteen months into Watergate we knew about the tapes. People were in jail." That kind of spin is more worthy of a Republican pundit than a Post editor (and of course Woodward never complained about the extraordinary length and expense of Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation, presumably because the sources in that case were leaking to the Post).

Woodward reiterated his exoneration of the White House on Oct. 27 -- and on that occasion, he told CNN's Larry King that he knew the CIA had completed its own assessment of the affair and found that no damage had been done in exposing Valerie Plame Wilson.

Only two days later, however, his own newspaper reported that the CIA had performed no formal damage assessment -- a process that doesn't begin until after any criminal investigation is finished. And Woodward neglected to tell King's audience that the CIA had originally demanded that the Justice Department investigate the leak because of its potentially serious effects on national security.

Those misleading remarks were only exceeded by his disingenuous statements about how the leak might have occurred. Denying that there had been a "smear campaign," he assured King that "when the story comes out, I'm quite confident we're going to find out that it started kind of as gossip, as chatter."

Of course, Woodward knew then how the leak began, in very specific terms, and used his privileged position to help promote the Republican line. (For a full catalog of Woodward's media misbehavior in this case, see MediaMatters.org.)

According to the Post's ombudswoman, Deborah Howell, the public is now outraged over Woodward's conduct. They are confused by his actions and unconvinced by his explanations, which are contradicted by the timeline of the investigation. Post executive editor Leonard Downie, who bravely engaged in a chat with angry readers on Friday, was reduced to offering testimonials about Woodward's truthful character and bromides about his exceptional record.

"Bob Woodward never lied," declared Downie. Yet at another point in the same conversation, the Post editor conceded that a reader was "correct" in saying Woodward had been "dishonest in the extreme" and "probably destroyed his credibility." Those consequences of his "mistake," said Downie, would have to be measured against "Bob's exceptional record."

So will the contents of Woodward's next book on the Bush administration.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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