Nel's New Day

March 25, 2013

Woodward Teaches Readers to Question

Ever since I saw the movie All the President’s Men, I have considered Bob Woodward my hero because he was instrumental in bringing down a corrupt president using illegal actions to win his second presidential election . What a difference 40 years makes. Compared to George W. Bush, Richard Nixon doesn’t look too bad, and Woodward has become almost a villain.

Woodward’s legendary reputation may have finally ended when he accused White House senior official Gene Sperling of trying to intimidate the journalist. According to Max Holland, however, this fictionalizing seems to be a pattern for Woodward throughout his entire career. In adopting the style of New Journalism, Woodward and his co-author, Carl Bernstein, employed a novelistic style for what should have been a non-fiction book. Newspaper editor Barry Sussman said that the two were “wrong often on detail” about what happened in the newsroom and that they tended to “sentimentalize” their information.

Since the Woodward/Berstein papers were opened in 2007, other problems can to light in the inconsistencies between the notes of interviews with Deep Throat, aka Mark Felt, and how these notes were used in the book. It appears that statements attributed as quotes in the book may not have been Felt’s words and may be substantially altered. The book also has information not included in the notes.

References to the so-called Canuck letter, a 1972 letter to the editor of the Manchester Union-Leader, also never appeared in the notes. This letter alleged that then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie had used the term Canuck to refer to constituents of French-Canadian descent around the time of the New Hampshire primary, and Woodstein alleged that the letter typified the “dirty tricks” thought up by the Nixon White House or campaign.

When Holland asked Woodward about these discrepancies, Woodward said, “I may have had a distinct recollection [while we were writing the book, and reviewing the notes] that something was in quotes … and so I may have put quotes in it.” These discrepancies also appeared in reporting aboutJudith Hoback, the bookkeeper for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP). The book quotes Hoback as saying, “But Sally [Harmony, burglar Gordon Liddy’s secretary]—and others—lied.” In Bernstein’s notes from the interview, however, Hoback never asserts that anyone at the CRP “lied.”

All the President’s Men gave the impression that Mark Felt was leaking the information out of principle. The authors wrote that Deep Throat “was trying to protect the office [of the presidency], to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” Evidence shows, however, that Felt may have used these leaks as a tactic to undermine L. Patrick Gray, acting director of the FBI, and become FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover’s death. A top Justice Department official said, “[Felt] had enough contact with the press that he might have tried to use his Watergate information to hurt Gray.” Yet Woodward has always called Felt a “truth-teller.”

Since Watergate, Woodward has diligently tried to show that his investigation into Watergate wasn’t just a fluke. Like Orson Welles and his one-time success withCitizen Kane, Woodward spent his life looking for another success like the one he had at the age of  30. He never lost the craving to retain the high respect he gained from revealing the Nixon scandals.

Yet Woodward continued to have questionable episodes. In 1987, he reported a four-minute interview with CIA director William Casey; the family disagreed with Woodward’s description of its unfolding and conclusion. In the Valerie Plame affair, Woodward ridiculed a investigation into the leak of a CIA officer’s name without telling the public that he was the first reporter to be told about the leak.

Worse was his treatment of Jeff Himmelman, hired to research Woodward’s 2000 book Maestro, a “fawning tribute to Alan Greenspan,” according to Holland. Greenspan was the Fed chairman whose ideology brought about the worst recession since the Great Depression. At the same time, Himmelman gained access to the papers of Woodward’s former editor Ben Bradlee and found an interview. Among these were notes showing that Bradlee felt that the representation of Woodward’s meeting with Deep Throat in the underground garage was inaccurate. Disturbed by Himmelman’s report of Bradlee’s statement, Woodward smeared his book, calling it “alarmingly dishonest” and a “total dishonest distortion.” Woodward compared Himmelman with Nixon on Politico.

Describing All the President’s Men and its aftermath, Holland wrote:

 “[Woodward and Bernstein] wrote a self-glorifying account of their role, seemingly altered information from their notes, apparently reneged on a pledge to Deep Throat, then later downplayed evidence that Mark Felt was leaking for self-interested reasons. And finally, when a former Woodward lieutenant came across some facts that undermined the narrative that Woodstein had dined out on for decades, Woodward responded to this heresy by attacking the writer’s integrity.”

As Dennis Johnson writes,

How reliable is Bob Woodward? From the very first there have been those who thought, well, he was making shit up. Lots of people questioned whether there ever really was a Deep Throat, for example, when All the President’s Men came out. Even after former FBI associate director Mark Felt claimed to have been Deep Throat, doubts continued that the former agent–his mind clearly fogged by age–was quite the drama-prone informer depicted in the book.

“Nixon White House counsel Leonard Garment noted one of the better known counterpoints in his book, In Search of Deep Throat–that Simon and Schuster editor Alice Mayhew, who edited All the President’s Men, “told [former presidential counsel John] Dean that she was the one who had invented the detective story structure for the reporters’ book.

“Woodward’s second book, The Bretheren, co-authored by Scott Armstrong, contained so many outlandish assertions about the behavior of Supreme Court Justices behind the scenes that, in a front page review for the New York Times Book Review, Renata Adler famously declared that every sentence in the book should end “with the caveat ‘if true.’”

After riding on the Watergate explosion for almost 40 years, Bob Woodward lost all credibility when he appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox show and attacked President Obama’s past relationship with Ayers. The release of emails between Woodward and Sperling show a collegiality far from Woodward’s accusations of being threatened. It is a sad ending for a formerly venerable reporter.

The message from Woodward’s debacle is that so-called journalists’ reporting is always subject to doubt. So-called non-fiction books may be enjoyable reading, but their accuracy must always be questioned.

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