For Donald Trump, every story about him is a media story. Good stories come from good reporters with good sources working for good organizations—though every once in a blue moon, a good story comes from a bad reporter working for a bad newspaper or TV network. The bad stories, of which there are many, are fake news filled with false information from fake sources.
This approach to media criticism has the advantage of shifting attention away from the substance of a story to inside baseball questions about process and sourcing. Trump is also exploiting an inexhaustible resource: the media’s own solipsism and self-regard, qualities that have only been amplified by the president’s “fake news” barbs. Questions of process and integrity are catnip for the media. They can also be a kind of kryptonite.
This has never been more apparent than in the feverish response to early coverage of Bob Woodward’s Rage. On Wednesday afternoon, the book’s pre-publication embargo broke, and the premier scoop was that Donald Trump knew that Covid-19 was “deadly” but had nevertheless decided to “always play it down” to the public. This had been reported before, but coming from Woodward, who had audio to back it up, it quickly enveloped the news cycle, leading every outlet and network.
By mid-afternoon, the story had accelerated to the meta-cycle nearly every big Trump story eventually reaches: Did Bob Woodward commit an ethical breach by failing to report this information in a timely manner? Or was he saving this juicy scoop to boost sales of his book? By the following morning, the president himself had twisted this angle for his own purposes, arguing that Woodward must have held onto the story because he secretly agreed with the president’s Covid response.
The freak-out over the timing of Woodward’s revelations isn’t just misplaced—it’s a gift to Trump, obscuring the damning takeaways of Woodward’s reporting.
Speaking to Vox before the publication of Fear, his bestselling book about the first year of Trump’s presidency, Woodward laid out his philosophy. “My job is not to take sides,” he said. “I think it’s important to send the message to people and to act and be as careful and neutral as possible.” Woodward’s initial response to the latest accusations against him largely followed this pattern. He told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that he wanted to be careful with Trump’s claims, and took three months “to nail down all the reporting about what Trump knew about coronavirus, when he learned it, and how all that related to the public pronouncements he was making.”
In another interview with another Post colleague, Margaret Sullivan, Woodward insisted that he was aiming for something more substantial than a news bulletin. “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election,” he said, alluding to former Post publisher Phil Graham’s axiom about journalism being history’s first draft.
These claims, to be fair, do stretch credulity. Woodward is the godfather of the type of book that has come to dominate the Trump era: a loosely connected series of scoops—some big, most small—that attempt to piece together, with varying degrees of success, a larger story about the president. Over the last six administrations, Woodward has dutifully provided windows into the rooms where big decisions are made, without providing much else. “Woodward is the ultimate existential reporter—wondrous at getting inside a moment, indifferent to questions of context or meaning,” wrote Slate’s Fred Kaplan in 2004. “In J-school parlance, he’s peerless at uncovering who said what, when, and where; but he has never been good on the fifth W—the why.”
Audiences thrilled to Woodward’s access and “deep background” method (a parlor game called “Guess the Source” could accompany all of them), even if the books failed to do much of anything with the information gleaned from high-level sources. (Woodward only deals with the highest of high-level sources.) Though he has a reputation, thanks to All the President’s Men, for taking down presidents, Woodward actually became American journalism’s foremost apologist for power, telling the stories his sources wanted to hear.
Joan Didion, in a scathing review of Woodward’s account of the 1996 presidential race, referred to Woodward’s method as a “scrupulous passivity” that results in “political pornography”—an apt description of Fear. Trump’s lawlessness barely factored into Woodward’s account. The Russia investigation is largely dismissed in Trumpian terms, as an overhyped political witch hunt, hardly the stuff of Watergate. Some version of the Deep State, meanwhile, had America’s back, checking Trump’s worst impulses at every opportunity.
In Rage, however, he arrives at a very un-Woodwardy place: “I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.” It is, by far, the most damning portrait of a sitting president that Woodward has delivered in a long, long time.
Criticizing Woodward is fair game, always. But a different criticism has taken hold, that Woodward harmed public health and the national interest by failing to report on his conversations with Trump sooner. “Nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed,” wrote Esquire’s Charles Pierce. The idea that Woodward was intentionally holding onto the information to juice book sales was particularly prevalent on Twitter, where the hashtag #WoodwardKnew trended.
Woodward is no one’s idea of a public interest journalist, but the notion that he played a significant role in the pandemic by not publishing his interview sooner simply doesn’t track. The fact that the president was intentionally downplaying the danger of Covid-19 was both apparent and well documented in the spring; Trump himself admitted that he was privileging politics over public health. If Woodward had published this information in February (or May, when he says he confirmed it), would it have made a difference in fighting the virus? Back then, the president’s unscientific approach and general dismissiveness was the story. Indeed, there are compelling reasons to believe that this information is more powerful now, with the election around the corner.
The discourse about the timing of Woodward’s reporting speaks to a greater anxiety about the utility of journalism in the Trump era: Why aren’t all of these scoops about Trump’s failures doing anything? In Woodward’s case, there’s a clear, comforting answer: The reporters are as greedy and corrupt as their sources.