BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | SEP 20, 2020
What should have been a blinding dust storm of controversy over the pre-release promotion of Bob Woodward’s new book Rage, turned out to be a minor dust up quickly swept under the rug by most of the journalistic establishment.
The media seem to adore Woodward and largely for good reason. His stature is iconic. He paved the way for a whole class of tell-all books that have no doubt made some enterprising reporters a lot of money. He and Watergate sidekick Carl Bernstein were modern-day pioneers in a new brand of investigative reporting powerful enough to bring down a President. He is a publishing industry tycoon. What a guy.
The pre-release public relations campaign for Rage, however, raised enough troubling ethical questions that the press should not have let slip through the crack of professional courtesy so easily.
For example, the book release by Woodward’s own admission was timed to impact the presidential elections and ensure that Donald Trump doesn’t make it to a second term. Partisan intent is nothing new, but Woodward was particularly blunt and overt about it. Woodward can campaign against Trump all he wants, but the media should have been a little more circumspect about the extent of their collaboration. They weren’t.
Moreover, Woodward’s princely status and Trump’s incendiary behavior have helped trigger a high growth, presumably high-profit industrial-sized surge in “cookie-cutter” or “paint-by-numbers” exposes.
Some on the market are honestly written and credible accountings of events, both historically and politically. There are several currently on bookshelves. Others, however, are rumor riddled, factually contorted, many times fictionalized, tattle-tale tomes, supposedly from behind the curtains inside the inner, inner- sanctums of power that are hard to call good literature or honest journalism.
There’s a laundry list of books that fall into both categories, from CNN solid but highly opinionated Jim Sciutto, the infamous CNN gadfly and provocateur Jim Acosta, and CNN media promoter Brian Stelter; Mary Jordan, Phillip Rucker and Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post; Michael Schmidt, the New York Times reporter accused of withholding newsworthy information to benefit his book, according to the Wash Post’s Margaret Sullivan; Tim Alberta, a talented writer and self-promoter with Politico Magazine; also from Politico, Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman; Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker; Mollie Hemingway, the very capable writer from the Federalist, and finally, the notorious Michael Wolff, who made Woodward look angelic with his pre-release teaser about Trump’s relationship with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, innuendo roundly criticized and effectively debunked.
Unfortunately, the list is endless. So is the recent barrage of cookie cutters from mostly mid-level former political operatives. Among them are Omarosa Manigault Newman, Cliff Sims, Anthony Scaramucci, and Michael Cohen.
The books from journalists raise questions from the grave to the trivial, but all of which deserve exploration. Here are some of obvious ones:
- Who makes the judgment as to whether journalists, working or on leave, who unearth legitimate news while working on a book reveal or conceal that news?
- What are the rules set down by news organizations for journalists working on book projects?
- What are the acceptable ground rules for dealing with the prospective subjects of books regarding the direction, timing and intent of books, how interviews will be conducted and whether these factors are fully reviewed with the subjects?
- What are the ground rules dealing with the use of material from “anonymous” sources? Are those sources known to others? Are they reliable? Are they close enough to the subject matter to be well informed? How is information gathered from them and verified and by whom?
- What are the financial arrangements among news outlets, individual journalists, publishing houses and public relations agencies, sponsors and underwriters? Do any of these financial entanglements present potential conflicts of interest?
- How is it decided which news outlets get advanced copies of the book and with what strings attached to those advance releases? And
- What are the criteria used by news outlets for promoting new books, especially when the coverage of them in print or on broadcasts clearly exceeds the importance and veracity of the content of the book?
At the center of the snuffed controversy that swirled around the launch of Rage was an excerpt describing an acknowledgement by President Trump that he knew in January 2020 that the corona virus was “more deadly than even strenuous flus,” while at the same time, Trump acknowledged he was publicly trying to minimize the virus in an attempt to prevent public panic. The Woodward teaser and so many other headline grabbers present a long-standing classic conundrum regarding news judgments.
Were Trump’s comments a journalistic coup, a blockbusting page 1 bombshell? If they were then why didn’t Woodward fulfill his ethical, professional and even moral obligation to get this news to the public right away? After all, its disclosure may have saved thousands of lives, the critics contend.
In his incredible blitzkrieg media tour promoting the book, Woodward offered several vacuous explanations for covering up the scoop:
- He told The Associated Press he couldn’t be sure Trump was telling the truth (according to Jack Brewster in Forbes),
- He told NBC and NPR (Brewster again) that he “believed (Trump) was talking about the virus in China,”
- He said he was initially unable to verify that Trump was telling the truth,
- He told the Post’s Margaret Sullivan, “I don’t know if putting the book’s newsiest revelations out there in something closer to real time would have made a difference. They might very well have been denied and soon forgotten in the constant rush of new scandals and lies,” and
- He also told Sullivan he is a big picture guy and no longer a beat reporter (he didn’t explain whether big picture guys are or are no longer journalists).
There were more explanations, but none that pass the smell test. The most plausible conclusion one can draw is that Woodward recognized the quotation as one of the titillating nuggets that must be put in the bank and cashed in at the time of publication for maximum effect. After all, it could impact the election.
And it was cashed in, on the front page of the Post, in newspapers all across the country, on social media, the three ‘over-the-air’ networks, TV magazine shows, morning shows, afternoon shows, interview after interview. On one day alone (9/11 no less) the Post had 16 opinion pieces in its line-up for the day. You would think the vast majority would be devoted to the terrorist attack on America. Twelve of them were on or about Woodward.
The strategy is classic Woodward. I have never forgotten the rollout of Woodward’s book Veil, The Secret Wars of the CIA, published in 1987, while I was still on the Hill. The pre-release public relations were centered this time around a deathbed interview with CIA Director William Casey, in which Woodward alleged that Casey confessed knowing in advance of the illegal supply of weapons to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. It was a huge story at the time. Again, Woodward kept the revelation secret rather than report it when he got it; that is, if he got it.
People close to Casey, who was dying of a brain tumor and apparently barely able to communicate, forcefully denied that Woodward never got through the door to Casey’s room. They included Casey’s wife, daughter and a Secret Service Agent assigned to protect the Director.
That was then, this is now and like then some media weren’t so taken in by the news value of the Woodward teaser. Some saw it for what it may well have been, an empty bombshell, a grenade with no pin. Woodward’s nugget was just fool’s gold.
“This is not news, wrote the Wall Street Journal in an editorial. “We know Mr. Trump played down the virus threat at the time because he said so publicly many times. We wrote an editorial about it on March 12, the Virus and Leadership,’ warning Mr. Trump that voters would judge his Presidency largely on how he handled the virus.”
The Journal went on to point out that Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi were saying publicly what Trump was saying publicly at the time. She urged people to get out and visit Chinatown.
So, if it is old news, you must question the motivation of news outlets that have given it the breathless coverage and unquestioned credibility it is getting today, oh, and a couple months before the election. If it is legitimate news today, then it was six months ago, and Woodward should have revealed it.
Either way the PR strategy worked. Rage hit the Amazon #1 best seller slot in a heartbeat at the low, low cost to you of only $17.98. Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, which has that vague “affiliation” with Woodward. Details won’t be forthcoming.
The book ethics questions contribute to what is turning out to be not only Trump’s worst years, but the media’s as well. The media industry’s mistakes and missteps from the Trump campaign through the failed media drive to impeach him to the botched attempt to finger Trump as a Russian spy have been troubling. They reflect a transformative decline in the whole concept of objective and informed journalism, at a time when journalistic integrity is in greater demand than any time since Watergate. The long-term ramifications for the country and the American people are worrisome and unnerving. This cannot continue.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.