Sunday, November 20, 2005


"Stonewall" Bob Slammed...

The Washington Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, takes Bob Woodward to the woodshed bigtime Sunday. She is scathing in her view that Woodward's behavior in the Plame case caused the paper to "take a hit to its credibilty."

In doing so, Howell does help clarify Woodward's role at the paper. In doing so, it does slightly force me to readjust something I said in
my post on Friday. I said:
Talk about a walking conflict of interest! On the one hand, he is a reporter,
which means that he is, technically, "staff"; on the other hand, he is
"Assistant Managing Editor," which means he is management.
Howell explains, "While Woodward is listed as an assistant managing editor, he has no management duties." Whether that means it would have been harder for him to influence Post reporter Walter Pincus, as I surmised, is open to question. However, Howell is still devastating in detailing Woodward's unique power and freedom:
He comes and goes as he pleases, mostly writing his best-selling books on what happens behind the doors of power, and he reports only to Executive Editor Len Downie. He is allowed to keep juicy stories to himself until his latest book is unveiled on the front page of The Post. He is the master of the anonymous source.

Last week we found out that he kept the kind of information from Downie that is a deeply serious sin not to disclose to a boss -- the kind that can get even a very good reporter in the doghouse for a long time. He also committed another journalistic sin -- commenting on National Public Radio and "Larry King Live" about the Plame investigation without disclosing his early knowledge of Plame's identity.

The Post's story Wednesday put the paper in a terrible light. Woodward refused to answer Post reporters' questions beyond a prepared statement about his deposition to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald -- even questions unrelated to his pledge of confidentiality to his source in the Plame case.
Howell also detail how political reporter Dan Balz was "totally stunned" by Woodward's failure to tell Downie what he knew about Valerie Plame -- and when he knew it -- until just before Woodward testified before Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury. The comparison with how New York Times reporters came to feel about Judith Miller is unmistakeable.

Two things that Howell should have addressed more: First, why isn't Downie's management style in giving Woodward such a free hand called more into question? Howell says that, "Downie needs to meet with him frequently or assign him to another top-line editor here. In any case, an editor needs to know what he's working on and whom he's talking to. The Post needs to exercise more oversight." Well, duh!

However, this arrangement has been going on for years. Downie -- perhaps just continuing on from Ben Bradlee? -- has arguably been dangerously negligent in not reigning in his Reporter-Monster.

Second, why isn't the newspaper/book conflict more of an issue for Howell? What does The Washington Post get out of an arrangement that lets its star "asset" save so many of his sources and "scoops" for a long-term project which enhances Woodward far more than the institution for which he is principally attached. Indeed, the Post becomes little more than a marketing attachment -- printing excerpts of Woodward's book, which helps him with his promotion.

How is this in the Post's best interests?

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