During the roundtable segment in today's Meet the Press, Tim Russert turned to David Broder and Eugene Robinson, both with the Washington Post, and asked them what's going on at the Post in light of the Bob Woodward revelation.
To my delight and surprise, Broder and Robinson did not respond like good company men, but spoke of "consternation":
BRODER: Consternation, to be honest with you. I think none of us can really understand Bob's silence for two years about his own role in the case. He's explained it by saying he did not want to become involved and did not want to face a subpoena, but he left his editor, our editor, blindsided for two years and he went out and talked disparagingly about the significance of the investigation without disclosing his role in it. Those are hard things to reconcile.
ROBINSON: I agree with David. Consternation, a certain amount of embarrassment. And, you know, the fact that we can't understand why Bob did what he did. You know, I think that's a very interesting question in this whole incident about confidential sources, about access, about the tradeoffs that we all make for access in granting anonymity for sources. And, you know, I think that's going to continue. I think people are looking at us skeptically.
So it was refreshing and encouraging that even two of his colleagues were honest enough to acknowledge the Woodward problem. It was a great opportunity for Tim to look at the broken conventions regarding confidential sources and the broken trust between the public and the press.
But instead, Tim went right back to the old playbook and the old problem: "Every source I believe is going to want complete assurance that if I give you this information, will you refuse to testify even if it means going to prison." Stunning though it may seem, Russert really believes that the main problem raised by Judy Miller's and Bob Woodward's roles in Plamegate is: how does the press repair the damage done between journalists and anonymous sources?
Talk about missing the forest for the trees. But it's not surprising since Russert's, like Woodward's, first loyalty flows upward to the unnamed "senior administration sources." Which is why Russert immediately pivoted to the question of how the press can go back to guaranteeing anonymity rather than to the new critical question: under what conditions should the press guarantee anonymity?
Marty Kaplan had a must-read blog on the subject on HuffPost last week, aptly titled "A Piss is not a Leak":
When government officials or campaign operatives go off the record to a reporter in order to smear someone, spread disinformation, lie about an opponent, stab someone in the back while wearing the cloak of anonymity, kindle a propanganda brush fire, slander critics, psych out enemies, and throw red herrings in an investigator's path, they are engaging in the dark arts of psy ops.... They're so good at it that a Bob Woodward can think a lie is a casually tossed-off piece of gossip, rather than an Oscar-worthy performance in a government-wide defamation campaign.... These officials aren't leaking to reporters. They're pissing on the public.
What happened with Woodward provides us with a great opportunity to discuss what's happened to investigative journalism. Here are some questions for a future roundtable: When are journalists acting like journalists, and when are they acting as enablers? When are they using their sources, and when are they being used by them? Who is being served by the granting of anonymity -- the public or the powers that be?
Woodward is simply the purest distillation of what journalism has been reduced to in Washington: the thirst for access -- not to better serve the public, but to better serve the journalist. Access as an end, not a means, access resulting in little details ("dressed casually in a handsome green wool shirt") that make the reader feel part of history and, even more important, make the journalist sound like part of history, with all the perks that flow from that -- book contracts and TV appearances and speaking engagements. This is the access that validates the journalist as player rather than the journalist as truth-seeker.
In a brilliant indictment of Woodward in the New York Review of Books in 1996, Joan Didion describes his "disinclination" to "exert cognitive energy on what he is told." How great would it have been to have that discussed at the roundtable today? After all, could there be a better description of the role the media played in getting us into the war, then failing to "exert cognitive energy" on what they were told?
When asked in more innocent times why he thought people talk to him, Woodward replied: "They know that I am going to reflect their point of view." When asked whether he was planning on writing a book on Whitewater, he unwittingly copped to the fundamental problem of the journalism he's been practicing: "I am waiting -- if I can say this -- for the call from somebody on the inside saying 'I want to talk.'"
David Gregory, also at the roundtable, criticized the administration for responding to criticism by using "an old playbook that doesn't work the same way that it used to." Well, the same can be said of the media. Endlessly discussing their obligation to their sources is using a very old playbook indeed.
So it's no wonder that bloggers are stepping into the vacuum. Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo, announced he's hiring two reporters. I'm guessing they won't have Bob Woodward's vaunted insider access. So we'll get less picturesque detail from them, but a lot more "cognitive energy" and a lot less genuflection toward sources.
At the end of the show, Judy Woodruff brought up Tim's role in Plamegate -- someone has to, and it's certainly not going to be Tim. Here is the exchange:
WOODRUFF: And, Tim, the blogs are suggesting that maybe Scooter Libby confused you and Bob Woodward. I've known you both for a quarter of a century. I don't know of anybody who could possibly make that mistake unless they just think all middle-aged white guys look alike.
RUSSERT: Judy, you're a good friend of mine, but I'm no Bob Woodward.
Only in the ways that don't matter.