Jay Rosen of PressThink is back and has written a column attacking Bob Woodward's "access journalism," the hook being Woodward's rather late revelation that a Bush administration source had mentioned Valerie Plame to him. According to Rosen, the key is that the Woodward & Bernstein of the 1970's were outsiders looking in, and so much the better:
“They were outsiders, and their lack of top-level access was probably their greatest asset,” she [Nora Ephron] writes. It’s an asset Woodward conspicuously lacks today, but he seems not to realize it. His editor, Len Downie, told Washington Post readers that “Woodward’s access to the inner corridors of power” has for “over three decades of extraordinary reporting, beginning with Watergate,” produced “a great public service for our readers and all Americans” by revealing, more than any other journalist has, “how our government works— and holding it accountable.”
Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn’t have such access, and this probably influenced—for the better—their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn’t broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk. The more experienced White House reporters didn’t think much of the story. Nor did they get wind of the extraordinary abuses of power that were going on at the time.
But Rosen's guideposts raise the question whether Woodward's main defect is that he hasn't properly assaulted President Bush.
Thus we are pointed to the "indispensable" online columnist Dan Froomkin, a nonstop anti-Bush snark machine; Jane Hamsher at firedoglake, who pronounces this administration is the worst one ever! above another item portraying Joseph Lieberman as Bush's lap dog; and Nick Turse at The Nation Institute for his "Fallen Legion" of abused former government officials. That honor roll, for starters, cannot even accurately report the circumstances of Gen. Shinseki's departure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and characterizes State Department officials as heroes for having resigned when they realized they couldn't support the Iraq War. I didn't vote for them, so bon voyage.
Rosen rightly dismisses claims by Executive Editor Leonard Downie that Woodward operates under the same rules as every other reporter, then focuses on his status as an insider:
To say Woodward is where he always is (at the heart of things) denies that there’s any price to access. It asserts—falsely, I think—that if something as bad as Watergate were happening in Washington today Woodward would be the one uncovering it....
If he were trying to uncover what really happened during the two terms of George W. Bush he would have talked to everyone on this list: The Fallen Legion: Casualties of the Bush Administration by Nick Turse. Forty two men and women “who were honorable or steadfast enough in their government duties that they found themselves with little alternative but to resign in protest, quit, or simply be pushed off the cliff” by Bush forces (That’s Tom Englehardt, who published the list at TomDispatch.) They may not be well-connected or inside the action any longer, but these people certainly know a lot about “how our government works.” They can tell you what the current White House is capable of.
Well, the current White House is capable of letting Shinseki serve his full four-year term, the maximum for nearly every Army Chief of Staff since 1903, and equally capable of failing to effectively rebut the urban legend that he was forced out early for talking about troop strength. And fellow Legionnaire Paul O'Neill can tell you that that if you have a gaffe-filled tenure punctuated by one-man devaluations of the U.S. dollar and the Brazilian real, then opposing the tax cuts promised by your boss probably isn't going to improve your prospects.
We don't need Woodward for those stories. He's been telling some pretty good ones anyway, and though his books haven't produced any impeachments there seem to be short memories about how they were received at the time. Jonathan Freedland reviewed Plan of Attack in The Guardian:
Thanks to interviews with 75 key players, including on-the-record sessions with President Bush, as well as access to memos, transcripts of phone calls on secure lines (including those to Tony Blair), even Power Point presentations from military computers, this book is packed with the kind of high-grade information that traditionally stays hidden until the publication of memoirs years after the event. Here is the inside track on a crisis that is barely a year old and still unfolding. Woodward's style is not to present an overall analysis, still less a polemic, but simply to lay out the facts and viewpoints of the main actors. He rarely joins the dots, as those in the Bush administration might say. But it hardly matters: the dots themselves are compelling enough.
Freedland says there's plenty for partisans on both sides, a common observation as I recall it. Bush's team isn't spectacularly well-treated; the following is from Ted Widmer's review in the New York Times:
The more zealous advocates of the war are handled more harshly. Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, persistently dredge up dubious intelligence to overstate Iraq's threat to the United States, and Douglas Feith, an under secretary of defense, earns the distinction of being called the ''stupidest guy on the face of the earth'' by General Franks. Even more disturbing is the portrayal of Cheney, who, described as almost deranged (''beyond hellbent'') in his desire to go to war, initiates far more policy than is normal for a vice president and exerts a heavy influence on the president's thinking. Can anyone imagine Bush's father insisting that he would submit to questioning only in the presence of Dan Quayle? Whenever Cheney comes onstage, it's difficult not to think of Mike Myers playing Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films.
But for Rosen and other critics, this is not enough--Woodward doesn't close the deal. Rosen quotes Joan Didion:
She refers to “Mr. Woodward’s rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him.” She talks of his “refusal to consider meaning or outcome or consequence.” More vividly: “this tabula rasa typing…” Or: “this disinclination of Mr. Woodward’s to exert cognitive energy on what he is told.”
I'm not sure what that looks like, but in the current environment I think it means: Didn't hurt Bush enough.
I am going to propose a radical idea: Bob Woodward doesn't impose grand conclusions or Explain What It Means because he doesn't think that's his job. He thinks he's a reporter, not a columnist or an editorial writer. You can figure out on your own damn time what it means. That's much better than the "Analysis" and "For The Record" and other assorted maneuvers used by the Post to editorialize in the A section. If a modern American reporter can get all the way through a book without telling me what I'm supposed to think about the facts he's uncovered, well hell, I should reserve a room with an open bar and throw a party.
So when Rosen talks about "Faith-based policy making" and locates a lack of "empiricism" in the Bush Administration while giving us a Downing Street Memo riff about "fixing" the facts, well, that's your right, Jay, but please recognize where you feel at home. You already know what story ought to be told. From where I sit, it's not exactly an untapped narrative.