Why the Times Would Never Publish Woodward

Part 3 of the Washington Post’s multi-part excerpt of Bob Woodward’s new book, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, is more compelling than Parts 1 and 2, because it abandons the over-covered “anguish of Bill and Hillary” narrative to document some interesting disagreements within Starr’s office about the release of Starr’s sexually explicit report to Congress. (The book goes on sale today; if you want to make Woodward even richer than he already is, click here.) Today’s Starr excerpt doesn’t really constitute bombshell material (to see what might, read Chatterbox’s earlier item about Woodward’s insinuation that Bill Clinton is seeing a shrink). But it is interesting. It says, among other things, that staff lawyers Brett Kavanaugh and William Kelly urged Starr that a narrative-free report be sent to Congress, lest Starr come off as sex-obsessed. But is this true?

Chatterbox … doesn’t know. However, he finds it a matter of some interest that, based on Woodward’s own accounting of his sourcing methods, this reportage could never have found its way into the New York Times. Chatterbox knows this because, stuffed inside today’s home-delivered Times, there’s a newsletter about the Times that spotlights Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes, who of late has been bucking various free ‘n’ easy trends in contemporary journalism. A few months ago, he pulled the Times out of the glitzy White House Correspondents’ Dinner on the hard-to-dispute grounds that it’s become rather a grotesque farce. Now Oreskes is paraphrased as saying (accurately, one assumes, since this is a company advertorial) that the Times

follows three basic rules regarding sources for stories: sources must have direct knowledge of the information they’re imparting; stories require at least two separate sources (not, for example, two people in one office); and another news organization cannot count as a source.

Compare that with how the Post describes Woodward’s method in its excerpts from Shadow

Each major scene depicted in these excerpts comes from at least one knowledgeable source, often supplemented by records or contemporaneous notes and documents.

Clearly, this violates Oreskes’ Rule No. 2. It also raises a couple of interesting questions. Are “minor” scenes permitted to come from sources who aren’t “knowledgeable”? What does “knowledgeable” mean, anyway? Were they there or not? Chatterbox does not mean to come down too hard on Woodward, who over the years has shown himself to be pretty reliable (if also something of a hype artist). Moreover, Chatterbox himself has on occasion published stories that were based on only one “knowledgeable” source–stories that apparently he wouldn’t have been able to get into the Times. And obviously, by telling you what’s in Woodward’s book without doing any independent research of his own, Chatterbox has violated Oreskes’ Rule No. 3. But do not despair, dear reader: One thing Chatterbox would never do is end a story by suggesting the commander in chief was seeing a shrink if he didn’t have the goods.