It’s so obvious that the Associated Press ran with it this morning, comparing Bob Woodward’s career with Judith Miller’s.
Woodward’s reputation took a beating yesterday when his newspaper, the Washington Post, revealed that he had just informed his bosses that in mid-June 2003 he learned from an anonymous source that Joseph C. Wilson IV’s wife was CIA employee Valerie Plame. Miller, the recently “retired” New York Times reporter, similarly neglected to inform her editors of her first meeting in June 2003 with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in which she discussed Wilson, until special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald reminded her of it.
The similarities continue: Miller called herself Miss Run Amok because she did whatever she wanted at the Times; Woodward’s colleagues at the Washington Post call him a bigfoot because he does whatever he wants.
Miller didn’t write about Plamegate after discussing Wilson with Libby, nor does she appear to have helped her paper pursue the story. Likewise, Woodward didn’t write about the subject and doesn’t appear to have helped his colleagues. Miller writes books. So does Woodward. Both rely heavily on anonymous sources, appear on Larry King Live frequently, are accused of carrying the administration’s water, have produced Pulitzer-winning journalism, and will be subpoenaed for the Scooter Libby trial.
After that, the parallels grow crooked until they skew: While both are being shamed for not telling their bosses what their sources said, only Miller is being shunned for reporting the b.s. she heard from various other sources. And while Woodward ultimately apologized to his editors for keeping them out of the loop, Miller is still waiting for the first below-zero day in hell to make amends.
The most significant difference between the two journalists is that Woodward has gotten it right—spectacularly right on many occasions—more often than any other working reporter. The Miller record, especially on the WMD front, isn’t even in the same solar system.
Setting Woodward’s Watergate accomplishments aside, he deserves lasting respect for the way he revolutionized the Supreme Court beat with 1979’s The Brethren, which he wrote with Scott Armstrong. The institution was—and remains—more leak-proof than the CIA, and The Brethren was the first book to put a human face on a living Supreme Court and its decision-making ways. Veil (1987) captured the out-of-control cowboy that was spook-master William Casey. With nary an anonymous source, Woodward chronicled the life and death of John Belushi in Wired (1984). Although they flow as slowly as an ice-clogged river, The Commanders (1991), The Agenda (1994), Bush at War (2002), and Plan of Attack (2004) boast a thoroughness that you have to admire. Has anybody ever gotten as far inside a working presidential administration as Woodward?
But at what cost? Did getting too close to Casey cause Woodward to miss the Iran-contra scandal? Also, Woodward’s critics damn him as a stenographer to power. But if that’s the case, you’ve got to admit that he takes fantastic shorthand. Although his versions of presidential events are subject to debate and interpretation, the underlying truths of his accounts stand. Yes, some of Woodward’s reporting may seem incredibly one-sided. But isn’t one side of the story today preferable to both sides of the story 40 years hence when the archivists unseal the presidential papers? If nothing else, does not Woodward’s “slow journalism and fast history” (as investigative reporter Steve Weinberg once put it) encourage the unheard side to speak out once Woodward’s take is printed?
The dismissals of Woodward’s books as dictation can change with the political weather. Rutgers University history and media-studies professor David Greenberg (also a former Woodward assistant) notes that Bush at War earned Woodward the stenographer kiss-off from “the chattering classes” when it appeared. But in 2004, when the liberal tide had risen against the Iraq war, the same people who had denounced the book as limp mined it for anti-Bush material.
When Woodward makes mistakes, you won’t hear him blaming anybody else, least of all his sources. Compare that with Miller, who told her own newspaper that, yes, she got WMD “totally wrong,” but only because the “analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them—we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.” She is, of course, wrong about this. Not everybody got it wrong, as Michael Massing has persuasively written.
Even if Woodward is on the up-and-up, he still has much squirrelly behavior to account for. For instance, his justification for not helping his paper pursue the big Plame story is no more plausible, on its face, than Miller’s. He claims to have tipped off fellow Post reporter Walter Pincus about Wilson’s wife, but Pincus says it didn’t happen. Miller claimed most recently in an e-mail to Times Public Editor Byron Calame that she suggested to Jill Abramson—then Washington bureau chief and now Times managing editor—that the bureau check out Wilson and Plame. Abramson tells me, “That is not so.” I believe her.
Woodward shares other DNA with Miller, something he might not like to admit, considering the circumstances. Both are practitioners of “access journalism,” ever seeking to cultivate sources higher and higher up the power pyramid. Miller gave this kind of reporting its ugliest face when she said in a 2004 radio interview:
My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of the New York Times as best as I could figure out, what people inside the governments who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction.
Access journalists can also become incredibly controlling and possessive. While hunting WMD in Iraq with the MET Alpha team, Miller “intimidated” U.S. Army soldiers with the names of the powerful and famous back in Washington, namely Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his undersecretary, Douglas Feith. As the Washington Post’sHoward Kurtz reported, she battled with the Times Baghdad bureau chief over access to Ahmed Chalabi, whom she considered her chattel.
I can’t cite any similar highhandness on Woodward’s part, nor is he the sort to sluice the words of authorities directly into his journalism. But I wonder if he gets too chummy with his best and most powerful sources, as the recent controversy indicates. Slate columnist Fred Kaplan remembers Woodward emerging from the spectators’ section to greet Colin Powell at Powell’s 1989 confirmation hearings as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kaplan, who was covering the story for the Boston Globe from the press table, says Powell hallooed Woodward as if he were a long-lost frat brother. Woodward kept his standard reserve, but his wide grin telegraphed their mutual admiration.
What troubles me about Woodward’s conduct in the Plame affair is his Miller-esque self-centeredness. Absolute vigilance in protecting the confidentiality of sources is wonderful, but not when it comes at the expense of finding a way to report the news.
Even though Woodward has publicly apologized to Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. for caching the Plame nugget rather than sharing it with the Post, I’m not convinced he feels that he’s done anything wrong. To sit on such incendiary information for so long, especially while other reporters are being threatened with jail, is beneath the standards to which I thought Woodward subscribed. I can see him waffling for two months, six months, or nine months. But 29? If he owes Post editors an apology, surely he owes his readers one, too, and reassurances about what kind of reporter he’ll be in the future.
Am I the only one who’s noticed how pleased Downie seems to be at Woodward’s trip to the doghouse? Downie wasn’t gloating last night discussing the furor on Chris Matthews’ Hardball, but he wasn’t suffering, either. Pleased or gloating? Let me know what you think at email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)