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The Bob Woodward Peep Show

Do the U.S. media absolve themselves through Bob Woodward’s latest book for having failed to do their job?

May 11, 2004

Do the U.S. media absolve themselves through Bob Woodward's latest book for having failed to do their job?

Reporters have a straightforward job. They are supposed to ask questions – and deliver the facts that matter to their core audience, their readers.

The stakes for doing an excellent job on that front are admittedly higher when it comes to matters of life and death, such as committing a nation to war.

Which is why many of those around the world who do care about the United States are perplexed by the now regular ritual of Bob Woodward publishing books about key events, but doing so two years after those events actually took place.

To them, the writings of Bob Woodward have all the charm — and relevance — of a peep show. They may satisfy a voyeuristic craving. But what does it really matter, they wonder, who did what to whom and when and why — two years after the fact?

Are U.S. journalists — cowed by those in power and desperately seeking to have "access" at all times — relegating themselves to being historians?

This is not to belittle Mr. Woodward's reporting accomplishments. They would indeed have been important to read in the country's major newspapers at the time when the decisions of going into Iraq were made — but they accomplish little in the current situation.

At that time, though — in 2002 and early 2003 — there was precious little of this kind of reporting. In retrospect, most "reports" published back then represent a handsome way of supporting the administration's efforts to ready the country for war.

In that sense, Mr. Woodward's book is a stinging self-indictment of U.S. journalism.

Leafing through the pages of the material unearthed by Bob Woodward — and observing the chatter that his "revelations" have caused, and continue to cause, in Washington — one is reminded of the late stages of the absolute monarchy in France.

During the era of the late Louis', the degree by which French nobles hovering around the Versailles court measured their true social status was based on some obscure, yet revealing standards.

For example, you were assured of being viewed as very much in favor with the royals if, as a noble, you would be invited to the king's chambers in the mornings to view the man himself doing his morning toilette.

That unseemly privilege is what perhaps best explains the attraction of Mr. Woodward's books these days. Intriguingly, the book's findings are being promoted by Mr. Bush's political opponents — as well as the White House itself. Why?

Mr. Bush's opponents feel that the book — by showing an administration that rushed headfirst into the Iraq War — absolves them of their own failure to ask tougher questions before troops were actually committed.

Many U.S. reporters promptly went about uncovering additional morsels of the story — happily telling themselves that they are doing a fine job of keeping the administration honest. Never mind that all the right questions were indeed asked in the run-up to the war — but in many other nations, by their newspapers, politicians and citizens.

And even the political right has learned to embrace Mr. Woodward's most recent books — because they celebrate their leading man, the 43rd President of the United States. They make him ever more human and accessible — and they provide massive entertainment to the media.

Busily looking into the rearview mirror, America's journalists are absorbed with the meaningless task of asking who is up and who may be down inside the White House — and who may have talked the most or be the closest to the chief justice of U.S. contemporary history, aka Bob Woodward.

In short, over three decades after Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein did their truly path-breaking work in the Watergate context, the U.S. journalistic profession is still mesmerized by the question of who is "deep throat" in his latest book.

This reflex — and systemic distraction — points to an unwillingness to examine the real problems, that is, a collective inability of the major media to ask the right questions at the right time – even if that means that one becomes unpopular.

Alternatively, having failed in that task, a nation that is so ardent in its claim of having effective checks and balances ought to be very concerned about re-examining why it failed in that task.

The trouble, however, is this: If that exercise in national introspection does not occur, U.S. journalists are bound to keep committing the same mistake. Faced with that somber prospect, it is much easier to celebrate Mr. Woodward's latest book.

U.S. journalists have failed to do their job of informing — rather than cheerleading — the nation in times of crisis.

Only when Mr. Woodward's future books will be greeted with a yawn because we've read all that already in the newspaper at the time when it happened will the national evasive action of preferring to watch a peepshow à la "Plan of Attack" have met its proper end.