On Journalistic Books and Withholding Information

From a story on cjr.org by Mathew Ingram headlined “On journalistic books and withholding information”:

Even before Donald Trump lost the presidential election in 2020, books about him and his administration—covering the chaos and turmoil at the White House, Trump’s impeachment trial, his tangled relationship with questionable characters like Steve Bannon, and morehad already become a cottage industry. (Bob Woodward, the legendary reporter for the Washington Post, is responsible for three of them, one with Post colleague Robert Costa.)

In one of the latest in this genre, entitled Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, Jonathan Karl—the Washington correspondent for ABC News—chronicles the post-election intrigue inside the White House. Karl’s book, released on Tuesday, details a New Year’s Eve memo written by Jenna Ellis, a legal advisor to the Trump campaign, about how Trump might be able to reject the results of the election and have Mike Pence declare him the winner—a new Trump revelation that has since driven a short, memo-focused news cycle.

It says a lot about the Trump administration that this wasn’t the only such memo that circulated at the White House. In Peril, released in September, Woodward and Costa reported that John Eastman, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, wrote a similar memo outlining how Pence could simply disregard the electoral votes from states that Trump didn’t win and then use the Republican majority in Congress to ratify his “victory.” For some critics, these two memos also had something else in common: they represented potentially critical information about the health of American democracy that should have been reported when it happened, rather than saved for the publication of a book.

Steve Inskeep, an NPR host who recently interviewed Karl about his book, responded on Twitter to some of these arguments by saying that, as a society, “our most pressing need is for context, careful reporting, understanding. It’s not to file stories instantly on every incremental tidbit.” Reporters like Karl and Woodward, he suggested, need time to put things into context, especially the chaos of the Trump White house. “When journalists report the very latest bit, that may serve the audience well, or may not,” Inskeep added. “Our demand for instant answers is not often consistent with wisdom.”…

The implication is that it’s better to wait for some pieces of information than to know them immediately. This may often be true, but is it always? Some argue that it wouldn’t have changed anything to know some of the details in either book. Writing last year about Woodward’s Rage and Trump’s COVID deceptions, my CJR colleague Jon Allsop said that some of the anger at Woodward was clearly misplaced. “The idea that Woodward could have saved lives by going public sooner is highly hypothetical,” he wrote. “And his revelation doesn’t fundamentally change a fact that we’ve always known—that whatever Trump said in private, he did nothing to stop the coronavirus.”

Not everyone buys these justifications, however. “The idea that we had to wait for the Trump books to get the full context, and the holy-crap tidbits they contain, is pernicious,” Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, replied to Inskeep’s post. “Journalism could readily provide context as the story develops. It chooses not to.”…

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and a former public editor for the New York Times, interviewed Woodward about his decision not to report Trump’s comments on COVID-19 when they were made—well before a lot was known publicly about the coronavirus and its health risks. Woodward, defending his decision, told Sullivan that he didn’t know whether what Trump was saying was true or not, and needed to continue reporting out the book. But Sullivan came to a different conclusion from her colleague Erik Wemple. “I don’t know if putting the book’s newsiest revelations out there in something closer to real time would have made a difference. They might very well have been denied and soon forgotten,” she wrote. “Still, the chance—even if it’s a slim chance—that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument.”

Here’s more on Trump and journalism:

  • Conscience: Charles Pierce of Esquire was not a fan of Woodward’s choice to keep his Trump details to himself for his book. “The president knew and lied because he wanted to get re-elected. Woodward knew and kept it to himself because he had a book to sell. Who’s worse?” Pierce wrote. “As someone who in his own small way practices the same craft as Bob Woodward, I have to wonder how Woodward watched the president lie for six months as the body count ratcheted skyward without his conscience tearing out his heart. I have to wonder if, in some small way, journalism as public service died as collateral damage.”
  • Book fails: In the aftermath of the Woodward’s Rage, Constance Grady wrote for Vox about the deluge of ethically-questionable books by former White House insiders and Trump confidants. “In theory, book-length reporting is supposed to function as the home of the very best of journalism: not as the home for breaking news where time is of the essence, but for the most thoughtful, most rigorous, most carefully sourced reporting in the industry,” Grady wrote. “But in practice, book-length journalism often fails to perform that duty, perhaps because book publishers generally don’t consider the ethics of journalism to fall within their purview.”

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