Bob Woodward’s Different World

From CJR’s The Media Today by Jon Allsop:

IN 2020, whenever the phone rang in the home of Bob Woodward, the venerated political reporter, he would wonder whether it was a robocall or the then-president of the United States. Often, it was the latter. Sometimes, Elsa Walsh, the former Washington Post and New Yorker journalist to whom Woodward is married, would get to the phone first. “I sort of say—like Princess Diana—that there were three people in this marriage: Bob, me, and Donald Trump,” Walsh quipped to CBS recently. Walsh also sometimes commented on Woodward’s conversations with Trump, as she did in April 2020, when Woodward presented Trump with a list of steps that Trump’s own experts had said would be critical to tackling the pandemic. “You kind of sounded like you were telling him what to do… You don’t want to do that,” Walsh admonished Woodward. “Okay,” Woodward responded. “But we’re in a different world now, sweetie.”

Woodward’s calls with Trump—of which there were sixteen in total, plus some in-person interviews—formed the basis for Rage, Woodward’s September 2020 book about Trump, and, now, for The Trump Tapes, an audiobook, out today, pulling together the recordings of the calls; collectively, they last eight hours, interspersed with commentary from Woodward. In recent days, Woodward has been on a media tour to promote the audiobook. “In many ways it’s the missing piece of the Trump story. We’ve heard a lot of Trump. He’s said a lot. But what did he do in the presidency?” Woodward told CBS. “I’ve reported on this in the book I did, Rage. But I then went back and listened to these tapes and said, ‘My God, there is a whole new Trump that emerges.’” Over the weekend, Woodward elaborated on what he perceives as the power of the audio in an op-ed for the Post (where he is still an associate editor), writing that it was an “unusual step” for him to release raw recordings of his interviews—one, he says, that he has never taken before in his long journalistic career—but that he’d been “struck by how Trump pounded in my ears in a way the printed page cannot capture.” As an example, Woodward offered an exchange from the summer of 2020, when Woodward asked Trump if he’d ever viewed COVID as “the leadership test of a lifetime” and Trump replied, simply, “no.” In print, the “no” reads as “a simple declaration,” Woodward writes, whereas the audio is “confident, dismissive, full of self-assurance. It leaves no doubt about the finality of his judgment.”

Woodward explained to MSNBC that he’d returned to the tapes of his Trump interviews earlier this year as he attempted to answer the question, “Does Trump understand the presidency?” He concluded that Trump does not, and more besides. “In 2020, I ended Rage with the following sentence: ‘When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job,’” Woodward wrote in his op-ed for the Post. “Two years later, I realize I didn’t go far enough. Trump is an unparalleled danger.”

As Woodward acknowledges, he already wrote about much of the material in the audiobook in Rage; indeed, he even released some of the audio itself back then—most notably a snippet of Trump admitting, in February 2020, that the pandemic would be bad even as he downplayed it publicly. But some nuggets from The Trump Tapes have been presented as news in their own right in recent days. The Post reported, for example, that Trump showed Woodward (and allowed him to dictate into his notes) some of his correspondence with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, which would later end up at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence—despite acknowledging to Woodward that it was sensitive, belying Trump’s recent claims that he did not take sensitive material to Mar-a-Lago. CNN, meanwhile, looped clips from the audiobook on air last week, touting them as an “exclusive” that the network had “obtained.” They included Trump boasts about the Kim letters and supposed top-secret US weaponry that “Putin and Xi have never heard about before”; also, Trump boasts about his speeches and toughness.

Is any of this actually big news? Trump’s apparent acknowledgement of the sensitivity of the Kim letters shone some light on a story that has emerged only since Woodward published Rage, but it didn’t clear everything up on that front—and it’s already been well documented that Trump did take top-secret documents to Mar-a-Lago. (As always with Trump, what he did is more important than what he claims to have known about what he did.) The secret-weapons claim would be explosive if true—but there’s no evidence to suggest that it is; Woodward was not able to verify it. And Trump boasting about his toughness is a boast as old as Trump himself. Ultimately, the news-cycle hubbub around the audiobook strikes me as yet another iteration of a familiar, annoying trend that has been particularly pronounced during Trump’s post-presidency: news organizations treating book-length material whose primary value is for the long-term historical record as an urgent Trump story in its own right, even when its particulars are either not especially new or not especially important. And that’s before I get started on reporters from one outlet claiming to have “obtained” a book by a reporter at another—in journalism, one obtains a secret government dossier, not a forthcoming commercial product that the seller is poised to promote—which, in a crowded field, is a top-ranking media peeve of mine. (Full disclosure: I have not personally “obtained” or listened to The Trump Tapes in their entirety, and I do not intend to. I think I’d rather listen to eight hours of robocalls.)

In some quarters, stories about Woodward’s audiobook have seemed less concerned with its contents and more with the fact that Woodward is behind it. Introducing its recent interview with Woodward (and Walsh), CBS referred to him as “the author of record about the modern American presidency,” suggesting that when he has something to share, you better listen; CNN, for its part, capped a recent report on the audiobook with a panel discussion that marveled at his doggedness and how he “hypnotizes” his sources into saying compromising things. (If Chris Licht-era CNN is, as reported, looking to tone down Trump-adjacent blather, I’d propose cutting back on this sort of thing ahead of, say, Brian Stelter’s media show. Just a thought.) Other observers noted the significance of Woodward’s conclusion that Trump is dangerous, given the high esteem in which Woodward is held and the fact that he is not one to liberally spray his opinions around. Politico’s Playbook newsletter argued that he had just moved “further into the camp of longtime establishment figures who see Trump as a danger to American democracy and to the future of the country.” Michael Tomasky, the editor of the New Republic, expressed hope that Woodward may have planted Trump’s threats to democracy back in midterm voters’ minds.

It’s always welcome when members of the journalistic establishment, especially really famous ones like Bob Woodward, bluntly state obvious truths about the threat Trump poses, rather than couching them in equivocation. Fundamentally, however, we don’t need the Bob Woodwards of the world to tell us these truths for them to be, well, true; as I’ve written before, the cult of journalistic celebrity is troubling for many reasons, not least that it can reserve outsize attention and authority to reporters who don’t always have a compelling claim to it. Even if Woodward is “the author of record” on the modern presidency (and I’d dispute this) he is certainly not a gatekeeper to the thoughts and character of Donald Trump. Trump tells us all what he thinks—including, yes, in audio form—all the time, not least about the 2020 election. In concluding that those thoughts are dangerous, Woodward isn’t offering any fresh insight.

In 2020, when Rage rolled out, Woodward faced widespread criticism for holding on to evidence of Trump’s early COVID acknowledgement until he could use it to market a book. This criticism, or something like it, recurs pretty much every time a new Trump book comes out (see, recently: Haberman, Maggie), and I’ve seen some of it around The Trump Tapes, too. (“Bob Woodward writes that he is ‘releasing’ his interviews with Trump. More accurately, he’s selling them,” the media academic Dan Gillmor wrote on Twitter. “Given how the author withheld important information until publication of his book, he could have done a real public service now by putting the audios in the public domain.”) I tend to evaluate such critiques on a case-by-case basis: clearly, some information is so urgent and actionable than holding onto it for a book would be indefensible, but this is not always the case; we don’t need to know everything in real time, and books often contextualize nuggets of news better than the daily news cycle. In 2020, I was skeptical that releasing the material in Rage earlier would have made much of a difference to Trump’s COVID policy; again, the most important thing was that Trump did nothing in the face of COVID, which he should have known would be bad, a dynamic we all saw unfold in real time. But I can see the case to the contrary. When it comes to The Trump Tapes, I’m not at all convinced—at least based on the excerpts that have been made public so far and the attendant interviews with Woodward—that he has withheld any explosive information, at least as vouched for by someone other than Trump himself.

Woodward has also been accused, more than once, of unjustifiably delaying conclusions from his reporting; in 2006, for instance, David Carr, the late New York Times media columnist, wrote that it had taken Woodward “three books to arrive at a conclusion thousands of basement-bound bloggers suggested years ago: that the Bush administration is composed of people who like war, don’t seem to be very good at it and have been known to turn the guns on each other.” Something very similar could be said of his 2020 understatement about Trump being the wrong man for the job, let alone his epiphany, two full years later, that Trump is also dangerous and seditious. When Woodward first rose to fame, it was for his work on a story—Watergate—that would imprint a deep cultural expectation of what it takes to uncover the truth about a president: dogged persistence and a faith that more damning facts are always out there, waiting to be unearthed. Trump, as I’ve written before in this newsletter, has often shattered this expectation by blaring the quiet part out loud. We’re in a different world now, sweetie.

More on Bob Woodward:

Futile material: Politico’s Jack Shafer writes this morning that Woodward’s sessions with Trump offer yet more proof that interviewing the former president is a “futile” exercise. “It’s not that no news comes out of a Trump interview. He can always be relied on to say something that will set the chyrons at all three cable news networks pulsing,” Shafer writes. “But in most cases, this one included, the interview is a hot diaper mess that mainly illustrates Trump’s narcissism and willful ignorance. He doesn’t really know anything, which is forgivable. But he also doesn’t want to know anything, which isn’t.”

Fear factor: In 2018, following the publication of Fear, Woodward’s first Trump book, CJR’s Pete Vernon assessed whether Woodward’s typical style—“conducting exhaustive interviews on background and using the information he gathers to write from an omniscient perspective”—still worked in the Trump era. “Woodward’s approach hasn’t changed; the climate in which his sources are viewed has,” Vernon wrote. “Every administration is filled with people who have an agenda, who want to spin events in their favor, but the lines of credibility have shifted. In taking on the Trump presidency as his topic, Woodward is left to assemble a reliable book from unreliable sources.”

Questioning heroes: In 2020, following the publication of Rage, two journalists, Shira Stein and Karen K. Ho (formerly of CJR), challenged Woodward on his decision to hold back Trump’s early COVID comments for the book. In response, Hannah Chinn reported at the time for The Objective, Woodward “dismissed the concerns of the two women reporters, demanded apologies from them both, and interrupted them to offer copies of his book.” The episode, Chinn wrote, pointed to a larger issue: “when we put journalism’s icons on a pedestal, like Woodward, we do the field a disservice.”

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