On November 19, 2005, editorial page editors at The Washington Post's reminded "readers that the editorial page operates separately from those who gather and publish news in The Post. The reminder was issued in an article headlined "Mr. Woodward's Sources." Mr. Woodward is the world reknown and controversial journalist Bob Woodward. He gained international acclaim when he and former Post reporter Carl Bernstein doggedly pursued what Nixon White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler called a "Third-rate burglary" at Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and apartment complex. Their investigation exposed the Watergate scandal and eventually led to the resignation of the late President Richard M. Nixon on August 9, 1974.
Woodward has gained unprecedented power, acclaim and wealth for a journalist since the heady days of Watergate. He is to journalism what Michael Jordan is to professional basketball. Sure, he has had controversy along the way. For example, he is frequently criticized for never reaching conclusions in his books on powerful figures or offering criticism.
He is also known for withholding contemporary information for his books instead of publishing it in The Post. That's part of the controversy surrounding him now. As Post reporter Howard Kurtz wrote November 17, 2005:
Bob Woodward apologized to The Washington Post yesterday for failing to reveal for more than two years that a senior Bush administration official had told him about CIA operative Valerie Plame, even as an investigation of who disclosed her identity mushroomed into a national scandal.
Woodward had never been subpoenaed in a Grand Jury investigation until he became ensnared
in the CIA leak investigation
, sometimes called the "Plame Affair,
" being conducted by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
It was in that context that Post
editorial writers declared that "the Woodward flap has significance beyond The Post's
newsroom." The editorial noted that:
The longtime Post reporter disclosed this week that, while conducting research for a book, he received information from an administration official about Ms. Plame before her identity was revealed by Robert D. Novak in a July 2003 column. That information was potentially relevant to [Special Prosecutor Peter] Fitzgerald's investigation and to a news story that has been extensively covered in this and other papers. Mr. Woodward said he told one Post reporter at the time what he had learned but did not disclose the source. Mr. Woodward recently testified to the prosecutor, with the source's permission and after the source had spoken with Mr. Fitzgerald, but still (again according to his agreement) has not publicly identified the source.
The editorial acknowledged that, "Much of the public finds the media's extensive use of confidential sources objectionable, and understandably so. Their use should be as limited as possible. When they are relied upon, reporters should impart as much information as possible about the sources' motives. Those guidelines are accepted but too often ignored by the press."
"But over the years," the editorial continues,
innumerable cases of official corruption and malfeasance have come to light thanks to sources being able to count on confidentiality. It's astonishing to see so many people -- especially in the journalism establishment -- forget that now. Many of those who condemn Mr. Woodward applauded when The Post recently revealed the existence of CIA prisons around the world, a story that relied on unnamed sources.
I hope Post
editorial writers are not trying to convince us that Woodward is above reproach just because The Post
"recently revealed the existence of CIA prisons around the world," or because he and Bernstein broke the Watergate story story over 30 years ago. That would be like saying a person shouldn't be prosecuted for a crime because he or she had never committed one before the one he or she is now charged with.
Woodward's accomplishments are undeniable. He rose above traditional journalism years ago. His forte these days is books In fact, he is sometimes called a stenographer for the powerful in government instead of a journalist although he wears the title of assistant managing editor.
Finally, I doubt the public would eschew the use of anonymous sources in some instances. The opposition is to someone such as Woodward and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller allowing powerful source who may have committed a crime for political reasons to remain anonymous under the rubric of protecting sources. The anonymous source should be the starting point not the primary basis for an article.
Editor's Note: This article is cross posted at The Curious Spectator and The Online Free Press .