The stunning revelations on the Trump tapes likely will have a big impact on the presidential race, at least for a while. But the timing of the release has also revived a big debate for journalists. Once Bob Woodward knew that Trump had decided to knowingly downplay the threat from the coronavirus, shouldn’t he have informed the endangered public, maybe forcing Trump to fess up and shape up?
Margaret Sullivan, the media watchdog and ombudsperson at the Washington Post, writes about the Woodward problem. Woodward is no longer on staff but has a historic — even iconic — connection with the paper. One of the people she quotes is David Boardman, formerly executive editor of The Seattle Times and now a journalism dean at Temple University, who asks whether the traditional practice of withholding important public information for book purposes is “still ethical.” Notes Sullivan:
“The questions are valid — and as Boardman notes, far from new. They surface almost every time a journalist writes a book that contains newsy information, especially about matters of national security or public well-being: Why are we only reading about this now?”
Sullivan then interviews Woodward, whose basic defense is that a book is designed to give more context to incendiary quotes, which takes time, and naturally he needed to find out if Trump was, as usual, lying about what he knew and why he minimized the pandemic. Was there an agreement to delay publication, an embargo imposed by the White House of the book’s publisher? Apparently not, and Woodward says, in his lordly way, that he doesn’t agree to such restrictions, though in past books it has been his practice to agree with presidents to withhold their revelations until the book is published.
Sullivan explains further: “Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming. Woodward’s effort, he said, was to deliver in book form ‘the best obtainable version of the truth,’ not to rush individual revelations into publication.”
Obviously bombshell revelations are often saved to become part of the publicity for a newly published book. Agreements over first media interviews and reviews often impose restrictions on what the author can say beforehand or to competing media. There’s a temptation to focus maximum publicity in the fall, leading up to holiday book sales (and orders). It helps to inject the juicy revelations at a time when campaigns will keep the story alive. These all seem more important factors than providing full context in the book.
Meanwhile, what could have been Trump’s motivation in rambling on in such damaging ways? Salesmen are often the most easily seduced by other salesmen, and Woodward is famous for his flattery and cajoling. My favorite explanation is that Trump was tired of being upstaged by other tell-all books and so decided to manipulate Woodward into effectively writing Trump’s own inside story. Take that, pesky niece and sister and fixer!
But at least the Woodward tapes come fairly early in the campaign. The temptation for candidates is to release the damaging information around Halloween, when the target has little time to respond. (As happened with the reopening of the Hillary Clinton case by the FBI, and which used to be a feature of Gov. Dan Evans’ gubernatorial campaigns.) Timing is crucial, in politics as in the publishing business.