WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2021
We call it reading a transcript: Yesterday morning, we made a point of watching the segment in question.
The bodacious Bobcats, Woodward and Costa, were scheduled to appear on Morning Joe. Their new book was extremely hot—and as with many of Woodward's books, it may have been perhaps a bit and somewhat shakily sourced.
An irony lurks in that possibility. Back in the day, Woodward and Bernstein became iconic journalistic figures due to their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.
Out of that iconic episode, an iconic story emerged. They'd managed to get (almost) everything right because their editor, the iconic Ben Bradlee, had required two (2) sources for their factual claims.
That was then, but this is now. Yesterday, over at Slate, Fred Kaplan described an alleged problem with Woodward's current techniques:
KAPLAN (9/21/21): [Woodward's books] follow a pattern, so consistent, over the past few decades, that it might be dubbed “Woodwardian.” The author amasses vast quantities of scoops, some of them extraordinary. He subjects them to little, if any, analysis. Instead, he channels his anecdotes through the viewpoints of well-known characters, who tend to be either heroes (who often coincide with sources who have told him a lot) or villains (who usually haven’t).
Thar she blows! If you cooperate with Woodward, you get treated as a hero in his subsequent book. If you refuse to be interviewed, you find yourself cast as a goat. So runs one of the allegations about Woodward's allegedly shaky methods over the past many years.
We never discuss our conversations with high-ranking federal officials. But way back in the 1990s, one such high-ranking federal official voiced this very complaint to us, explaining why he had turned out to be one of the goats in Woodward's latest Clinton-era book.
(For the record, we have no way of knowing if what we were told was accurate.)
This allegation about Woodward's technique has been somewhat widely voiced in recent decades. As he continued, Kaplan expanded on his theme:
KAPLAN (continuing directly): This last trait is common among Washington journalists who rely too much on insider sources, but Woodward takes the practice to extremes. The main hero in Peril, as many have noted, is Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is portrayed as the warrior-savior who kept the world at peace during Donald Trump’s most turbulent outbursts. Milley exaggerates, and Woodward lets him...
Woodward’s credulity of his favored sources taints his own credibility on matters large and small. For instance, there’s a passage describing the events of June 1, 2020, as protests are erupting, some violent, in reaction to the police killing of George Floyd. News footage that day revealed Milley strutting through the streets of downtown Washington, D.C., in combat fatigues, as if he were inspecting the troops in wartime. He was much criticized for this and, 10 days later, apologized. But Woodward treats the general’s wardrobe as innocuous, writing, “Milley left the White House and headed downtown to visit the FBI command post monitoring the demonstrations. Expecting a late night, he changed into his uniform of camouflage fatigues to be more comfortable.”
I have no doubt this is the explanation Milley fed him. I am stunned that, after 45 years of high-level journalism, Woodward still lacks a functioning bullshit detector.
Kaplan goes on to explain why he says that Woodward has taken "bullshit" from General Milley and presented it as fact. These complaints about Woodward's methods never go away.
In this instance, Woodward has told readers what Milley was "expecting" on the day in question. He has also told readers why Milley changed into his camouflage fatigues, but he's done these things without reporting his sources—without explaining how he can know that what he has written is true.
Woodward rose to fame on the strength of requiring two sources. Today, traditional sourcing of any kind rarely exists in his books.
In Woodward's easy-reader books, we're offered highly novelized easy-reader tales. We're supposed to assume that his statements are accurate, with zero questions asked.
General Milley was the hero of the passages in this book which were released for promotional purposes. At the same time, a pleasing villain was offered—former Vice President Pence.
Last Tuesday night, Rachel Maddow pleased us rubes with the standard account of Pence's supposed behavior. Concerning Pence, this was her nugget presentation:
MADDOW (9/14/21): In this new book, one of the things that [Woodward and Costa] report is that Mike Pence, in their telling, was far more reluctant to do his job, far more reluctant to do his constitutional duty than the public narrative has suggested. Bottom line, Vice President Pence didn't ultimately accede to Trump's wishes to block the certification of the election, to overturn the election results, to leave Trump in power or to render the election results unknowable. But it was not, apparently, for a lack of him trying to find a way to do that.
Thus spake the bulk of the liberal world's Cablethustra! Tomorrow, we'll show you more of what Maddow said that night—but as always, her account was tribally pleasing in the ultimate way.
How does Maddow know that Woodward's account is accurate? Even if she's interpreting the book's presentation correctly—we're not assuming that she is—how does she know that Woodward's account isn't just the latest version of bullshit? The latest punishment of a possible source who refused to come across?
As she pleased us flunkies that night, Maddow read at length from the pleasing new book. At some points, Woodward is explicitly quoting what Quayle and Pence are said to have said to each other during the phone call in question.
How is it possible for Woodward to quote the exact words these two fellows said? Did he have a tape? Did he have a transcript? What's the source for those quoted remarks?
Maddow, of course, didn't raise any such point. As he she performed her tribal services, Our Rhodes Scholar didn't ask.
Maddow's account was the first we saw of this exciting new book. As we watched her discuss Pence and Quayle, we were struck by her gullibility, or perhaps by her lack of something resembling honesty, as she performed in precisely the way a tribal bullshitter should.
Maddow recently scored a $30 million contract as a result of such faithful service. Tomorrow, we'll continue exploring this particular topic, the one involving what Pence and Quayle allegedly said and did, and what Pence allegedly wanted.
As for the service we've rendered today, we call it "reading a transcript." We also call it "an education," much as Tara Westover did.
Woodward's latest book has put pleasing stories in play. But to what extent should we believe that the stories are actually accurate?
None of our nation's vaunted logicians have managed to offer a word on this basic matter of Daily Logic. That said, our logicians walked off their posts long ago, Wittgenstein maybe among them.
Did Pence call Quayle, or did Quayle call Pence? To see the comical way our discourse works, come back for this afternoon's compost.
We'll be quoting from Morning Joe. We made a point of watching.
Tomorrow: Back to Wittgenstein's Preface