A controversial reporter for one of the nation's leading newspapers stumbles onto what at first looks like a routine Washington story but eventually, after two years of mounting federal inquiry, becomes a wide-reaching scandal that rocks the very foundations of the White House, kneecapping the second presidential term of a big-government Republican hell-bent on expanding executive power. The reporter at the center of it all–captivated by power, obsessed with high-level access, addicted to anonymous sources–acts as a pawn in an intragovernmental turf war, becoming in the process a lightning rod for critics of journalistic comportment.
I'm talking about New York Times scribe Judith Miller, of course. But the description also applies to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, the most revered reporter of journalism's most self-adoring generation.
There is one crucial difference between the two. Woodward, with help from his partner, Carl Bernstein, published the damning information that helped expose the Watergate scandal and bring down the Nixon administration. Miller only reluctantly disclosed her information after being coerced by a federal prosecutor and spending 85 days in jail. But the similarities vastly outweigh the disparities, and they pose uncomfortable questions not just for little "Miss Run Amok"–Miller's apt nickname for herself–but for Woodward.
Consider one more Woodward/Miller parallel: their autonomy. Even after her 2001-03 reporting on Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction was discredited by her own boss in an extraordinary May 2004 apology, Miller "operated with a degree of autonomy rare at The Times," the paper reported on October 16 in a remarkable 6,000-word article that, coupled with Miller's own belated and tortured explanation of her testimony to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, scorched what was left of her reputation.
Woodward, despite his "managing editor" title, famously starves his primary employer of the bombshells he acquires in the course of interviewing administration officials for his best-selling books. He even allowed the Post to get scooped by Vanity Fair on the May 2005 disclosure that his "Deep Throat" source was former FBI official W. Mark Felt. Woodward's reputation is such that he covers whatever he wants whenever he wants to and pontificates blandly on Larry King Live even though his boss is one of journalism's loudest critics of talking-head punditry. No other newspaper reporter in the country has Woodward's autonomy and purview.
Another parallel: the deferential use of anonymous sourcing. Miller drew widespread rebuke for her admission that, after interviewing Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, she complied with Libby's request to downgrade his usual "senior administration official" identifier to the accurate but misleading moniker "former Hill staffer." Yet Woodward's sourcing is even more obsequious and indirect.
In every one of his books, Woodward uses verbatim quotations from unrecorded meetings he never attended. He even quotes people's thoughts. He obtains much of this material by promising sources they won't be identified at all, let alone with a vague title like "former Hill staffer." The only clue we're ever given is Woodward's assurances that, as he puts it in his 1991 book The Commanders, "Direct quotations from meetings or conversations come from at least one participant who specifically recalled or took notes on what was said," and that "thoughts, beliefs and conclusions attributed to a participant come from that individual or from a source who gained knowledge of them directly from that person."
Woodward leaves us to guess who supplied the information, which is extremely unhelpful when trying to unpack their motives for disclosure or their particular spin. And of course we are expected to trust Woodward and his own motives completely.
This is an important way in which Woodward differs sharply from Judith Miller. The New York Times reporter is almost painfully transparent about her motives and sympathies, while Woodward keeps an upper Midwest poker face. Miller has an abrasive, defensive, and extravagantly self-regarding personality shared by many investigative journalists, particularly those not totally secure with themselves, and she wears her patriotism on her sleeve. She has a fanboy's love of keeping secrets and being in the know, illustrated by her eagerness to wear military uniforms in Iraq and to brag about her supposed "security clearance" that other reporters didn't have.
Woodward, on the other hand, looks as civilian as they come. He warned recently that "we as journalists do not belong in a uniform"–even though he was a Navy intelligence officer for five years in the late 1960s.
This latter point is the object of many conspiracy theories but surprisingly little mainstream scrutiny. Woodward met Mark "Deep Throat" Felt not as a reporter but as a visitor to the White House on Navy intelligence business in 1970. At the time Felt led an FBI "goon squad" charged with making impromptu visits to the agency's field offices to make sure they were following director J. Edgar Hoover's dictates, according to Woodward's June 2005 recollection for the Post. "Here was someone at the center of the secret world I was only glimpsing in my Navy assignment, so I peppered him with questions about his job and his world," he wrote. "I turned it into a career-counseling session." Within months, Woodward's career received a surprisingly powerful boost: The Post hired him, despite his glaring lack of journalism experience.
We have a pretty good handle on Miller's motivations: She loves intrigue, is intoxicated by power, and believes Islamic terrorism is the biggest threat to the country. But what of Woodward's?
If there's one theme tying his books together, it's this: Don't mess with the country's secret intelligence agencies, and don't let the White House develop a competing house of spooks. In an October interview with the First Amendment Center, Woodward said Felt, the FBI's No. 2 man, was motivated by "the Nixon White House manipulating the FBI and trying to make the FBI into another instrument of the political apparatus." Felt himself was no saint; he was later convicted of violating the civil rights of American citizens during his crackdown on the Weather Underground.
Veil, Woodward's extraordinary 1987 account of how William Casey, director of the CIA during the Reagan administration, tried to force the agency to cook up bogus links between the Soviet Union and terrorism, reads like a prequel to Dick Cheney's battles to stovepipe intelligence for the anti-communists' new crusade against Islamic terrorism and Saddam Hussein. Indeed, it's Cheney (whose office, after all, was the target of Fitzgerald's investigation) who looks like the rogue in Woodward's bureaucracy-influenced worldview.
The vice president, a Nixon appointee, was Gerald Ford's chief of staff and has been the Bush administration's point man in rolling back post-Watergate reforms limiting executive power. According to Woodward, "Cheney almost had another heart attack" when Bush agreed to be interviewed for his 2004 book Plan of Attack. And it's not hard to guess to whom the Post reporter was referring when he told the First Amendment Center, "The big worry that we should have about the country is not terrorism or hurricanes or Karl Rove or George Bush or whoever; the real thing that will bring us down as a country is secret government."
Miller's methods are essentially Woodward's. She just had the bad manners of choosing the losing side in an interagency tug of war and the bad luck to be subject to legal scrutiny that the saint of Watergate has miraculously managed to avoid. Reporters who elevate one while denigrating the other are revealing their joy at the scandals' outcomes while letting the victors rewrite their profession's ethics.?