History

The Trouble with Bob Woodward

And don't get me started on his bio of Bill the Cat.

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Of all the anti–Bob Woodward invective to erupt over the last few weeks, the most illuminating item I've seen is an essay by Tanner Colby in Slate this morning. When Colby wrote Belushi: A Biography with the widow of the late actor John Belushi, he found himself in the unusual position of basically re-reporting an entire Woodward book—Wired, the Post scribe's much-maligned Belushi bio. Since my own disillusionment with Woodward began when virtually all the sources interviewed for Wired claimed that they were misrepresented, I found it interesting to hear Colby's account of how the author systematically skewed anecdotes:

John Belushi in a sketch inspired by a Bob Woodward book.

Like a funhouse mirror, Woodward's prose distorts what it purports to reflect. Moments of tearful drama are rendered as tersely as an accounting of Belushi's car-service receipts. Friendly jokes are stripped of their humor and turned into boorish annoyances. And when Woodward fails to convey the subtleties of those little moments, he misses the bigger picture….

Woodward also makes peculiar decisions about what facts he uses as evidence. His detractors like to say that he's little more than a stenographer—and they're right. In Wired, he takes what he is told and simply puts it down in chronological order with no sense of proportionality, nuance, or understanding….Just to compare and contrast: At one point, Woodward stops the narrative cold to document a single 24-hour coke binge for the better part of eight pages. Nothing much happens in these eight pages except for Belushi going around L.A. doing a bunch of coke; it's not a key moment in Belushi's life, but it takes on an outsized weight in Wired's narrative simply because Woodward happened to find the limo driver who drove Belushi around and witnessed the whole thing, providing him with a lot of juicy if not particularly important information. Meanwhile, the funeral of Belushi's grandmother—which was the pivotal moment when he hit bottom, resolved to get clean, and kicked off his year of hard-fought sobriety—that event is glossed over in a mere 42 words, and a quarter of those words are dedicated to the cost of the plane tickets to fly to the funeral ($4,066, per Woodward, as if it matters to the story).

Whenever people ask me about John Belushi and the subject of Wired comes up, I say it's like someone wrote a biography of Michael Jordan in which all the stats and scores are correct, but you come away with the impression that Michael Jordan wasn't very good at playing basketball.

I don't have much invested in the Woodward/Obama tiff, one of those intra-Washington battles that occupies the Beltway pundits' attention for a few days or weeks without ultimately meaning much. (You want to talk about the White House being thin-skinned about press criticism, focus on the examples that actually happened.) The general value of Woodward's work is a more significant topic, and Colby makes points worth remembering each time the Post reporter publishes one of his half-of-D.C.-dishes-about-the-other-half tomes.

Elsewhere in Reason: Read Matt Welch's classic column comparing Woodward to Judith Miller. And see Athan Theoharis on Deep Throat.

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