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THE REPORTER AS CONFIDENCE MAN // THE CHOICE

When you've brought down a president by the time you're barely out of your 20s, you can make a couple of unpleasant assumptions about the remainder of your journalistic career.

First, everything else you do is going to look insignificant by comparison. Second, your life eventually will be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny you've become accustomed to directing at others.

So it goes for Bob Woodward, the giant-slayer of Watergate, who lately finds his significance and his scruples being questioned.

Give Woodward credit for laboring mightily to avoid the charge of insignificance. To be sure, it is a long way down from the red meat of All the President's Men to the thin gruel of The Choice, but Woodward has done some impressive, and even groundbreaking, work along the way. In particular, The Brethren, an overdue peek underneath the robes of our cloistered Supreme Court justices, was a work of considerable journalistic and civic merit.

But a review of Woodward's post-Watergate books shows that he has developed some bad habits that cast ever-darkening clouds over the credibility of his work.

Most of the criticism has focused on what James J. Kilpatrick calls Woodward's brand of "trust-me journalism."

First, Woodward has made an elaborate show of dispensing with the normal rules of attribution that lesser journalists follow almost religiously. He abjures footnotes. He avoids any direct acknowledgement of his sources, and he doesn't explain the methodology of his research. These omissions, usually accompanied by Woodward's coy attempts to justify them, inevitably create frustrations for readers attempting to judge the fairness and accuracy of his reporting.

Second, Woodward and his publicists are accused of hyping excerpts of his books for maximum pre-publication exposure. This marketing strategy creates temptations to exaggerate events for the purpose of generating attention and sales. In some instances, the obvious hype of selected excerpts may have caused readers to be unduly skeptical of the more faithful reporting on which Woodward's broader work is based.

On the second issue, Woodward is unquestionably guilty as charged. In the case of The Choice, the pre-publication leaks of Hillary Clinton's play-acting sessions with a New Age counselor came across as an almost desperate attempt to prop up a book that is otherwise devoid of the kinds of revelations that Woodward has caused readers to expect.

At least readers can guess how Woodward came to learn of Hillary Clinton's conversations with the shade of Eleanor Roosevelt. The Clintons didn't talk to Woodward, but the revelation could have been delivered directly from Jean Houston to Woodward, self-promoter to self-promoter.

On the other hand, Woodward is still trying to explain away the most notorious case in which his leaks and embellishments unnecessarily clouded an otherwise estimable piece of reporting. Veil, Woodward's look inside the CIA, gave readers access to a byzantine world that had never before been so exposed. Most of the book has stood up well, but many readers remember only Woodward's claims of a secret deathbed conversation with former CIA Director William Casey that Casey's family and doctors say could not possibly have taken place.

As to the first charge, that Woodward's refusal to divulge his sources and methods destroys his credibility, I am willing to give Woodward the benefit of the doubt _ up to a point.

Woodward argues, with some justification, that the nature of many of the subjects he has chosen to take on _ the CIA, the Nixon White House, the Supreme Court _ makes it necessary for him to allow sources to maintain their anonymity.

Fair enough. Most news organizations, including this one, occasionally make exceptions to their normal rules of disclosure to protect the identity of sources who have reason to believe that their public comments will bring retribution against them.

But Woodward fails to disclose his sources as a matter of course. And that habit becomes particularly troublesome when Woodward adopts his familiar tone of literary omniscience.

Woodward is perhaps best known for his style of delivering what he purports to be the verbatim accounts of private conversations _ and even the private thoughts of the people involved in those conversations. Even when one or more of those characters subsequently try to give Woodward their honest recollections of those events, Woodward's accounts are still two steps removed from reality. And Woodward occasionally uses the technique even when all of the participants in the scene refused to talk to him. It's as if he had Kreskin for a collaborator.

In any case, most readers are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of Woodward's technique and probably know better than to take literally his verbatim snippets from Casey's deathbed or the Clintons' marital bed.

The debate over Woodward's missing footnotes probably has been overblown. But a much more serious problem with Woodward's methods has received too little attention.

It is a malignant byproduct of the quality that has won Woodward his greatest praise: his ability to persuade reluctant sources to reveal much more to him than they intend to.

Much of Woodward's success as an interviewer has come from sheer hard work and persistence. But Woodward is not at all the simple "plodder" he often claims to be. He is a master psychologist who knows just what to promise _ or what to threaten _ to pry out the information he is looking for.

He cajoles. He bluffs. He bullies.

And on occasion, he has misrepresented himself and broken his promises.

In an infamous essay in the New Yorker several years ago, Janet Malcolm offered this description of the relationship between journalist and source: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

A thousand years from now, this will still be remembered as one of the most arrogantly self-serving pieces of rationalization in the history of letters.

Malcolm's devastating description certainly applies to much of her own work. Although she typically failed to disclose her own bias in that New Yorker article, she was at the time a defendant in a nasty libel suit brought by a psychoanalyst who believed that he had been victimized by the very kind of reporting that Malcolm ascribes to all other journalists.

The description also applied to Joe McGinniss, the subject of Malcolm's article. McGinniss meticulously ingratiated himself to convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald _ and then, having milked MacDonald of everything he had to offer, wrote a book, Fatal Vision, that effectively re-convicted him of the crimes.

And if several of his former sources are to be believed, Malcolm's description fits Woodward all too well, too.

In his withering critique of Woodward's methods in the June/July issue of George magazine, Robert Sam Anson catalogs a long list of sources who were misled, bullied or burned by Woodward over the years:

There is Richard Darman, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, a longtime friend of Woodward's who quit speaking to him after Woodward broke his promise to withhold until after the 1992 presidential election some candid information Darman had given him.

There is the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who spoke to Woodward in great detail during research for The Brethren, with the understanding that his comments were not for attribution. After Stewart died, Woodward broke that confidence.

And most poignantly, there is John Belushi's widow, Judy, who gave Woodward her enthusiastic cooperation during his research for Wired.

"Woodward gives you that "trust me, trust me' feeling," she said after the book, an unrelentingly harsh and graphic account of Belushi's demise, was published. "He seemed so honest. He would say, over and over, "John was a wonderful man. We must tell his story.' "

There are others. And the funny thing is that Woodward proudly admits to such deceptions.

"It's about developing trust," Anson quotes him as saying, "about getting somebody so they will tell you too much."

Develop trust _ and then violate it.

Some journalists become big enough to get away with leaving behind a littered landscape of burned sources, but writers such as Woodward and Malcolm should not be allowed to get away with causing the public to believe that most journalists operate that way.

The motivations of journalists and their sources obviously do not always coincide, and journalists sometimes may realize that a source will not look quite as attractive and noble in print as he has convinced himself he is. But most of the journalists I know go to great pains to try to be fair and honest with their sources. It is the best way to assure that those sources will still be willing to talk to them the next time they have information that is crucial to a story. It also is the best way to build trust among readers, most of whom can smell a dishonest story when it is dropped on them.

Woodward's methods aren't those of the typical journalist. Instead, they are more characteristic of an intelligence officer, which is what Woodward happened to be before turning to journalism. In fact, he has acknowledged that some of his most important and enduring sources stem from his days as a Navy communications liaison officer based in Washington.

Woodward seems willing to live with the accusations of deception and manipulation as long as the product of his work is still taken seriously. And he has reason to be proud of the ambitious post-Watergate projects he has taken on when he easily could have slid by on his unparalleled reputation.

But another shallow effort or two like The Choice may finally provoke the whispers of insignificance that Woodward has worked so hard to avoid.

Woodward could use another complementary collaborator to replace Carl Bernstein and Scott Armstrong. On his own, Woodward has gravitated to gossipy inside-baseball intrigues. Since Watergate, he has not shown great ability to grapple with subjects of substantive complexity.

Woodward has become an institution, and he certainly can claim that the great triumphs of his career easily justify the professional and ethical compromises he made to achieve them. However, he knows as well as anyone that even the loftiest institutions are fair game for inquiry by impertinent journalists. Otherwise, there would have been no Watergate _ and no Woodward industry.

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