Covering the Washington Beat
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JEFF BROWN: Veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward was en route to his Washington Post job yesterday as usual, except the stories on the front page of his paper the past two days weren’t by him but rather about him.
The Post detailed how Woodward, an assistant managing editor, testified under oath Monday in the CIA leak case. He told a special prosecutor he’d been told about Valerie Plame Wilson and her position at the CIA by a senior administration official nearly a month before her identity was disclosed in 2003.
Woodward has not named his administration source, but did indicate it was not Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and the only person to be indicted in this case so far.
In an interview in the Post yesterday, Woodward apologized to his executive editor, Leonard Downie, for failing to inform him of the leak for more than two years, even as the investigation of the various leaks to reporters became a huge national story.
“I explained in detail that I was trying to protect my sources,” Woodward wrote. “That’s job number one in a case like this. I hunkered down a bit. I’m in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn’t want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed.”
Woodward is perhaps best known for his coverage of Watergate. He kept the identity of “Deep Throat” secret for 30 years until another publication revealed who he was.
Woodward has also penned best-selling books on politics and foreign affairs, relying on his close access to highly placed officials.
Editor Downie was asked on CNN if Woodward owes readers an apology.
LEONARD DOWNIE: No, Bob owed me and the newspaper an apology for not telling me. But if he had told me, I don’t know what we would have been able to publish in the newspaper because of the confidentiality agreement under which this was stated and we still aren’t able to publish details of it. We’re eager to –
JEFFREY BROWN: However, just last month on Larry King Live Woodward denied that he had any secret information about the case.
BOB WOODWARD: I hear you have a bombshell. Would you let me in on it?
LARRY KING: Now the rumors are about you.
BOB WOODWARD: And I said, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Internet blogosphere has lit up with talk about Woodward, one calling him Mr. “Run Amok” mimicking the nickname given former New York Times reporter Judith Miller who just left her paper after a public feud over, among other things, her sourced reporting.
Tim Russert, one of the reporters called to testify, questioned on the Today Show this morning whether Woodward’s actions could affect the case.
TIM RUSSERT: Absolutely, and give the Libby defense a chance to say you see, a lot of people’s memories were faulty. And maybe Libby’s conversations with Tim Russert or with Matt Cooper or with Judith Miller, maybe those are all up in the air and there are two sides to these issues. The more confusion the Libby defense team can create regarding this case, the better off they think they’ll be.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of Lewis Libby’s lawyers questioned whether Woodward’s testimony undermines the special prosecutor’s case. Another of his lawyers, Ted Wells, had this to say:
TED WELLS: We urge all reporters who have relevant information to do like Mr. Woodward did today and come forward with the truth.
JEFFREY BROWN: Other lawyers widely quoted today say the underlying case against Lewis Libby is still well intact.
JEFFREY BROWN: The new revelations regarding Bob Woodward only add to questions that have long loomed in the CIA leak case, about the perhaps “too cozy” relationship between Washington journalists and government officials.
Joining me now to look at that are: Tom Rosenstiel, former congressional correspondent for NewsWeek and national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times; he’s now director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a media think tank. And Leon Panetta, who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and spent 16 years in the House of Representatives. He currently directs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay. And welcome to both of you.
Starting with you, Tom Rosenstiel, when we hear, when we learn that Bob Woodward has been told about Valerie Plame by a high official, that in itself is not surprising, correct?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: No, I mean, not every conversation between a reporter and an official is a formal, strict interview with a notebook out. There’s exchange of information that flows both ways. And the job of the journalist is to decide what here is in the public interest, what here is news? And officials, as Leon Panetta will probably admit, try out rhetoric and messages on reporters to see how that will work. Reporters test information that they have that’s fragmentary, information sort of flows back and forth, and stories form out of multiple conversations that form into ideas.
JEFFREY BROWN: And where does the danger lie in getting too close?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, reporters need to create a feeling among officials that they are — that their relationship is special, that the official can trust them, and you know, thinks that they’re a person of integrity. But the reality is that the journalist owes his or her allegiance to the citizen, to the reader, to the audience.
In effect, the reporter should be acting as the public agent in the conversation with that official. To take the analogy a little bit further, we are spies on behalf of the public in those relationships, and if we lose sight of that, if we function as someone who cares more about that relationship with the official, or their access, if they are of in a situation where they’re not acting on behalf of the public, then they are acting unprofessionally. They’ve crossed I line. And I should add that this is at the heart of what the public is concerned with.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Panetta, well, how did it work for you? Did you, for example, have special relationships with a small group of journalists that you felt you could deal with, pass information to?
LEON PANETTA: Well, I think it’s the case in every White House that the — you know, the top aides to the president will try to establish relationships with reporters.
I mean, you hope that you have a good relationship with all of the press, but the reality is that in the White House, you’ve got a very confined situation in which most of the press is spoon-fed the news. They’re given releases, they’re given briefings. They really don’t have that much access to people in the White House.
And so what you try to do is to develop relationships with certain reporters so that you can kind of give them the inside spin, the key message that you want to be able to transfer, hopefully to the public. So without question, you do establish those relationships. You try to maintain them.
The reporters want to have that access as well. It’s a two-way street. But in the end, you hope that both sides operate by the rules, the first rules, which would — which is essentially be honest with the public.
JEFFREY BROWN: But to put it bluntly, Mr. Panetta, and to help people who sort of watch this go on understand, can a good White House player get out his or her story to a handpicked journalist?
LEON PANETTA: Oh, without question. You know, every day there are supposed leaks that take place. Well a lot of those leaks are very deliberate by White House personnel. You essentially give the news to a reporter from New York Times or the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal or other media, and you hope by giving them a heads up on the leak, that you can basically get your spin on the news. That’s done every day.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Rosenstiel, you said this public perception is at the heart of what we’re seeing now. How? How is it what we’re seeing in the CIA leak case, and what we’ve now seen with Bob Woodward, related to these perceptions about the cozy relationship?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: There are really two decades now of research, public opinion survey work that shows that the growing distrust of the press boils down to two things: one, they feel that news companies do what they do for money, for economic reasons. And they think that individual journalists act out of their own self-interest and career aggrandizement; and the cozy relationship, or the perception of a cozy relationship, goes to the heart of this, and I think is part of why new generations of news consumers are going to alternative sources that they think are more in sync with them as an audience, whether it’s bloggers, or news from the Daily Show or comedy programs, things that they feel they have a connection to.
If they see the journalist as part of the inside establishment as part of them, rather than part of us, that really is, you know, an element in the breakdown, not only of trust, but on the economic side in breakdown in audience. This is something the journalists need — even if they think that some intimacy with sources is a necessary part of doing their job, it’s something that they’ve got to realize is part of the economic breakdown of the news business.
JEFFREY BROWN: And in this case, you have Mr. Woodward having information and not telling anyone, even his own paper, for two years.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Troubling?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: If we think this about that, that’s really hard to imagine. This case is swirling in the news. You’ve got reporters going to jail, people testifying. It’s a front-page story in its own newspaper, and he’s sitting on this secret.
He’s keeping a secret not only from the public but from his own bosses. It’s got to be gnawing at him. It’s not an oversight that he forgot to tell. It’s a secret that he’s harboring.
And when Bob says, “You know I’m in the business of keeping secrets,” even that rhetoric is sort of troubling. He’s in the business of learning things on behalf of the public, and presumably helping create public knowledge. Keeping secrets is maybe a necessary means for that, but if he sees that as more than just some trade craft but somehow part of his personality, I think that’s troubling.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Panetta, you were at the Clinton White House when Bob Woodward was writing a book about the Clinton presidency. How did that work? Were you troubled by what you could say, when you could say it how much could come out at any given time?
LEON PANETTA: Any time somebody is writing a book about the White House, you can be assured the president and the staff get very nervous, especially if it’s a Woodward book.
I mean, to some extent they know that that book can help establish their legacy as an administration, so the real challenge here is do you cooperate with a Bob Woodward or do you try to shut him down?
Either way you know a book is going to come out. So generally, while there probably aren’t very many ground rules established here, the effort is to try to cooperate to, try to put the best spin on what’s taking place in the hope that ultimately, the book will be something that will show the administration in a good light. That’s the whole effort within the White House.
I’m sure it’s not necessarily Bob Woodward’s intent, but to some extent, the two kind of — that chemistry kind of works together to produce the final product.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, let me ask you both one last thing,
Mr. Panetta, starting with you, what advice do you give to viewers or readers who are looking at what’s going on, they read stories, they read about who the source was, but they may not know what to make of that; they may not understand what the story is based on, what the relationship between the reporter and the official is. Mr. Panetta?
LEON PANETTA: I think the public has to continue to ask itself questions about whatever news it gets these days. I mean, I think, as was pointed out, I think we’re in a period where trust is undermined in a number of our institutions. It’s not just government and corporations, but it also happens to be the press.
And so the result of that, it seems to me, is that the public has to be much more questioning about the news that they receive. And it also has to send a message to the policymakers, it seems to me, that they have to be much more honest and direct about what’s taking place. Otherwise, the public will become that much more cynical.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you for a brief response.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Journalists need to understand that they have a different interest than policy makers. People like Leon Panetta in the administration are there to advance the administration, and journalist is there for a different purpose.
And the other thing that people in the press need to remember is that the crisis in confidence that the media is facing is really a crisis over motive. The public is uncertain of what the motives of the press are today, and we need to keep that in mind as we develop relationships with sources and people in power.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Tom Rosenstiel and Leon Panetta, thank you both very much.