July 5, 1999
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
| JIM LEHRER: Now a debate about how one of America's best-known
journalists does his job and to media correspondent Terence Smith.
TERENCE SMITH: Investigative reporter and author Bob Woodward has been a journalistic fixture in Washington for more than two decades. His stock-in-trade: Getting the big story from the inside. As a metro reporter for the Washington Post in 1972, Woodward and colleague Carl Bernstein broke the biggest political story of the century: Watergate. The criminal acts and cover-ups they unearthed led to the eventual downfall of President Richard Nixon.
PRESIDENT NIXON: Therefore I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.
TERENCE SMITH: During the ensuing years, Woodward has penned several controversial and wildly successful books, including Veil, a chronicle of the CIA's covert operations during the 1980's, and The Agenda, a behind-the-scenes look at the first year of the Clinton presidency. And now comes Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate. While the book covers every president since Nixon, nearly half of the attention is devoted to the current White House occupant. The Clinton White House is described as a dysfunctional family, with an isolated president, an emotional First Lady, and a staff prone to infighting. In his books, Woodward reconstructs conversations, frequently verbatim, involving the president, First Lady, and high officials. His technique has provoked critics to challenge whether he is writing journalism, history, or something else altogether.
The publication of Shadow has revived questions about Woodward's sourcing. For example, how was Woodward able to recount a sensitive private conversation between President Clinton and his attorney, Robert Bennett, in the days leading up to the president's deposition in the Paula Jones case? Bennett has denied violating attorney-client confidentiality and said that he has no idea who Woodward's sources are.
Another controversy: Former White House Special Counsel Jane Sherburne says she was alarmed to see her name attached to comments, especially about the First Lady, in the book, comments she thought were given to Woodward on deep background, or off the record. And former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that Woodward may have been mistaken in taking his description of a conversation with Hillary Clinton literally.
MIKE McCURRY, Former White House Press Secretary: If I left Bob Woodward with that impression that I was giving him direct, verbatim quotes, then we must have had a serious misunderstanding. I mean, his portrait of this history is only based on the people who have talked to him. It doesn't bear resemblance, in my memory, to what actually happened, but it's close.
TERENCE SMITH: But significantly, no one has challenged the factual content of Shadow, which is climbing rapidly up the best seller lists.
|The writing of "Shadow".|
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to talk about Shadow is its author, Bob Woodward; one of his sources, Leon Panetta, who was White House Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997, and before that served as President Clinton's budget director; and media analyst Alex Jones, formerly of the New York Times, he is now a Professor of Communications at Duke University and executive editor of "Media Matters" on PBS. Gentlemen, welcome to you all. Let me say for the record at the outset that we invited Mike McCurry and Jane Sherburne to come on, join you around this table, Bob, and they declined. But let me ask you to respond to their complaints about your technique. Jane Sherburne says you attributed quotes directly to her that were on background or off the record. And you heard Mike McCurry.
BOB WOODWARD, Washington Post: Well, it's clear that no ground rules were broken at all. The book was carefully and exhaustively reported. And particularly what you see with McCurry is what we call "discloser's remorse." As he said in that interview, he said, "I wish in retrospect I had not said those things." He is not challenging any of it. He is saying he doesn't believe or does not recall giving me the quotes. You know, it's a non-denial denial in the classic form.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, he does say that you attributed.-- took his description of a conversation with Hillary Clinton and made it verbatim, which he says it was not.
BOB WOODWARD: No, he is not saying that. He said, "I did not give the quotes to Bob Woodward, and if he thinks I did, there's a misunderstanding." But he doesn't say the quotes are wrong.
TERENCE SMITH: And Jane Sherburne?
BOB WOODWARD: Jane Sherburne is complaining. I have the 155 pages of single- spaced interviews with her. Obviously, I've done it very, very carefully. She disputes some things in a deposition, but she's given kind of inconsistent answers in that deposition.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Well, I wish she were her to describe it herself. Leon Panetta, you have -- you are quoted directly and verbatim in the book. Are the quotes accurate? And did they come from you?
LEON PANETTA: Terence, yes, they did. I mean, I think in the conversation, obviously, you try to describe what took place to the best of your memory. And so a lot of this is obviously sometimes a few years away from the present, and you're trying to get the best recollection you can. You can't say that any of it is an accurate quote as if you were there at the time, but at the same time, it kind of conveys, I think, the general impression of what was taking place at that moment. And I think Bob Woodward tries to capture that. As to whether or not it's an accurate quote of exactly what was said at the moment, I think all of us know that a lot of that is simply -- tried to reconstruct it from memory.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Alex Jones, I wonder what you think of this from a journalistic point of view, this sort of omniscient, fly-on-the- wall technique.
|A matter of trust.|
ALEX JONES: Well, I think all journalists require an element of trust from the audience, but I think Bob Woodward requires a little too much trust, from my perspective. I think that that what Bob Woodward does, he does very, very well. And the "Shadow" is excellent Bob Woodward, but I think it's a bad model for other journalists. And I think that the fact that Bob Woodward is a man with the stature that he has in journalism today-- he's the most trusted, I think, journalist in America. But I think that by making a book like this that is so virtually entirely dependent on unnamed sources, he is basically giving a legitimacy to doing more of the same. And I think journalism needs a lot less.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it, Bob, a matter of trust, both in you and your sources?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, to a certain extent. I'm sorry that Alex hasn't read the book, because you would find that there are about 50 pages of source notes in the back.
ALEX JONES: Oh, I read them, Bob.
BOB WOODWARD: And the sections on the first four presidents are almost in every case the source is named, the interview or the document. And many of the sources, like Leon Panetta, is on the record, and it is so noted in the book. (Talking over each other)
ALEX JONES: I mean, you know, I think in fairness, you're got to acknowledge that when you look at your source notes -- and I did read the book, and I have looked at it carefully. We're talking, I think, in the context of this discussion about the Clinton coverage, and I think that it was, you know, unto itself. It was very interesting, but it was -- there's no question that Leon Panetta was an extraordinary exception. "Knowledgeable sources" was the source of virtually all of the most revealing information in the reconstruction about what happened. I'm not faulting the fact that you made the deal to get the access that you did. I understand it, and I think that you've given something valuable. But I think what you've given us is a kind of -- a kind of serial memoir that kind of gives what memoirs give. Memoirs offer access to very important moments, but they are always selective. They are always incomplete, and you can't necessarily think of them as history. They're valuable. They're very valuable.
TERENCE SMITH: Was this history?
BOB WOODWARD: What's interesting is -- I think some things are being mixed up here. A memoir, like Richard Nixon's memoir, he quotes from memos, or Henry Kissinger does, or lots of former presidents and so forth, and you're saying that's not history? That becomes part -- those become the pieces of history. And they often based what they've done on written documentation. I've done that to some extent. Now what happens here? I mean, let's go to an example, because I think it hangs or falls on examples. Leon Panetta told me that when he was there with Clinton and Clinton was signing the renewal of the Independent Counsel Act, the crucial moment - because this set the train going that led to Clinton's impeachment. Without it, you would not have had Ken Starr and Monica Lewinsky. And Leon Panetta told me in a way, he said, "I remember very vividly as President Clinton was signing this, he said, 'do I have to?'"
ALEX JONES: And that was one of the most vivid and powerful moments. And it was vivid and powerful because when you looked in the end notes, you found that Leon Panetta's name was attached to it.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, let's let Leon Panetta come in on this. Leon, from your perspective as a former White House official and somebody who has an interest in history as well, how does this hold up?
LEON PANETTA: Terence, I think that history, as we all know, is subjective. I don't know that there's anything like objective history. You can listen to the Lyndon Johnson tapes, and you know what Lyndon Johnson is saying. You can listen to the Richard Nixon tapes, and you know what Richard Nixon is saying, and you can put those in quotes. But generally when somebody like Bob Woodward goes back and tries to get into a situation, he's got to rely on the people that he interviews, and he then tries to paint a picture. It's really more like a painter trying to create a mood as to what was happening in history at that moment. And isn't -- it may not be accurate as to every specific.
TERENCE SMITH: But, Leon, let me ask you this -
LEON PANETTA: I think my greatest concern I that so many of the quotes are put into quotes. And I know that publishers usually want to have quotes because that's more interesting to the reader, but I'm not so sure that having all of those quotes is necessarily an accurate reflection of exactly what was said. I think it would have been better had he painted his picture without the necessity of trying to put everything in exact quotes.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Bob?
BOB WOODWARD: I don't put everything in quotes. And like -- the thing you told me, you remembered vividly Clinton saying, "Do I have to?," is that correct?
LEON PANETTA: Well, again, Bob, you know, you remember a certain moment. As to whether you remember the exact words that were used, you know, listen nobody -
BOB WOODWARD: But you told me you did, is that correct?
LEON PANETTA: -- can remember exactly each word that was used. It's just, you know, you remember a certain moment. You remember a certain reflection. That's the best your memory can do. I think you captured the right mood. As to whether or not you can put that in quotes or not, frankly, I think that's a bit of a stretch.
ALEX JONES: But let me give you the perspective of the consumer of is this book.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, exactly. Alex Jones.
|The consumer perspective.|
ALEX JONES: As far as I'm concerned, I want to be able to want to decide whether it's credible or not. And because I was able to go to the back of the book and see that Leon Panetta said this, it meant one thing or another. Now, Leon Panetta's recollection may or may not convince me, but most of the book is based on knowledgeable sources who I do not know who they are. They are certainly -- I mean, I think Bob Woodward very much leads you to believe that he has sources that would suggest that the president was betrayed by every single one of his lawyers. But I mean, I don't know whether that's true or not. I inferred that from what I read of the book and then going back to see who said what. I put that together. And I think that in a way, you know, that's very interesting. I mean, I found the book to be a fascinating book, and I really -- I would recommend it to people. I just think that for journalism as a whole, it's a bad thing to think that what Bob Woodward has done, which is to trade access wholesale for anonymity, is a good thing. I don't think it is.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, when you say "betrayed"-- the president betrayed by his lawyers-- do you mean "betrayed" because they presumably talked to Bob Woodward?
ALEX JONES: Well, I mean betraying the lawyer-client privilege. All I'm saying is that's the inference that I drew from Bob's book. Now, I may be being unfair to this whole string of counselors in the White House, but that's certainly the impression that I got.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Bob Woodward, in the book, in fact, you quote this very personal, sensitive conversation between Bob Bennett and the President of the United States.
BOB WOODWARD: That's correct. In fact, as Alex points out, I quote all kinds of conversations and describe conversations involving the president and all of his lawyers going back to the beginning of the Whitewater scandal.
TERENCE SMITH: And are we to take that literally?
BOB WOODWARD: In detail, you are to take it literally that it is exhaustively reported. I mean, what people are suggesting here, where are the tapes? As best I know, and it's quite possible I missed something, there are no Clinton tapes of the Oval Office conversations. But history -- go back and look at history books. It's people's memories, it's notes, it's letters. In many cases, I was able to do this days or weeks after the events occurred. And it's done the way Alex Jones, when he worked for the New York Times, would do it-- you go and you ask people, you quote people. Leon Panetta, on that very simple quote, "Do I have to?," that's what Leon said last year that the president said.
ALEX JONES: Bob, but all I'm saying is this: I don't mind trusting you, but I wonder if someone else wrote the same book with the same omniscience that you have given this -- there's no skepticism in this. This book is -- this is what happened. This is not, sort of, "this may have happened," or "this is what so and so said," and "this is what so and so said." You portrayed it as "this is what happened from an omniscient perspective." Now you wrote it, and you believe it obviously, but if someone else wrote it and handed it to you, wouldn't you be skeptical?
TERENCE SMITH: Bob, that's a good question. Would you believe the book if it was written by someone else?
BOB WOODWARD: If I checked it and established and had the kind of evidence I do in this book, absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes, but how could you do that? It's another author, how could you do that?
BOB WOODWARD: But everyone is named almost, and you can call them, and you can go see them, and you can listen to Mike McCurry do a dance but not dispute. Is this book perfect? No. Do I have 100 percent of what happened? Absolutely impossible. It's absolutely impossible in history, but this is the real thing.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, let me ask Leon Panetta to give us a final word from his perspective, that of a White House official, former White House official. You once were quoted as saying no White House official should ever want to talk to Bob Woodward. Is that so?
LEON PANETTA: Well, you know, the fact is I think that Bob Woodward writes books that do go back and try to portray a certain theme with regards to the presidency. I think his fundamental theme in this book is the right one, which is that these presidents since Watergate have not learned the lessons of Watergate itself. And I think that's a valid theme, and I think he portrays that. As to whether or not the specifics of every quote and every description that he includes is accurate, I think you have to understand that it's his viewpoint of what took place at that point. As long as people understand that, I don't have a big problem with this. But to the extent that they think these are actual quotes and that the president actually said this at that moment to Bob Bennett, that concerns me because I don't think that's an accurate perception of what really took place.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Leon Panetta, Bob Woodward, Alex Jones, thank you all three very much.
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