Save lives or sell books? That’s the money question for author Bob Woodward as he promotes his latest work, “Rage,” which is based on a series of interviews with President Trump on a range of topics, including COVID-19.
That his motive is up for debate shows how far journalism has come — or fallen — since Woodward and his Washington Post sidekick, Carl Bernstein, uncovered the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Their stories turned two young reporters into Pulitzer Prize winners and launched the modern concept of media branding. Woodward now stands judged by the same query that became famous during Watergate: What did he know and when did he know it? What could also apply is the line — “Follow the money”— made famous in the movie “All the President’s Men.”
The line was never said in real life. But in Hollywood’s version of his reporting exploits, that advice was given to Woodward by his source, Deep Throat, as the key to unraveling the truth about Watergate. In a perverse way, it could also be key to unraveling the truth about what Trump told Woodward he knew about COVID-19 — and what neither told the public, until now. Trump denies that economic interests had anything to do with his decision-making; he simply didn’t want to panic Americans. But to make his case for reelection, Trump wanted to keep the stock market as stable as possible and the rest of the economy on track for a quick turnaround. He tried to accomplish that with a stimulus package and a strong desire to downplay the coronavirus threat. Like all authors, Woodward wanted to sell books and give readers something to think about right before the election. An early airing of the most damning details from the Trump interviews would undercut both goals.
During a Feb. 7 phone conversation, Trump told Woodward the coronavirus is airborne — “It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. . . . But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. . . . It’s also more deadly than . . . even your strenuous flus. This is deadly stuff." Then, at a White House coronavirus task force briefing on Feb. 26, Trump told the country, “This is a flu. This is like a flu.” On March 16, Trump acknowledged in another phone conversation with Woodward that he liked “playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” Trump continued to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19 throughout the spring, and still does, even as the confirmed US death toll approaches 200,000.
Woodward writes that Trump is unfit for office, largely because of how the president handled the US response to the pandemic. In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Woodward said, “This is the tragedy. The president of the United States has a duty to warn. The public will understand that. But if they get the feeling that they’re not getting the truth, then you’re going down the path of deceit and cover-up.”
Trump’s actions, while despicable, come as no surprise. He never tells the truth and always puts himself first. But what about Woodward? Shouldn’t the author have told the country months ago what Trump acknowledged to him, when it could have theoretically made a difference in the national response? In an interview with NPR, Woodward said he believes he has “a public health responsibility, like any citizen does — or maybe a journalist has more of a responsibility.” But he said he didn’t report on it in real time because he needed to confirm what Trump told him about where he got the information. He also told Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan that he wanted to give voters “the best obtainable version of the truth” before Nov. 3 so that, presumably, it could factor into their presidential choice.
In response, Sullivan wrote: “I don’t know if putting the book’s newsiest revelations out there in something closer to real time would have made a difference. They might very well have been denied in the constant rush of scandals and lies. Still, the chance — even if it’s a slim chance — that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument against waiting this long.” I agree.
Some Woodward defenders say that nothing would have changed even if Trump’s taped interviews were made public before now. Trump’s denial would just be one more presidential lie, added to a pile that began long before he took office.
If that’s true, then the hope that Woodward’s book will sway voters away from Trump seems just as quaint.
Woodward was once a hungry, door-knocking journalist who worked with Bernstein on a story the Post’s big political journalists didn’t want to touch. That was a long time ago — when journalists were heroes, not brands, with enough credibility with the public to end a presidency.