The Woodward Spasm

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

The story on the front page of Friday's New York Times was startling: The Bush administration had ignored urgent warnings from the military in 2003 that thousands of additional troops were needed in Iraq.

The article also described the White House as deeply divided over the conduct of the war.


The scoop in the Times, and a similar story in the New York Daily News, was based on a new book, State of Denial, by Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post and famous as half of the duo that unraveled the Watergate scandal. The book, scheduled for publication yesterday, was not made available by its publisher, Simon & Schuster, for advance coverage.

The Times and the Daily News obtained the text through other sources.

I called The Post's executive editor, Len Downie, who said he was not overly concerned that his paper had been beaten on such a big story, and proceeded with his plan to run long excerpts from Woodward's book over the weekend.

"It's a game we play, too," Downie said, referring to traditional race for exclusives among newspapers.

But, in response to the surprise of seeing the State of Denial stories in the other two papers, editors and reporters at The Post had to scrambled to post a story about the book on the paper's Web site.

A Post reporter wrote me in an e-mail: "The consensus in the newsroom is that The Post made a dumb move by sitting on the book and giving others a chance to scoop us."

The early revelations about the book's contents recalled similar controversies over other books by Woodward. He has been accused of withholding important discoveries for his books rather than have them first appear in the newspaper he works for.

The result has been that The Post, on occasion, has been scooped by Woodward.


In The Commanders, published in 1991, Woodward revealed that Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had opposed Operation Desert Storm, and yet Woodward held onto the information until after Congress had approved a war resolution. Critics said that earlier knowledge of Powell's opposition might have changed the vote.


In Veil, which came out in 1987, Woodward wrote that former CIA Director William Casey knew that Reagan underlings were selling weapons to the contras, but Woodward kept quiet about it until after a congressional investigation.

Woodward did not respond to my request for a comment.

Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, published by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said that it seems as though Woodward is serving two masters. The Post, Naureckas said, "doesn't always come first."

Terry Michael, founder and director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, played down the significance of The Post losing its exclusive. "It may be a small embarrassment inside the newsroom, but I don't know how it makes a difference to the readers," Michael said. "Anything Woodward does, and no matter where it appears, accrues to the benefit of The Post, because he's the public face of The Post."

For a more amusing take on the Woodward matter, I turned to Andrew Ferguson, who wrote today on the Bloomberg website that, "If you live in Washington long enough, you get used to the Woodward Spasm, that unearthly convulsion that wracks the capital at irregular intervals," whenever Woodward "rears his handsome head and releases another of his insider tell-alls."

"Even I've been taken aback," he said, "by the intensity of this latest Woodward Spasm… As the world now knows, Woodward depicts a Bush administration crippled by incompetence, split by infighting and overseen by an arrogant and clueless president."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan