3 thoughts on the ethical debate over Bob Woodward’s “Rage” revelations on the coronavirus

Bob Woodward has done more journalism than any three people I know, and yet that doesn’t mean he’s beyond reproach. Woodward’s latest book, “Rage,” covers a variety of topics involving the Trump administration, including what the president knew and when he knew it in relation to the coronavirus.

Woodward made a splash when early teaser parts of his book showed that President Trump was admitting to him that COVID-19 was a big, airborne deal even as he was downplaying it to the rest of the country:

“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward on March 19 in excerpts of audio interviews obtained by CNN.

In interviews with Woodward between December 2019 and July 2020, Trump discussed the threat of the coronavirus with a level of detail that he had not yet acknowledged to the public, noting Feb. 7 that it was “deadly stuff,” and “more deadly than your – even your strenuous flus.”

Woodward’s work has come under scrutiny in the journalism community for good reason, as Poynter’s Al Tompkins points out with a simple headline: “Was it unethical for Bob Woodward to withhold Trump’s coronavirus interviews for months?

So we now know that the president knew and believed that a pandemic was coming. Still, on Feb. 28, Trump called COVID-19 a Democratic “hoax.” In that same speech in South Carolina, he downplayed COVID-19 as being comparable to the seasonal flu. But Woodward’s reporting shows he knew that what he was saying publicly was not the whole truth.


The journalism ethics question here has to do with loyalty. Critics are already lining up to accuse Woodward of withholding vital information — information that might have stopped COVID-deniers in their tracks — in order to sell books in the weeks before the election. Critics essentially cite Woodward’s loyalty as being toward his book, not reporting news that the public needed to know at the moment.

Tompkins’ piece is worth a deep read, as he covers the majority of the angles through various sources: Did Woodward agree not to say anything prior to the publication of the book? (No.) Did Woodward think what he did cost lives? (No.) Do people disagree with him on that? (Hell yeah…)

Al always does everything better than I can so, I’m not going to essentially write a rip off of his piece. Instead, I’ll just poke at a few key things to consider:

It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback: I like that Al’s headline is a question, which is a rare thing for me to say, in that most question headlines (question leads, rhetorical questions etc.) make me want to scream. This one works because there is no actual answer to it, despite what defenders and detractors on both sides of the Woodward argument have to say.

I’m sure lesser journalists, weaker players and self-important chuckleheads are getting a joyful moment of trying to kick a media giant in the groin over a perceived failure. I’m also sure that nobody out there is above screwing up, not even Bob Woodward. (It doesn’t get mentioned enough, but one of the biggest debacles in fraudulent journalism initially had Woodward as one of its key champions.)

Woodward isn’t untouchable in this regard, but I have a hard time being able to say what I would do if I were in that situation. You have a president who lies like most of us breathe, telling you that there’s this thing out there that most of us have never heard of at that point that can kill us all.

Right. Like we’d all just take that as gospel and stop the presses without a thought for that story? That’s some serious self-aggrandizing, post-game BS there and a number of the folks making that case that they would have done it (cough… cough… Charles Pierce… COUGH…) are members in good standing in the “Well, if I were the person involved…” club.

Just like anything else, it’s easy to come down on the right side of history once it’s written.

Even Michael Jordan occasionally passed the ball: One of the weaker points of Woodward’s defense was that he was “still working on” the story when it caught fire in the media:

Asked why he didn’t share Trump’s February remarks for a fellow Post reporter to pursue, Woodward said he had developed “some pretty important sources” on his own.

“Could I have brought others in? Could they have done things I couldn’t do?” he asked. “I was on the trail, and I was (still) on the trail when it (the virus) exploded.”

At that point, Woodward explains, he kind of did the “Oh well… On to the book” thing.

I get it. Bob Woodward isn’t a night cops guy who files stuff on deadline any more. I also get that doing a one-source dump piece on a burgeoning pandemic is probably not where he spends most of his time.

Which is why, like any other person with the title of “editor” at any other media outlet, you pass the ball to someone for whom this is in their wheelhouse. Do they have better sources than Woodward? Who knows? Could they have done more than Woodward did? Who knows? I bet that in the D.C. beltway, Bob Woodward can run circles around almost anyone out there. That said, if a story needed an Omro dairy farmer as a source, I’d have a better shot at getting one than he would.

In this case, give the ball to someone in the WaPo newsroom with political and/or medical experience. Give it to someone with a few backdoor sources, like Woodward used to have. Hell, give it to a kid reporter with nothing to lose.

The “Gee, I never thought of that” response gives weight to those folks who are pressing the point that Woodward was holding onto the bombshell for the book money. It also smacks of an oxymoronic arrogance that says, “If I, the great Bob Woodward, couldn’t nail this down, then no one could! But clearly others did, so I didn’t think of troubling anyone with what I knew.”

It’s not about you: In all of those interviews Al Tompkins collected, I saw a running theme that should bother people who work in journalism:

Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.


Woodward said his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.”


If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know,” Woodward said. At that point, he said, the issue was no longer one of public health but of politics. His priority became getting the story out before the election in November.

“That was the demarcation line for me,” he said. “Had I decided that my book was coming out on Christmas, the end of this year, that would have been unthinkable.”

In each of these cases, as well as other spots in those discussions with Woodward, the answer seems to be that Woodward says he is who he is and he does what he does. He got the info, he made the call and that’s that.

Not even close.

If you call yourself a journalist, you have people to whom you MUST answer. Most of us think of our peers, our colleagues and our bosses as being front and center in the “justify your existence” realm that matters.

I get that some reporters get more leeway than others, but everyone has to answer to SOMEONE in the food chain. It’s not about what I think as a single actor, but rather what I do or say as part of a larger company of players. He basically said, “Nobody at the Post would deal with this better than I could, so why bother mentioning it to anyone there?”

However, the largest group of people you must answer to are readers. If Woodward were completely independent, he could tell the audience of the Washington Post (and thus the rest of the world) to stick their ethical debates where the sun doesn’t shine.

He’s not.

He has the connection to the Post and that benefits both sides in many ways. However, in keeping that connection, he owes something to the audience there. (I’d even argue that as a lion in winter in a field that’s taking a beating, he owes it to the rest of us to show the world that we still matter.) You don’t get to determine who in your audience matters or which audience should be served first: Those who chip in their buck each day for the newsprint or those who can fork over 30 bucks for the hardcover edition.

You do the job for the readers. The readers aren’t there for you, otherwise.

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