What Wood­ward owed the public

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - KATH­LEEN PARKER kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

Though they might not ad­mit it, jour­nal­ists who be­gan their ca­reers in the wake of Water­gate of­ten ask them­selves: What would Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein do?

To­day, that ques­tion is more fo­cused: What would I do if I were Bob Wood­ward?

Thanks to taped record­ings of in­ter­views Wood­ward con­ducted with the pres­i­dent in prepa­ra­tion for his lat­est book, “Rage,” the world has learned that Pres­i­dent Trump was well aware of the virus’s lethal­ity and its method of trans­mis­sion as early as Fe­bru­ary.

It is also clear that the leg­endary re­porter sat on that story un­til the week be­fore his book was pub­lished.

Trump’s re­marks, now ex­haus­tively re­played, con­firm that he knew — as, pre­sum­ably, did oth­ers in his ad­min­is­tra­tion — that the novel coro­n­avirus was an air­borne in­fec­tious dis­ease and that it was far more lethal than the reg­u­lar flu.

Nev­er­the­less, over sev­eral weeks and months, as the virus pro­gressed across the United States, the pres­i­dent con­tin­ued to down­play con­cerns about the virus in public, say­ing it was no worse than the reg­u­lar flu, and fail­ing to cre­ate a plan to con­tain the virus.

“Down­play” is an es­sen­tial word in the con­text of the Wood­ward in­ter­views. In one record­ing from March, Trump ad­mit­ted to down­play­ing the virus — and wanted to con­tinue down­play­ing it — be­cause he didn’t want peo­ple to panic.

To­day, this is the crux of a dilemma for both Trump and Wood­ward. Are they guilty in dif­fer­ent ways of con­tribut­ing to about 190,000 Amer­i­can deaths through a con­spir­acy of si­lence? Trump may well have wished to avoid a na­tional panic in the early stages of the pan­demic, but his si­lence sig­nals an un­der­ly­ing dis­trust of his fel­low coun­try­men. Our his­tory is filled with ex­am­ples of Amer­i­cans ral­ly­ing to a cause, no mat­ter how fright­en­ing. One can’t help won­der­ing how many lives might have been spared with a strong dose of truth and the no­bil­ity of pur­pose of which we’re ca­pa­ble as a na­tion.

One also won­ders whether Wood­ward, by with­hold­ing news of the pres­i­dent’s with­hold­ing, may have added to covid-19’s punch. At the very least, public knowl­edge of what the pres­i­dent knew but would not say might have forced Trump and oth­ers to act on re­al­ity rather than some imag­i­nary sce­nario in which covid-19 would just dis­ap­pear one day, as Trump once said with a wand-like wave of his hand.

It would be un­fair to sug­gest, as some have, that the two men are equally at fault. One is the pres­i­dent and took an oath to faith­fully ex­e­cute his du­ties. But, in an in­ter­view about his re­port­ing process with The Post’s Mar­garet Sul­li­van, Wood­ward’s ex­pla­na­tion for wait­ing be­cause he knew his book would be pub­lished be­fore the elec­tion falls short of sat­is­fy­ing. Wood­ward also told Sul­li­van that in Fe­bru­ary he wasn’t yet sure Trump was telling the truth — al­ways a valid con­cern.

It is good to re­mem­ber that this is not just any re­porter. This is Bob Wood­ward — the man who met “Deep Throat” in park­ing garages and knocked on peo­ple’s doors in the mid­dle of the night for clues to the Water­gate bur­glary. Re­mem­ber the op­er­a­tive ques­tion: What did the pres­i­dent know, and when did he know it? Nor­mally, what a pres­i­dent says he knows is news; with Trump, that link­age has never been reli­able.

Wood­ward pointed out to Sul­li­van that he’s no longer a daily re­porter but an au­thor. This means that he has ul­ti­mate au­thor­ity over his re­search. Al­though no longer tech­ni­cally em­ployed by The Post, he main­tains an hon­orary as­so­ciate ed­i­tor ti­tle. Which is to say, no one wants to crit­i­cize an icon who, along with Bern­stein, brought fame to the pa­per for which we proudly toil. Trump, never lack­ing in self-con­fi­dence, re­ally be­lieved that talk­ing to Wood­ward, of­ten with­out staff present, would make the book more pos­i­tive. Many of the con­ver­sa­tions re­port­edly took place at night by phone, when Trump thought of some­thing he thought Wood­ward might like to hear.

What would you or I have done, if we were Wood­ward?

I do know that I would have sought the coun­sel of my news­pa­per ed­i­tors, which Wood­ward no longer has. Some­times, be­ing the cap­tain of one’s own ship is a wind­ward propo­si­tion. It seems clear now that re­veal­ing the pres­i­dent’s cal­cu­lated de­cep­tions sooner might have forced Trump to act ear­lier and led more Amer­i­cans to take greater pre­cau­tions.

Given that, I think I know what many ed­i­tors would have ad­vised him: Pub­lish lest oth­ers per­ish.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.