by Peter Hasson
- Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear” presents a scathing depiction of President Donald Trump’s administration.
- Woodward has a muddy history with a trail of allegations that he embellished the truth or otherwise misled his readers.
- Media coverage of Woodward’s book has been largely positive and ignores Woodward’s controversial record.
While senior Trump officials including Secretary of Defense James Mattis have denied quotations attributed to them in the book, media coverage of “Fear” has been largely positive, emphasizing the 75-year-old Woodward’s experience and trustworthiness.
But that coverage has left out part of the story: repeated, credible charges — including from well-respected fellow journalists — that in previous books Woodward embellished the truth, made dubious bombshell claims or was otherwise misleading.
Woodward’s former editor at the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, though publicly complimentary of Woodward, privately doubted some of the more dramatic elements of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate-era bestseller, “All The President’s Men.”
Bradlee gave Himmelman full access to his files, which revealed that details about Woodward’s relationship with infamous Watergate source “Deep Throat” gnawed at Bradlee years later. Details like Woodward communicating with Deep Throat by placing a flag in a potted plant on his balcony, or their dozens of shadowy garage meetings.
“You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat,” Bradlee said to an assistant in a 1990 interview that he originally intended to use for a memoir but which remained private until Himmelman published his book.
“Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage … There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”
Himmelman wrote that Woodward, fearful of the truth coming out, tried to pressure him into removing the damaging information from the book.
Himmelman’s book also revealed that Woodward and Bernstein misled the public for decades about another Watergate source, known as source “Z.”
“For four decades, Carl and Bob have insisted that the grand jurors they contacted had given them no information. For four decades, that story endured, as it was replayed in interviews and reread in library copies of All The President’s Men, and as Woodward and Bernstein and Bradlee became a holy trinity of newspaper journalism,” Himmelman wrote in a New York Magazine excerpt.
“But, according to the memo, it didn’t appear to be true: Z was no mystic; she was a grand juror in disguise, and had apparently broken the law by talking. Woodward and Bernstein had always denied it—in 1974, and as recently as 2011,” Himmelman wrote.
Woodward and Bernstein’s book described Z as someone “in a position to have considerable knowledge of the secret activities of the White House and [the Committee to Re-elect the President]” and quotes her saying: “My boss called it a whitewash.”
That was misleading for two reasons, Himmelman showed.
First, the second half of that quote (which Woodward and Bernstein left out) was: “and he [the boss] doesn’t even have the facts.”
Second, what Z’s boss thought about the case was far less relevant if her day job wasn’t directly related to the Nixon administration.
Woodward and Bernstein’s account “leads the reader to think some wise man of the Nixon administration, Z’s sage boss, was troubled by all the criminality there,” then-Fox News Washington correspondent James Rosen, a noted Watergate historian, noted in a 2012 piece for The Atlantic. “It’s beyond misleading.”
Former FBI Director L.Patrick Gray III’s notes, published for the first time in a 2008 book by his son Ed Gray, similarly challenged Woodward and Bernstein’s account of Deep Throat.
Former FBI agent Mark Felt took credit for being Deep Throat in 2005 but Gray, cross-referencing his father’s FBI files and four of Woodward’s notes on Deep Throat at the University of Texas, argued that some information Woodward attributed to Deep Throat couldn’t plausibly have come from Felt.
“There is now convincing evidence that ‘Deep Throat’ was indeed a fabrication. Bob Woodward has provided it himself,” Gray wrote in the book, a copy of which was reviewed by The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“‘Deep Throat’ could not be the single individual Woodward always claimed him to be” but instead was a “composite fiction,” Gray charged.
Gray’s book “demolishes forever the notion that Deep Throat was Mark Felt alone. Others have already made inroads on this subject, but the use of Woodward’s own typed notes makes the judgment final,” Rosen wrote in a June 2008 review in American Spectator.
“Indeed, Ed Gray even identified one of the other sources Woodward has been protecting with the Deep Throat umbrella for
all these years—and got that individual to admit as much, on the record. Only Woodward, who cooperated with the Gray project until the questions became uncomfortable, is left clinging to the fictions of All the President’s Men,’” Rosen wrote.
Woodward’s record is marred by similar accusations of misleading his readers.
“Wired,” Woodward’s 1984 biography of deceased actor John Belushi, was harshly criticized both when it came out and in the years since then.
“There were certainly things that he just got patently wrong,” Belushi friend Dan Aykroyd wrote. “He painted a portrait of John that was really inaccurate — certain stories in there that just weren’t true and never happened.”
Author Tanner Colby, in the course of researching and writing his own Belushi biography, said he found instance after instance in which Woodward’s account was misleading.
“The simple truth of Wired is that Bob Woodward, deploying all of the talent and resources for which he is famous, produced something that is a failure as journalism,” Colby wrote in a 2013 Salon article.
“And when you imagine Woodward using the same approach to cover secret meetings about drone strikes and the budget sequester and other issues of vital national importance, well, you have to stop and shudder,” he concluded.
A bombshell claim in “Veil,” Woodward’s 1987 book on the CIA, has long been a source of controversy.
Woodward claimed in the book that he was the sole witness to a dramatic deathbed confession from former CIA Director William Casey.
Casey, as he lay dying in Georgetown University hospital, jerked up in bed and confessed to Woodward that he knew about the Reagan-era Iran-Contra deal, Woodward claimed.
“People close to Casey at the time said he couldn’t even speak, much less jerk his head up. They said details of Woodward’s account, such as the positioning of Casey’s hospital bed, did not even remotely match Woodward’s description. Casey’s daughter said the encounter never happened,” Tod Robberson, now an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote in a 2013 Dallas Morning News column.
“Kevin Shipp, who served in Casey’s security detail at the hospital, wrote in 2010 that there were security guards at Casey’s door 24/7, and nobody got past without their approval. Woodward tried to get in, but he was turned away, Shipp stated. Woodward disputes the 24/7 claim,” Robberson noted.
The Casey dispute made a Politico list of six “Bob Woodward controversies” in 2012.
Also on the list: Woodward’s description of former President Ronald Reagan’s recovery from an assassination attempt in 1981. Reagan’s doctor later said Woodward’s description of a frail, fragile Reagan was entirely inconsistent with reality, Politico noted.
A disputed Woodward bombshell about former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan made the list as well.
Brennan voted what he thought was the wrong way on a case in order to ingratiate himself to fellow Justice Harry A. Blackmun, Woodward and co-author Scott Armstrong charged in “The Brethren,” their 1979 book on the Supreme Court.
Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis shredded Woodward and Armstrong’s accusation in The New York Review of Books.
“It makes a serious charge without serious evidence—almost offhandedly, in two pages. It gets facts wrong. It gives the impression of relying on a conversation between Brennan and a law clerk that the law clerks of that term say never took place. If the passage was not meant to rely on such, a conversation with a clerk, then it grossly and deliberately misleads the reader,” Lewis wrote.
Woodward and Armstrong’s treatment of the case “leaves doubts not only about the authors’ understanding but about their scrupulousness,” Lewis concluded.
Former Pulitzer-winning former New York Times reporter Seymour “Sy” Hersh wrote in his memoir — which came out in June — that he’s “liked and respected Bob ever since” chasing the Watergate story together.
But that claim didn’t survive a fact-check when Rosen reviewed Hersh’s book in an August 23 piece for The National Interest. Like Bradlee, Hersh privately questioned Woodward’s work.
Rosen obtained a 1992 phone transcript showing Hersh expressing his embarrassment that Woodward was considered a peer. “It hurts me to believe that he’s in my fucking profession,” Wersh reportedly said.
Woodward’s alleged trouble with the truth resurfaced again in 2013 when he accused an Obama administration official, Gene Sperling, of trying to intimidate him over email.
Woodward was slammed in the media after the Obama administration released the tame email exchange.
Woodward “made a fool of himself,” Robberson opined in his Morning News column, mourning the fall of a journalist who once “was a god” to him.
Alex Seitz-Wald, now a reporter for NBC News, described the exaggeration at the time as “just the latest questionable assertion” from Woodward that “is reigniting discussion as to the veracity of other claims he’s made.”
“The important question becomes this: If Woodward, who has generated best-seller after best-seller over many decades based heavily on anonymous sources, can’t accurately convey a conversation with an email trail, should we trust the anonymous sources in the rest of his reporting?” asked Seitz-Wald, whose article in Salon was titled: “Bernstein’s truthiness problem.”
Woodward, who did not return TheDCNF’s request for comment, has benefitted from a media makeover ahead of his latest book.
“‘Fear’ is an important book, not only because it raises serious questions about the president’s basic fitness for the office but also because of who the author is,” Jill Abramson wrote in a review for The Washington Post.
Woodward’s “work has been factually unassailable,” Abramson declared. She did not mention any of the above controversies surrounding Woodward’s previous work.
“Mr. Trump and other administration officials have attacked the Woodward book. They will have trouble impugning his credibility,” the Post’s editorial board asserted.
USA Today columnist Alicia Shephard emphasized Woodward’s commitment to truth in a piece defending “Fear.” Woodward’s “quest for the truth derives from an insatiable curiosity,” Shephard raved.
CNN’s Brian Stelter distinguished Woodward from author Michael Wolff and former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman, both of whom published scathing accounts of the Trump White House that did not hold up to scrutiny.
“Woodward is different,” wrote Stelter, host of a CNN show called “Reliable Sources.”
“As the CNN team of reporters who read ‘Fear’ in advance wrote on Tuesday, ‘his reporting comes with the credibility of a long and storied history that separates this book from previous efforts on Trump,’” Stelter added.
He mentioned none of Woodward’s past controversies.
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