Legendary Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward reveals in his new book that Donald Trump told him in February of this year that he knew exactly how deadly the novel coronavirus was, and that he was deliberately downplaying the threat to the public. In a bizarre year in media, it's perhaps the most bizarre development of all: The most famous investigative reporter in the United States getting the most explosive scoop imaginable, and declining to publish it at a time when doing so could have saved lives.
Why did he do this? A day after the information came out, no one knows. Woodward has no convincing explanation for why he didn't tell the public about this, and the strongest defense his own nominal employer will mount is a narrow, mechanical one.
Here’s the Washington Post yesterday, reporting on the reporting that a Washington Post reporter did not report when it could have most mattered:
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.” Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, agreed.
Ten days later, Trump called Woodward and revealed that he thought the situation was far more dire than what he had been saying publicly. “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu…This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.
The next month:
Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said.
(The taped conversation was published by CNN.)
Woodward—despite having, he said, no agreement with the White House requiring him to hoard information from the interviews for the book—did not report that the president was, by his own admission, deliberately downplaying the seriousness of the crisis. Nor did he pass along the information to one of his colleagues so they could try and track down the information and report it themselves.
His main defense for sitting on the information was that he didn’t know if what the president was saying about the deadliness of the coronavirus was true. His second line of defense was to downplay the value of his own explosive scoop. ("If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February," he told the Associated Press, "that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know.")
Neither line of argument is remotely believable. Woodward had weeks and then months to determine that what Trump said was true and significant and still didn’t report it, even as it became clear that the president's commitment to carrying out the plan he described in February was costing lives. (Bear in mind the timeline here: As late as March 15, more than a month after Trump described his strategy to Woodward, New York mayor Bill de Blasio was encouraging people to go to bars. Four days later, as cities and states were deciding whether and how to lock down, Trump told Woodward, "I still like playing it down.") At an even more basic level, it is difficult to conceive of anything more newsworthy than the president secretly telling an elite member of the Washington press corps that he was lying to the public while telling the public to relax and check out hydroxychloroquine and investigate bleach. It’s unclear what there needed to be “nailed down.” Over at Esquire, Charlie Pierce put it as plainly as it can be put:
The interviews with the president* were conducted on the record. As early as January, Woodward could have broken a huge story quoting the president* himself about how the president* was lying to the public and risking the public health. Maybe it would have forced a change of policy that would have saved lives. (Probably not, given what we know about this president’s modus operandi.) Woodward knew the truth behind the administration’s deadly bungling—and worse—and he saved it for his book, which will be released to wild acclaim and huge profits after nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed.
Woodward's feeble defense is that what he knew didn't matter. Defenses of Woodward have been oriented narrowly around his relationship to the Post and his publishers, and around the idea that he, as someone writing a book, was primarily beholden to his book project and not his fellow humans dying in droves.
For example, Post media reporter Erik Wemple launched a wised-up argument that amounted to scolding people for being angry about preventable deaths and implying that they simply don’t understand the way of the world. Publishing the scoop would have prevented Woodward from getting future scoops, he argued; Trump flacks would have denied it was newsworthy at all; and, finally, he pointed out, Woodward isn't really a Post reporter anyway, but merely someone who publishes scoops in the Post in exchange for a $25 monthly salary. Per Wemple, this is the system working as designed. (Its design perhaps explains why, with early access to Woodward’s book, the Post didn’t report his scoop, reported by Business Insider today, that Trump bragged about “saving” Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, believed by Western intelligence agencies to have been involved in the murder of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.)
What any of this has to do with the moral question at the heart of the matter—Should someone who had potentially life-saving evidence that Trump was lying about the coronavirus have shared it with the public, or no?—Wemple didn’t bother addressing. He did pass on Woodward’s insistence that the president's lies were not a “legitimate public health issue.” If Wemple did ask what Woodward would consider a public health issue, he didn’t include it in his Twitter thread.
Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan aptly summarized the brouhaha while carefully avoiding anything that could be read as criticism of Woodward or the Post. “[Woodward’s] no longer in the daily journalism business,” she wrote, as if reporting critical information in service of the public being somehow below such a towering giant of the craft excused him not doing it. Other journalists, on the right and the left, provided equally callous and craven excuses for Woodward, arguing that even if he had reported the information, it wouldn’t have mattered because people wouldn’t have cared. Why people with such a low estimation of the public and disdain for the idea that giving the public information can effect change are even in journalism is unclear; the only conceivable answers are bleak ones.
The Post, which enjoys the benefits of its branding association with Woodward's scoops (conversely, the association allows Woodward, whose author page displays five Washington Post bylines this century, to pretend he’s still an active newspaperman, at least until that becomes inconvenient) essentially denied having anything to do with Woodward. A Post flack told me that she’d “need to refer you to Bob or his publisher on this as his book work is done independently of The Post.” When I followed up asking to speak to editor in chief Marty Baron or get an on-the-record statement about Woodward failing to report information of incredible significance in a timely way, the flack emailed me this Twitter statement from another flack, again asserting that Woodward's book projects have nothing to do with the Post. This neatly sidestepped the question of whether a nominal Post reporter should report critical news.
Post staffers were generally unwilling to touch this topic with a 20-foot pole. One, who was granted anonymity so they could speak freely, said “[It] seems like a trend that feels especially unethical and selfish right now, to save material to sell book copies with everything that’s going on, and it’s disappointing that it’s no different at our place."
If Woodward reporting his scoop when he got it would have saved even one life, it would have been worth it; this is the criticism of him that matters and the one that has not been answered. The Washington Post’s tagline is “democracy dies in darkness.” People do, too.
Follow Laura Wagner on Twitter.