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Sep 29

Written by: Diana West
Wednesday, September 29, 2010 5:20 AM 

Serious Business: A face you can trust and a book you can buy


Bob Woodward is back again with another tell-all book, indulging in that singular you-are-there chronicle that includes gestures, emotion, point-of-view, as well as a narrative bolstered by statements bracketed in quotation marks. Of course, Woodward was not there; he never is. Or is he sometimes? That melodramatic, hospital-room interview of CIA director William Casey, back when Iran-Contra seemed important (Why did you do it? "I believed...."), always sounded kind of fishy. And in the end, where are we on Deep Throat? I forget. Anyway, now, a member of Casey's security detail is piping up to claim in a memoir that none of the agents allowed Woodward in Casey's room. Of course, that only adds one more log to the jam pressurized by partisans of both sides. (The Washington Post's Jeff Stein has a good run-down here.) Which helps explain why it is always hard to know exactly on which side of the line to shelve the Woodward oeuvre.

For the current book Obama's Wars, now, naturally, being excerpted in the Washington Post, "Woodward interviewed Obama in the Oval Office for one hour and 15 minutes on July 10." This last bit comes from the Post's "About the series" explanation (disclaimer?) about all the "written records," "notes" "diaries," ... "and other forms of the written record" (tweets?) that went into "the core of the reporting."

Most of the interviews were conducted on background, meaning that the information could be used but the sources would not be identified by name.

News would be scarce without this convention, alas. Then again, is this "news" or history or something else? It certainly makes news -- the WaPo helps see to that, and journalists combs the thrillingly embargoed installments for items of interest. And often, these items are quite interesting. (I'll be hanging this week's column on a few.) But you always wonder, just a little. This (from the Post's "About the book" notes) doesn't help:

When conclusions or feelings are attributed to someone, that point of view came from that person directly, from the written record or from a colleague whom the person told.

All on background, of course,  (as noted above), which is one way to open up already interpretive journalism to creative manipulation. Then again, what else is new? What Woodward does is mainly distinguished by its manifest claim to being a comprehensive record -- a long spread of closely held news, gossip, attitude and political jockeying presented inside the covers of a book -- and, of course, its enviable profitibility. But is it the record? Who knows? But darned if it doesn't shape subsequent MSM coverage. 

Meanwhile, no squawks from the White House, while a few non-pointed questions about the book's content just rolled off Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen and SecDef Gates with "haven't read the book" passes. Now it's hall of mirrors time.


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