Wikimedia Commons

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and Yale lecturer Bob Woodward ’65, the reporter whose work exposed the Watergate scandal, is back on the nation’s front pages — in headlines rather than bylines.

On Sept. 11, in a whirlwind of politically charged excitement and media attention, Woodward released his latest book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” which portrays the current presidential administration as dysfunctional and fraught with internal tension between the president and various members of his staff. Published by Simon & Schuster, “Fear” is advertised as an inside look at the White House based on hundreds of hours of interviews and months of research, according to The New York Times. In recent days, the book has come under heavy fire from the White House, which has disputed its sourcing and conclusions.

Woodward’s book features stories about and comments made by high-ranking American officials and senior members of the Trump administration. Examples include remarks made by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis comparing Trump to a “fifth or sixth grader” and former Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn removing from the president’s desk a trade agreement with South Korea.

In the wake of revelations about the book’s contents, Trump and members of his administration have repeatedly lashed out against Woodward, who teaches a journalism course at Yale, attempting to discredit his account and disparage his reputation along with that of his former colleague Carl Bernstein, who worked with Woodward on the Watergate coverage. Those attacks have escalated over the past week, with Trump calling Woodward a “liar” on Monday.

Woodward did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the News. He has made only one public comment about the furor surrounding the book over the last few weeks, telling The Washington Post that “I stand by my reporting.”

Although the book is one of Woodward’s most scathing journalistic portraits since he penned the Watergate stories, a monograph by Woodward has become something of a rite of passage for presidential administrations. Trump is only one of several presidents about whom Woodward has written: The Washington Post editor wrote “Bush at War” and “Obama’s Wars” in 2002 and 2010, respectively, as well as “The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House” in 1994. But while those books included material from hours of interviews with the former presidents, the Trump administration did not respond to Woodward’s numerous requests for comment.

On Aug. 14, amid rumors about the book’s unflattering depiction of a chaotic administration, Trump reportedly called Woodward in an attempt to clarify the book’s tone. Woodward expressed his frustrations about Trump’s dismissive and negative attitude toward his reporting.

“Mr. President, how can I spend all this time talking to people, like Kellyanne [Conway] and Raj [Shah] and all the Republican Senators,” Woodward responded with exasperation, according to a transcript of the phone conversation published in the Washington Post. “It is a tough look at the world, the administration and of you.”

Conservative media sources have also responded since Woodward and President Trump’s telephone conversation in August, slamming both Woodward and Bernstein. Breitbart News, a publication previously led by former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, published articles and editorials with such titles as “Disgraced Journalist Carl Bernstein Calls On Gen. Kelly to Resign,” and “Bob Woodward Amps Up Scare Tactics to Hype Book.” Breitbart’s reporting comes in the wake of recent criticism of the Trump administration by Bernstein.

A number of Woodward’s former Yale students did not respond to requests to comment for this story. One former student — who asked to remain anonymous to avoid running afoul of his current employer’s rules — spoke highly of the reporter.

“[H]e deserves the reputation he has for integrity and careful reporting. I think he is an American hero,” the student said. “Both [Donald Trump and Bob Woodward] deserve the reputations they have with regards to credibility … Bob Woodward has made a career out of finding the truth and reporting it, and Donald Trump has made a career out of lying.”   

Woodward’s most famous book, “All the President’s Men,” an account of the Watergate investigation, was published in 1974.

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu

Keshav Raghavan | keshav.raghavan@yale.edu

  • Nancy Morris

    As a recent article in the Daily Caller describes, most coverage of Woodward’s book “Fear” has failed to note 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 and Woodward’s former assistant at the Post, Jeff Himmelman, revealed Bradlee’s nagging doubts in a 2012 biography of the longtime editor.

    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 such as 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 renowned 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.

    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,” Hersh 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.”

    • wonder_woman

      The Daily Caller is not a credible source of information. Period.

      • Nancy Morris

        Every one of the examples of Woodward’s failings can be easily checked. One does not have to rely on the Daily Caller, and one shouldn’t rely on any popular media source for more than notice. In fact, cites for almost every one is provided. And, as I noted, the cites are generally to well respected, mainstream sources. That it offends your political sensibilities to have the Daily Caller be the outlet collecting and reporting, for example, Ben Bradlee’s, misgivings is not to the contrary.

      • Sol G

        In a recent article appearing in on-line media, a conservative Yale student from Texas is quoted noting that although he was concerned that his professors would not deal well with his perspective, the students were far more obviously hostile. He said, “My professors have been very welcoming of discussing certain topics that wouldn’t otherwise be discussed. But the student body is different, there are some students who I’ve run into where our conversations have quickly devolved into them yelling at me, and I just wanted to escape.”

        Your comment, with its formally gratuitious but absolutist “period,” is essentially on-line yelling conveying your determination to reject discussion. That, in turn, suggests that you may be part of the Yale student problem identified by that conservative student.

        Your sweeping rejection of the Daily Caller is also obviously incorrect, but that’s just an additional embarrassment for you. Many surveys and analyses indicate that most mainstream media are, and are perceived to be, seriously biased to the left. The Daily Caller is a positive corrective to that bias, although one that should not be taken in isolation. It reports many important and wholly accurate stories absent from the more mainstream media. Woodward’s often questionable history appears to be an important one. This Daily Caller report collects “repeated, credible charges — including from well-respected fellow journalists.”

        Further, this DC story … unlike far to many in the mainstream media, where anonymous, single-sourced stories are far too common … is transparently and fully sourced, and can be checked. You simply appear to dislike the revelations not because they are unreliable, but because they are reliable.

        Yell less. Think more.

      • Dally Saybrook

        You might want to spend some time reading an article in the current edition of SLATE by reliably progressive William Saletan discussing exactly your erroneous and pernicious process of disregarding reporting of a media outlet, apparently because you object to its political outlook. Of course, you don’t explain your diktat, but that already suggests plenty, and I’m assuming you also dismiss The Weekly Standard as you do The Daily Caller. If not, my apologies. In any event, the SLATE article is headlined “The Weekly Standard’s Kavanaugh Fact Check Was Correct – ThinkProgress and its allies show their bias by denouncing it.” It includes this passage, which seems to apply to your thinking:

        “Can journalists on the right honestly fact-check journalists on the left? That question erupted this week in a fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The fight, as promised, has exposed media bias. But in this case, the bias is on the left.

        “The dispute centers on an article published on Sunday by ThinkProgress. The piece, written by Ian Millhiser, argues that Kavanaugh’s answers at his confirmation hearing last week, when combined with a speech Kavanaugh delivered last year, imply that he would overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s a smart and well-written piece. But the headline goes further. It claims that Kavanaugh ‘said he would kill Roe v. Wade.’

        “The Weekly Standard, in its “fact check,” said the headline wasn’t true. ….

        “ThinkProgress and its allies have made the dispute into something much bigger. By attacking the fact check as biased on the grounds that a conservative magazine published it, they’ve proved the opposite of what they intended. They’ve confirmed that the press is full of left-leaning journalists who sometimes can’t see or acknowledge congenial falsehoods, and they’ve demonstrated how these journalists unite, when challenged, in a tribal chorus to accuse conservatives of trying to “censor” them. In sum, they’ve demonstrated why we need conservative journalists to help check facts.”

        Just so.