Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
No reporter in the history of journalism has surpassed Bob Woodward’s ability to produce a blockbuster book at the most opportune time.
Woodward’s latest, “Rage,” may be his most potent yet, given the state of the country nearing one of the most consequential elections in American history.
News is flying out of the pages of “Rage” in a torrent. And almost none of it can be dismissed by the Trump administration on the grounds of anonymous sourcing.
Many people went on the record for Woodward’s book. But the biggest source of on-the-record information was the President of the United States himself who acknowledged that he tried to downplay the coronavirus threat, that he knew it was far more dangerous to younger people than he was admitting and that it was much more deadly than the regular flu, despite constant declarations that it was only a flu and would go away with the “warm weather.”
On CNN, Woodward’s former Watergate partner, Carl Bernstein, called Trump’s action’s “a kind of homicidal negligence.” Some of the virus experts suggested massive numbers of those who died could have survived if Trump had been forthright in disclosing the seriousness of the threat and had taken sensible steps to counter it early — based on what Woodward says he already knew. One estimate from Andy Slavitt, the former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was that as many as 75% of those who died might have been saved had the United States had a better approach.
Trump defended the comments he made to Woodward Wednesday, saying that “you cannot show a sense of panic or you’re going to have bigger problems than you ever had before.”
Much of the criticism is being directed at the Trump administration. But some of the questioning, on social media and elsewhere, is being directed at Woodward himself.
If Woodward was aware of Trump’s deliberate attempts to downplay and ignore what he knew was a lethal threat to the nation, didn’t Woodward have some moral obligation to blast out this news as soon as he heard it? Isn’t it possible that some — or many — lives would have been saved if Woodward had not withheld this information for publication in a book many months later? And can’t he thus be accused of choosing to withhold that information for inclusion in a number-one bestseller rather than coming forward immediately with what he knew?
He said it wasn’t until May that he was certain that Trump’s comments were based on reliable information. By then, the virus had spread across the US and the debate over the president’s response to the virus was already front and center. “If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know,” he told the Associated Press.
Nonfiction book writing is all about accumulation of details. Many books about Trump have followed this practice, most recently Michael Schmidt’s book about the Mueller investigation.
For most people, this is not a close call: If you can save lives, you definitely have a moral obligation to do so. Shouldn’t Woodward have broken the news that he had tapes of Trump acknowledging that he was downplaying a threat to tens of thousands of Americans?
But it’s also a fair question to ask whether Woodward’s larger goal was a worthy reason to hold back the mass of evidence he was accumulating for a comprehensive account of the Trump presidency.
Would it have made a significant difference if Woodward came forward with Trump’s two-faced reaction to the virus in February or March? Or would Trump and his supporters have found a way then to dismiss those initial comments, disparage Woodward for having a “leftist” agenda, and then go ahead and pretty much do the same thing he did anyway? Would Trump have found a way to continue to prioritize the economy — and his reelection — over public health considerations?
Obviously, everything that Woodward has Trump saying on tape after those initial comments would never have been revealed because he would have lost the extraordinary access Trump gave him over the course of 18 interviews.
A strong argument can be made that there was a moral imperative here because lives, probably tens of thousands of them, could have been at stake — if somehow the early revelation changed the way Trump handled the pandemic.
Maybe nothing illustrates that better than the revelation from the interview where Trump reacts to the news that the virus spreads through airborne contact. He notes to Woodward that this is much worse than transmission by touch because touch is avoidable, while breathing in infected air is not.
Anyone who knew Donald Trump in his days before politics, as I did, knows how averse he was to shaking hands because he feared getting sick.
He is acknowledging this virus passes through the air and yet he rarely wears a mask, and mocks people — like a reporter in one of his latest news conferences and, of course, his current election rival — who insist on wearing masks.
Trump continues to downplay the threat of coronavirus, even despite his personal fears. Would he have ever changed his approach because of a single report by Woodward, one that Trump would have worked to supersede probably the next day with some other story he dangled for reporters to chase?
Woodward is much less a reporter now than a big-game hunter. Everybody knows him because he and Bernstein took down a shockingly corrupt president. His message in “Rage” seems to suggest that this one may be even worse.