The perils of fly-on-the-wall journalism

Bob Woodward's 'Bush at War' series is not immune to political climate change.

In a country that's often less than enamored of politics, there is a reason why the release of a Bob Woodward book is such an event. Mr. Woodward gets interviews and knows how to weave the inner workings of politics into page-turning narrative.

It's exciting to feel as though you're a fly on the wall when, on July 10, 2001, then-CIA Director George Tenet tells then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that there is a "compelling case" to be made that Al Qaeda is preparing for "the big one." And as a reader of "State of Denial," Woodward's latest book on the Bush administration, there's frustration when you learn Mr. Tenet felt that he was "not getting through to Rice" and she was giving him "the brush off."

But then you wonder: Why didn't I hear this before now? It's 2006. Why hasn't more been made of the fact that Ms. Rice, now secretary of State, brushed off the CIA director's warning only two months before the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001? Those are good questions and they go to the heart of not only problems with "State of Denial," but the shortcomings inherent in the way Woodward puts his books together and the style of journalism he champions.

A few things first. Woodward has unbelievable access in this town. He is its political psychologist – it seems as if almost everyone is willing to lie down on the couch and talk to him about what they did right and wrong on proposal X or plan Y. And in many ways, he's very careful about what he prints. If a source of his says a meeting took place, Woodward works to make sure it did, checking records and schedules.

So when Woodward says Tenet met with Rice on July 10, you can bet they did. Rice denied the meeting at first, but later she had to acknowledge it happened. The problem with Woodward is not the who, what, where, and when – it is usually the why and the "in what context."

Tenet's feeling, that he was getting the brush-off, was not known until the book came out. The 9/11 commission, made up of Democrats and Republicans, knew of the meeting, but never Tenet's dismay. Tenet, or his counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, who also was at the meeting, apparently never felt the need to talk about it – until now. So what happened? Well, the mood of Washington has changed. With Iraq going (very) poorly and President Bush slumping in the polls, critics feel free to, well, criticize.

This list of critics includes not only Woodward's sources, but Woodward himself. "State of Denial," Woodward's third book on the Bush administration, is more than anything a reconsideration of Bush. It may be subtitled "Bush at War, Part III," but it begins in the fall of 1997 and takes pains to talk about how Bush was largely ignorant about foreign policy before the 2000 campaign. It makes Bush look shallow and uninformed.

There's no crime in reconsidering anything, of course. If there was, it's not clear how Washington would function. But when you write with Woodward's omniscient fly-on-the-wall narrative – reconstructing old conversations by asking people what was said and felt – there are two big dangers.

One, the people you talk to are hostage to the town's political climate and may remember things differently from before – out of either a shifting perspective or a desire for a better image. After all, once the tide has turned against someone, it only makes sense that a source would argue that he or she was the lone voice of reason and no one else would listen.

Two, as an author, once you set on a certain theme – positive or negative – you are going to, wittingly or not, ask questions and pursue sources and documentation that validate it at the expense of others. This is a natural tendency any journalist is familiar with and Woodward should be particularly aware of it.

"State of Denial" follows two previous Woodward books on the administration that may have pointed out some problems – disputes within the administration and the usual behind-the-scenes politicking – but were mostly complimentary where Bush was concerned. In those tomes, Bush is largely displayed as a decisive leader who makes decisions by the gut.

These two divergent images of Bush aren't new. They have been the subject of debate in this country since the 2000 campaign. But which Bush does Woodward believe is actually in the White House?

The fact that the same author writes separate books that stand on different sides of that debate suggests that even if his approach may yield a compelling, detail-filled narrative, there's a question of how reliable it all is.

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at: Dante Chinni.

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