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Controversy Around Breaking News In Books

Sep 10, 2020
Originally published on September 10, 2020 5:53 pm
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Should journalists reveal something critically important as soon as they learn it or save it for their book? Washington Post editor Bob Woodward chose the latter route. His newest book on President Trump is titled "Rage," and in some of Woodward's 17 interviews with Trump, the president disclosed that he knew how deadly COVID-19 was early on, despite his public statements to the contrary. NPR's David Folkenflik looks at whether Woodward should have shared this knowledge months ago.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Questions flew at the White House press briefing yesterday.

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GEOFF BENNETT: I think the bottom line here is that the president, by his own admission, in private, on the record, acknowledged the depth of this crisis and yet told the American people something very different.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Geoff Bennett of NBC News.

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BENNETT: How is that at its core not an abject betrayal of the public trust?

FOLKENFLIK: Right now, Bob Woodward, perhaps the most famous reporter on the face of the globe, is being confronted by much the same question. He told The Associated Press it took months to confirm what Trump said. Inside major newsrooms, even inside The Washington Post, journalists tell me they're wrestling with Woodward's decision. And critics are savaging him. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Aisha Sultan's husband is in the hospital for COVID-19. She wrote that Woodward, quote, "chose his book over the public's right to know during a severe public health crisis."

Here's what we now know. In February, Trump told Woodward that the coronavirus posed a severe peril.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your - you know, your - even your strenuous flus.

FOLKENFLIK: Later in February, Trump would publicly call the pandemic a Democratic hoax. Then in March, Trump told Woodward he'd intentionally soft-pedaled the threat.

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TRUMP: I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you...

BOB WOODWARD: Sure. I want you to be.

TRUMP: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down...

WOODWARD: Yes.

TRUMP: ...Because I don't want to create a panic.

FOLKENFLIK: Woodward gets these revealing quotes and gets to decide how to handle them because he's Bob freaking Woodward of Woodward and Bernstein Watergate fame. In fact, Woodward doesn't really work for the Post. He's primarily an author. And his books - well, leaders open up because they don't expect to see it posted online later that night and because they care deeply about how he will portray them. President Trump today told reporters why he spoke to Woodward.

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TRUMP: I did it out of curiosity because I do have respect, and I want to see - I wonder whether or not somebody like that can write good.

FOLKENFLIK: Woodward's free reign has gotten him in trouble at times. Fifteen years ago, Woodward publicly apologized. He had failed to inform the Post that a federal official told him the identity of a spy years earlier. Its disclosure had triggered a formal investigation and criminal convictions. Woodward had been working on a book.

New York Times investigative reporter Michael Schmidt has his own new book out that's a bestseller, too, and he's been facing some of the same criticism - that revelations about Trump in his book should've been made public more quickly. Here's Mike Schmidt.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: They think that facts come to us gift-wrapped. I'm sitting here, and I'm a reporter. And the phone rings, and source A from a dark alley says, Mike, here's the gift-wrapped fact. Go report it. And we go off and dutifully do that.

FOLKENFLIK: Instead, it's often a lot of long hours reviewing documents, convincing people to talk and figuring out what it all means. Schmidt won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Trump.

SCHMIDT: He has just tested us in ways that are just so different and new that the idea that there's an easy answer to it - I think it's more nuanced and more difficult than that.

FOLKENFLIK: For its part, The Washington Post says it only received Woodward's book recently in finished form, meaning it, too, only just learned what Trump said in February.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNARKY PUPPY'S "BLING BLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.