Bob Woodward on Journalism, War, and A Man Divided

On Tuesday November 30, the noted author Bob Woodward came to the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University to participate in a Q&A session. The topics ranged from Wikileaks to getting the truth from sources to the name of Obama’s Wars to the blogsphere and the 24-hour news cycle.

Lacking a voice recorder, I have re-created as much as possible using Mr. Woodward’s thought but my own words. I was also able to capture some direct quotes relating to things which I thought important.

Mr. Woodward started with an anecdote about a dinner party he was attending where he happened to sit next to the former Vice President, Al Gore. He asked Mr. Gore, now, after five years (this was in 2005) of books and the 24-hour news cycle, how much do we know of consequence? Mr. Gore responded with “1%”.

With all of the constant information barraging our senses, one would think that we would have a better idea of what was going on. But, as Mr. Woodward’s anecdote displayed, and as Wikileaks (covered later) has also displayed, there is far more we don’t know that what we do.

What Mr. Woodward pointed out is that as a journalist, you try and develop a method to chip away at the secrecy surrounding events like the White House occurrences.

One of the first questions asked looked at the decision making process for picking a withdrawal date for American forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Woodward said that the July 2011 date had come out of a side comment made by Secretary of Defense Gates. President Obama seized upon that date for a drawdown, a move which rather alarmed the military. The new date for an assumed drawdown – 2014 – is a reflection on the military concern.

About a half hour into the discussion, an audience member asked the inevitable – how credible and authentic are the wikileaks documents?

Mr. Woodward believed the documents to be credible and authentic, but not as important as they were made out to be. His reasoning is that the real stories are only told in the Top Secret and above classifications, whereas the wikileaks documents were classified secret. He further clarified that we are seeing something, but it lacks context, there is very little actual intelligence without the larger picture being available.

In terms of gathering information, the issue of FOIA (freedom of information act) requests also came up. Mr. Woodward stressed that all of his best sources have been human sources. FOIA requests tend to get clogged up in the system and a cooperating human source will always provide more and better information.

Another audience member asked about the previous books Mr. Woodward had written, noting that they had focused on war. Mr. Woodward’s response was telling of the last decade. I’ll recreate his response as best as I can: ‘I’d decided the defining event for the Bush presidency was going to be the Bush tax cut. On 9/11 I realized that the defining moment of the Bush presidency was going to be the response.’

What is true about war, if you travel abroad at all, is that wars define who we are to the world, and more importantly, they define who we are to ourselves.

George Bush’s decision to engage the US in war was a tremendous one. War matters, it has defined the first decade of this millennium; and people keep notes, they keep journals, you can get the concrete deals explaining the evolution of decision making.’

The conversation turned back to Mr. Woodward’s most recent book Obama’s Wars. At some point, Mr. Woodward had considered naming the book The Divided Man (a name I personally think is better), in order to reflect the divided nature of the Obama White House. In his conversations with Mr. Obama, Mr. Woodward reported that Obama thinks, intellectually, that America can absorb another terrorist attack. He points to 9/11 and how America came out of that tragedy stronger and more unified than before. Mr. Obama also understands the difficulties of maintaining Pakistan as an ally. We need Pakistan to be friendly to us, but they also constantly harbor enemies of America.

From there the conversation turned more towards the process of journalism. The question was asked As a journalist, doesn’t the focus on personal bickering and personalities bother you? Mr. Woodward did express frustration with the constant cults of personality, but also thanked the more serious minded people who read the book as a debate on policy rather than a debate on personalities.

A follow up question asked advice on how to get the story out of people,  the truth of events surrounding them. Mr. Woodward, an old hand at the helm in this regard, had much to say. It takes time, he responded, you have to go back, to peel away the proverbial onion. As you work, you get closer to the central truths, but it requires the relationship of trust which only time and effort can build. Find people who cooperate, who will answer you questions, and who you can build this relationship of trust with. If you demonstrate that you take them seriously, it can be off-putting, but in the end, you will get the answers you seek.

As perhaps an almost ideal follow up question, an audience member asked what Mr. Woodward though of the Afghan war coverage, considering that most news organizations are cutting foreign correspondents.

The response was ‘most people are disconnected’. He felt that the American public looked at the Afghan war as a video game. Maybe if we had the draft we would feel differently. Maybe we should have the draft, as he noted, it could change the way the American public views the war. We need to do more than just watch the TV, put a ribbon on our cars, or clap as they go through the airport. We have to connect to this sense as a population. Our leadership needs to communicate that, and if we can’t demonstrate that our country is behind the war effort, then we need to disengage.

The talk concluded shortly after and exited into a book signing. During which I was able to let him now that I enjoyed his comments on the blogsphere (where is the market and the ability make a living?) and let him know that this would be posted on my blog.

Mr. Woodward provided a long and interesting look into the world of journalism and how he is able to attain inside information in order to paint a picture of decision making at the highest levels. His look at the impact of war on our politics and society show both the disconnect of the American populace and the lack of communication and consistency at the top levels of government. Until these issues are addressed, the disconnect in the populace and the conflict in the leadership will be readily apparent.


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