Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Bob Woodward missed the journalistic mark by withholding valuable information from the public

When investigative journalist Bob Woodward — famed for having brought down former President Richard Nixon — procured evidence that the current president believed the coronavirus to be much graver a threat than anyone had expected, he withheld that bit of insight for seven months.

President Donald Trump had known since February that the virus would be “deadly,” and that it could be easily transmissible through the air. That was before the United States reported its first COVID-19-related death.

Now, more than half a year later, the U.S. death toll is nearing 200,000. This is when Woodward finally decided it was time — right in line with the release of his book “Rage,” the second installment of his reporting series on the Trump administration.

To see Woodward withhold this information for such an extended period of time is deeply disappointing.

Woodward is most famously known for reporting on Watergate — the scandal that shook America so hard Nixon had no choice but to resign from office. Woodward did not hesitate to expose the truth then, and his reasoning for the delay now is shaky.

As a journalist, your responsibility, above all else, is to inform the public. If these quotes were important enough to be published in a book, then they were important enough to share with the people.

Of course, back in February, Woodward would barely have reason to assume Trump’s words had the gravity they hold now. Even medical professionals in the U.S. were still assuring the public that chances of the virus making much of an impact in America were low.

But months of exponential death and public suffering should have been more than enough of a sign that this was a big deal — big enough to let the world know.

Woodward told The Washington Post, where he is an associate editor, that he withheld the information to ensure the situation is given proper context. Woodward justified the decision by saying he knew he would figure it out by the Nov. 3 election.

If he could self-impose a deadline by which to turn in the “second draft of history,” then he could have set it earlier. There will always be a fuller picture, and we’ll always be unearthing new information to analyze and reanalyze for years to come.

Was the state of the pandemic during any month before September not clear enough to provide him that second-draft context?

By mid-March, the World Health Organization had declared that we were in a pandemic. Would that not be an appropriate time to tell the country that the president was downplaying the severity of the situation?  Trump addressed the world in such a calming manner, when all the while he knew it was deadlier than the flu.

What’s more troubling, why prioritize Election Day as a hard end date when new deaths are occuring every day beforehand due directly to the recklessness of Trump’s most vehement followers, who say they have no reason to fear the virus when the president himself has assured them they shouldn’t?

Woodward said he also needed to verify where Trump’s information came from before taking it at face value.

Veracity should always be at the top of any reporter’s priority list, and Woodward demonstrates that there. However, we must remember that the most jarring news in this isn’t that we had the science all along — it’s that Trump believed the science and still actively tried to “play it down.”

Trump fully knew this turmoil would come, and he chose to watch the people he serves succumb to the very threat he continued to dismiss.

Yet, Woodward learned in May that Trump’s information indeed came from a high-level intelligence briefing. So, why did he still not publish?

To that, Woodward reasoned that his purpose was not to push out daily, breaking news, but to offer a bigger picture to his readers. That was the higher purpose, according to his interview.

History is constantly taking place: every moment in time brings new information and new context to our lives. While Woodward’s hesitation to publish immediately was warranted, he held back vital information that could’ve counteracted the narrative that Trump and many other Trumpists promoted — the idea that the virus wasn’t a serious matter. 

There are people walking around this country who think the virus is a government scheme and not a threat to all. While releasing this information may not change the minds of the ill-informed, it at least gives the public an awareness of what is going on.

Many of those who support Trump are fervent in their beliefs and take everything he says as objective truth. If they were to know that Trump had admitted the virus was deadly, they may have reevaluated their opinions — even if only to be on the same page as him.

The rhetoric coming from not only Trumpists, but many across the country during the early stages of the pandemic resulted in mass complacency. Had we all known the gravity of the situation and had a national consensus to begin with, the spread would’ve been contained much faster.

Instead of recognizing that conversations of this magnitude have the power to harm or help the lives of millions of people, Woodward seems to have selfishly kept quotes to ensure a good kicker for his book. 

Not the hundreds of thousands of deaths, economic downfall or even the brawls for toilet paper had pushed Woodward to publish these quotes earlier. As a journalist, he should have the objectivity to step back and realize that public health is more valuable than politics and book sales.

Maybe this conversation would have been just another one of Trump’s rampages. We might have disregarded his spew of false information and moved on with our day. Or, we would have taken note, much like we are doing now. It would have been a red flag, a sign to question the administration that much more.

Either way, we still deserved to know, and not at a time when it was far too late to be informed — the damage is already done.

Woodward was one of The Washington Post’s shining stars, so he should know better than anyone that democracy dies in darkness. Why did he, then, leave America in the dark?

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