When Should Journalists Speak Up?

By now everyone must know that President Trump has been lying about the coronavirus for months, telling us it would magically disappear when he knew all along that it was a killer threat. Trump admitted this in phone conversations with Bob Woodward recorded in February and March, but only now–in September–have some of the tapes been released.

That Trump is unfit to serve as our President has been clear for an awfully long time. That most Republicans don’t care what he does is also painfully clear.

So let’s ask another question: Should Bob Woodward have released those tapes months ago. If he had done so, would that possibly have saved thousands and thousands of lives?

At some time or other, every journalist is presented with this classic hypothetical situation: Suppose you are filming or photographing a raging river and you see a young child being swept downstream. The child is clinging to a piece of wood and is clearly in danger of drowning. Should you keep on filming, or do you jump in and try to save the child?

In other words, where is the line between a reporter’s job and their responsibility as a citizen? Which comes first?

Of course, it’s really a no-brainer: You must try to save the child, because public safety and personal responsibility far outweigh any obligation you may feel to reporting. No, you won’t get that great video or photograph of a drowning child; instead, you will have saved a life.

Bob Woodward decided otherwise.

He explained his decision in a conversation with the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, but his choice was not between releasing the tapes back in March or waiting until now. He could have shared them with the public in May or June, when it was clear that Covid-19 was killing Americans in large numbers and that the Administration was still dithering.

Woodward is not alone in saving “the best stuff” for a book that’s months away from appearing instead of reporting it in a timely basis. Michael Schmidt of The New York Times did something similar just a few weeks ago.

Why do their editors and their bosses go along with this practice of withholding critical information? The Times pays Schmidt’s salary, and, while Woodward is no longer on the Post’s payroll, he has an office there and the honorific title of Associate Editor.

I’m trying to imagine how Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil would have responded if I had withheld the tape of DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee firing a principal so that I could use it in a documentary in six or eight months. I know they’d have fired me in a heartbeat….and rightly so. (And, to be clear, withholding it never would have occurred to me in the first place, and nor would it to most of the journalists I have known.)

American journalism is in deep enough trouble without this kind of behavior. Today, two thirds of the public believes that reporters are no more ethical than the politicians they are reporting on. I suspect this practice–Reporters prioritizing book sales (I.E. MONEY) over their responsibilities as citizens–contributes to the low regard the general public has for my former profession.

“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s the wry observation credited to Finley Peter Dunne. However, some reporters are obviously paying more attention to the comfort of their own bank balance.

We need strong reporting more than ever today. We need aggressive reporting and earnest truth-telling, because we are living in an age of lies and ‘alternative facts.’ Our democratic institutions are under attack as never before, and reporters who publish the truth are our first line of defense.

We can support independent journalism by subscribing to local and national newspapers–especially ones that require their reporters to publish what they have confirmed when they confirm it!

12 thoughts on “When Should Journalists Speak Up?

  1. Very FINE!! No surprise either. That’s what you do, John! So, THANK YOU Richard ??

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  2. I think Woodward was thinking of the book and holding it all together for release. He made a poor decision morally. But I also think disclosure would not have made a wit of difference in Trump’s handling of the crisis. He thinks and speaks one way and acts another. I think in Art of the Deal he writes of adjusting truth to fit what people want to hear. In his transactional world the spoken word is just another form of payment for support.

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    • To expand on John G’s point: we know that no lie, fabrication, dissembling, prevarication, palter, or fib ever has the least bit of effect on Trump. Unfortunately we have sunk so low that my first reaction to this revelation was the above sentence, followed by a shrug borne out of the exhaustion of living with Trump as President. Thank you, John M for reminding us of something called ethics, a zip code Trump and, it seems most of his family, never have visited.

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  3. As usual, John, you have struck the core of the issue: integrity and responsibility. I think of the Robert Penn Warren novel, “All the King’s Men,” back in the 40’s and the sort of politician that actually was Huey Long in the 30’s: the world of deception, slight-of-hand and self-aggrandizement. The reporter’s role as Jack Burden in the novel, rises up again today. I think also of Bernstein and Woodward’s “All the President’s Men.” You have once again highlighted the sort of moral dilemma journalists must face constantly. Bob Woodward’s bank account most certainly should not be worthy of his concern.

    But, as a classroom teacher of more than 5 decades, now retired, your analogy to a drowning child in a raging river really hits me hard. We ARE in a raging river, and our children ARE in danger. In our school world (which IS, BTW, a real world!), there are too many compromises made for the benefit of someone’s career; but it is our children who pay the ultimate penalty for that sort of decision-making. When our junior adults are subjected to discriminatory attitudes or are witness to the actions of our “leaders,” which are papered over, falsified, or ignored, they end up assuming that is some sort of distorted “new normal.” There are other viruses besides the novel corona which demand our attention now as well. Thank you for reminding us all of that.

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  4. John,

    Nice to meet you. You are spot on with your points. Mr. Woodward could have reported what he knew months ago AND still included the information in his book, which had plenty of other bombshells. It wasn’t as if there was a “he-said, he-said,” Woodward had the most powerful politician in the world on tape. I can see Mr. Woodward’s point of holding the information initially, as few really knew the extreme dangers of COVID-19 in February. Yet, by April, May, June or July? Those tapes could have changed public behavior as well as political behavior, and potentially thousands of people may not have died. Thanks for letting me comment.

    Your new friend,

    Craig Harris
    30 years in the business

    Liked by 1 person

    • Craig, I am honored that you took the time to read what I posted and then reply so that others may benefit from your insights.
      (Note to readers: This man is a giant among investigative journalists!)

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  5. I applaud your clear, moral, cogent thinking and commenting and look forward to every blog of yours for more of the same. Woodward and Bernstein were journalistic heroes, and it pains me to think of Woodward as falling from his pedestal but it seems he has. I agree with you (from a former blog) that journalists need to ask the tough questions and hold the despicable president and his colleagues to account, not avoid the nastiness that will certainly ensue for doing so. Asking tough questions is what journalists are supposed to do!

    Martha Cohn
    retired journalist

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  6. Woodward was only thinking of himself, the book and money. And frankly, I saw nothing in the book I didn’t know already. Trump is a blowhard and a puffer. His whole life has puffed up deals and the truth like a Real Estate salesman. If he really thought Mr. Trump was a threat to lives and national security he should have gone to the press immediately. And by the way the Dems and BIden didn’t know what do do either in the early days.

    Woodward had his one great day and has been living off it every since. He said this is WORSE than WATERGATE no it is not. There is no comparison IMHO

    Who will win the election? Frankly, my dear I don’t give a damn but my wife and I said tonight if the Democratic party succeeds in knocking off the Green Party of state ballots like in Wisconsin we might vote for the Greens out of protest. If the Dems are so great and BIden is so great why are they worried about a Green Party fringe. Maybe they aren’t so great. Of course I know Trump ain’t so great himself. If he wins he can win without our votes.

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  7. Mr Merrow, blog item was forwarded by a smart colleague who receives your email. You make a nearly tactile point, and I just forwarded it to my friends – but needfully, mindfully edited, as copied in below, so as not to diminish the impact of your construct. We’re in a phase where accuracy matters. Thank you, sir.

    Note said: If he had spoken out–released the transcripts–in May or June or July, that might have saved 100,000 American lives.

    EDIT: Let’s go back to that scene and the 19 takes. Suppose, just suppose, that 100,000 grieving survivors got to slap Donald Trump in the face.

    EDIT: That’s close to TWO MILLION slaps across the face on Donald J. Trump!

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