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!