What John Belushi Tells Us About Bob Woodward

Like a funhouse mirror, Woodward’s prose distorts what it purports to reflect.”

—Tanner Colby, co-author, Belushi: A Biography

A as a connoisseur of news reporting, I have never quite recovered from what I considered a genuine scandal related to Bob Woodward and his demonstrably false suggestion that a high official in the Obama administration—turns out it was Gene Sperling—threatened him for reporting the truth about the origin of the sequester.

I just can’t let it go, even though we have had a pretty good discussion about it on this blog.

Now comes Tanner Colby, writing for Slate (“Regrettable: The troubling things I learned when I re-reported Bob Woodward’s book on John Belushi”) and offering the perfect description of Woodward’s weaknesses as a reporter and as an author. If you care about journalism, about history, about how it matters who gets to write history and how it is written, then you should follow the link and read Tanner Colby’s most readable and enlightening piece.

And it helps if you remember how talented was comedian and actor John Belushi.

Most people who follow politics don’t remember that Woodward wrote a book about Belushi, who died of a drug overdose at 33. The book, which carried the sensationalistic title,  Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, was not well received by those closest to the Saturday Night Live comedian, as Colby makes clear:

When Wired came out, many of Belushi’s friends and family denounced it as biased and riddled with factual errors. “Exploitative, pulp trash,” in the words of Dan Aykroyd. Wired was so wrong, Belushi’s manager said, it made you think Nixon might be innocent.

That Nixon reference, of course, is to the role that Woodward, along with his Washington Post reporting partner Carl Bernstein, played in the Watergate scandal that brought down the 37th President of the United States.

Helping to destroy the most powerful man in the world was no small feat for a young reporter, and Woodward has managed to mostly stay on top of the reading world with his sixteen books to date, a dozen of them top bestsellers, all of them about politics and government—except Wired.

Tanner Colby was hired by Judy Belushi, John’s widow, to help her write “a new biography of John,” a job that eventually “turned out to be a rather fascinating and unique experiment.” Colby explained:

Over the course of a year, page by page, source by source, I re-reported and rewrote one of Bob Woodward’s books. As far as I know, it’s the only time that’s ever been done.

And what Colby found, when coupled with what we learned about Woodward during the Gene Sperling episode, is quite revealing:

Wired is an infuriating piece of work. There’s a reason Woodward’s critics consistently come off as hysterical ninnies: He doesn’t make Jonah Lehrer–level mistakes. There’s never a smoking gun like an outright falsehood or a brazen ethical breach. And yet, in the final product, a lot of what Woodward writes comes off as being not quite right—some of it to the point where it can feel quite wrong. There’s no question that he frequently ferrets out information that other reporters don’t. But getting the scoop is only part of the equation. Once you have the facts, you have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It’s here that Woodward fails.

Colby’s account of a love scene Belushi did in the box office failure Continental Divide is a must read, especially considering the tragic effect that failure had on Belushi and how Woodward “missed the real meaning of what went on.”

But perhaps the most telling description of Woodward’s style as a writer, and his inability to sometimes see the green forest for all the trees with gray bark, is when Colby notes the famous reporter’s reputation as being “little more than a stenographer” :

In Wired, he takes what he is told and simply puts it down in chronological order with no sense of proportionality, nuance, or understanding.

To make that point, and to then send you away to the source, I conclude with this passage related to Belushi’s legendary problem with drugs:

Of all the people I interviewed, SNL writer and current Sen. Al Franken, referencing his late comedy partner Tom Davis, offered the most apt description of Woodward’s one-sided approach to the drug use in Belushi’s story: “Tom Davis said the best thing about Wired,” Franken told me. “He said it’s as if someone wrote a book about your college years and called it Puked. And all it was about was who puked, when they puked, what they ate before they puked and what they puked up. No one read Dostoevsky, no one studied math, no one fell in love, and nothing happened but people puking.”

Keep that in mind the next time you crack a book, or read an article, with Bob Woodward’s name on it.

4 Comments

  1. ansonburlingame

     /  March 14, 2013

    Duane,

    I thought I had read all of Woodward’s books but obviously missed this one on Belushi.

    In order to make a value judgment of that book however, we would all have to go back to 1982 and try to decide, for ourselves, whether Belushi was a “good guy or a bad guy”. I won’t even try to do so as I actually don’t know and don’t care about John Belushi, one way or the other.

    I note the critique provided does not accuse Woodward of falsehoods. Rather he says Woodward left out “proportionality, nuances……” Actually, that is one of the reasons I like reading Woodwards books. They don’t try to do that “for me”. Rather they lay out the “truth” in terms of hard facts or at least deep and thought-provoking interviews with some pretty smart people, people on both sides of the arguments “reported” in the books on various topics.

    Was Belushi a drug-crazed, Hollywood “nut” or was he a deep and thoughtful actor? I suggest the truth is somewhere in between, but again, so what. But the “fate of the nation” does not depend on that subject but it sure did to a great degree in Watergate, deciding how to go to war in Kuwait in 1990 and get out of there when we did so after a short and decisive war, the decision making process leading up to Iraq in 2003, the various “surges” by Bush II and Obama and up to the financial debate in 2011 in the last book.

    Woodward made his mark on the nation as a reporter, writing about current events. Over the years he has transitioned to a short term historian of a sort, writing books (not news articles) about “history in the making”. For sure Woodward has not yet written a definitive history, long after the death of the various participants. Rather he has written books that ANY historian (of the long term sort) will HAVE to at least read and consider to establish definitive historical facts and precendents.

    Take all the earlier “history books” on JFK, most of which were written by men in his administration. Who was it, Authur somebody (Slessinger maybe?), that wrote, not long after JFK’s death, a long a glowing history of “Camelot”. But then we read the JFK tales of….. written by a good reporter from the NYT that revealed a darker side of that Camelot as well.

    Any book about politics, policy choices at the national level, will offer a point of view, hidden, implied, stated outright, etc. No writer can be entirely apolitical when such a daunting task is undertaken. But some writers do far better in attempting to be apolitical than others for sure. The me the height of that achievement, apolitical “history”, actually history in the making in the sausage machine of Washington, DC, goes to Bob Woodward in our world today.

    As I have said before, I KNOW Bob Woodward wants to always tell the truth. That is his motivating force, the “thing he always tries to do” in his profession as a reporter and now a writer. Does he always get it right? Of course not as he is human.

    But he comes closer than any other writer of current events in Washington, DC that any other man or woman that I have read over the last 40 years or so, on balance.

    Anson

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    • Anson,

      I appreciate, again, your defense of Woodward. But I think you sort of missed the point of Tanner Colby’s critique. It’s not that Woodward tells whoppers, it’s that he  often doesn’t put episodes in context, or give readers a fuller understanding of the subject.

      You seem to validate his critics’ complaints that he is not much more than a stenographer, which is fine as far as it goes, but that is not all there is to telling what happened or, in the case of John Belushi, what his life was about.

      Let me try this: Suppose after you died, I wrote a summary of your life that went like this:

      Anson Burlingame retired from the Navy and then began his career as a writer who—only after Barack Obama became president—began obsessing on the national debt, taking a course in economics so he could better inform people through his letters-to-the-editor and his columns in the Joplin Globe and his blog posts that America is fast becoming Greece and Barack Obama is accelerating our descent.

      However, some people found his opinions to be totally biased, some found them to be absurd, some even found them to be racist, demanding the newspaper fire him—the Joplin Globe later informed him that due to “anticipated revenue shortfalls” he would no longer be on the payroll. Even his wife disagreed with most of his opinions, and even refused to read most of what he wrote. Nevertheless, she stayed with him until the end. 

      Now, I don’t think I said anything that wasn’t factual. I told the “truth” in every respect. But I have summarized your life in a way that I think would leave out a lot of stuff that you might think should be in there, right? And perhaps you would like it if I had clarified what I meant by “some even found them to be racist” (like posting some of the comments you made), or explain how the Globe’s decision to stop funding the blog had nothing to do with the racist charges, or that your wife, despite disagreeing with you, loved you dearly and never felt it a burden to stay with you.

      Otherwise, without putting things in context, or offering nuance, it leaves the reader with the impression that you may have been a racist and that you got fired from the Globe because of that, and  your wife endured a pretty crappy marriage.

      That’s the point Colby is making.

      Duane

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      • King Beauregard

         /  March 14, 2013

        There’s a joke about bias that focuses on Obama, but it could focus on anyone and more or less work the same. Obama is out for a stroll one night when he smells smoke, and following it, he discovers an orphanage on fire. He busts open a window, takes off his shirt to beat back the flames, and proceeds to save the three children who couldn’t get out on their own. The headline on Fox read as: “half-naked Obama breaks into house, abducts three frightened children”.

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