“Like a funhouse mirror, Woodward’s prose distorts what it purports to reflect.”
—Tanner Colby, co-author, Belushi: A Biography
s 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.