Asked about such criticism, Woodward says that for his books he has the time and the space and the sources to actually uncover what really happened, not some manufactured version of it. “The best testimony to that,” he says, “is that the critics never suggest how any of it is manufactured, that any of it is wrong.” Then, objectivity rears its head. “What they seem to be saying,” Woodward says of his critics, “is that I refuse to use the information I have to make a political argument, and they are right, I won’t.” Yet some of Woodward’s critics do suggest how his material is manufactured. Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Woodward’s latest book, Bush at War, in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly, argues that, while reporting on a significant foreign-policy debate, Woodward fully presents the point of view of his cooperative sources, but fails to report deeply on the other sides of the argument. Thus he presents an incomplete picture. “Pseudo-objectivity in the nation’s capital,” Hitchens writes, “is now overripe for regime change.”
To Fill the Void
Jason Riley is a young reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Along with a fellow reporter, R.G. Dunlop, he won a Polk award this year for a series on dysfunction in the county courts, in which hundreds of felony cases dating back to 1983 were lost and never resolved. Riley and Dunlop’s series was a classic example of enterprise reporting: poking around the courthouse, Riley came across one felony case that had been open for several years. That led to more cases, then to a drawer full of open cases. No one was complaining, at least publicly, about this problem. In a first draft, Riley wrote that the system was flawed because it let cases fall off the docket and just disappear for years. “I didn’t think it needed attribution because it was the conclusion I had drawn after six months of investigation,” he writes in an e-mail. But his editor sent it back with a note: “Says who?”
In a follow-up profile of the county’s lead prosecutor, a man Riley has covered for three years, many sources would not criticize the prosecutor on the record. He “knew what people thought of him, knew what his strengths and weaknesses were,” Riley says. “Since no one was openly discussing issues surrounding him, I raised many in my profile without attribution.” Again his editors hesitated. There were discussions about the need to remain objective. “Some of my conclusions and questions were left out because no one else brought them up on the record,” he says.
Riley discovered a problem on his own, reported the hell out of it, developed an understanding of the situation, and reached some conclusions based on that. No official sources were speaking out about it, so he felt obliged to fill that void. Is that bias? Good reporters do it, or attempt to do it, all the time. The strictures of objectivity can make it difficult. “I think most journalists will admit to feeding sources the information we want to hear, for quotes or attribution, just so we can make the crucial point we are not allowed to make ourselves,” Riley says. “But why not? As society’s watchdogs, I think we should be asking questions, we should be bringing up problems, possible solutions … writing what we know to be true.”