Yesterday, we published an essay stating what should be the obvious: Bob Woodward aided Donald Trump’s crime against humanity by suppressing an audiotape definitively proving Trump was misleading the country about the danger of coronavirus.
If you are an MSNBC-watching liberal sitting there denying Woodward’s aiding and abetting — if you are still somehow humming the West Wing theme song to yourself defending the honor of the country’s most famous establishment journalist — then you should take a look at Trump’s Twitter feed this morning. With 200,000 people dead, Trump is now using Woodward’s decision to suppress the tape as a means of defending himself in advance of the 2020 election. Put another way: Woodward has become Trump’s human shield protecting the president on the pandemic — the issue on which he’s most politically vulnerable.
The lesson here should be simple: It is very bad when journalists prioritize their interests over the public interest.
Trump committed a crime against humanity that he should be held accountable for, and the nation’s most famous journalist knowingly helped him. If you aren’t mad about both things, then you have decided to lobotomize yourself and become part of the problem.
In this case, Woodward knew the danger of Trump. In 2018, he published his first book about Trump, where the president’s staff and former advisers described Trump as a paranoid and impulsive idiot they had to insulate and control. In a paid speech with health insurance lobbyists last year, Woodward declared: “When you look behind the scenes of what Trump is doing, the pause that it gives you is ‘Oh my god.’ Every job you have to make a risk assessment. And the risk assessment of Trump just couldn’t be higher.”
Yet knowing that risk assessment, Woodward nonetheless prioritized his interest in selling more books and in maintaining White House access above the journalist’s obligation to publish information both proving Trump was lying, and warning the public about a dangerous situation at the very moment the public was in the dark.
Remember — the tape of Trump admitting coronavirus was deadly and airborne was recorded in early February when there was very little public awareness in the United States of just how lethal the disease is. In fact, two days before Trump made his comments to Woodward, the Washington Post published a story about lawmakers on Capitol Hill pushing the White House to take the pandemic more seriously.
You can easily imagine a Bob Woodward bombshell story in the same Washington Post two days later revealing that contrary to his public statements, the president acknowledged that the situation is dire. You can then imagine that such a revelation might embolden the Democratic lawmakers demanding more aggressive action, and that might have led to tens of thousands fewer casualties. And by Woodward’s own account, he was free to publish such a story — he didn’t have some pre-arranged agreement with Trump to hold publication.
But the story never came and 200,000 people then died because… future book sales.
“Bob Woodward sitting on information about presidential lies until he has a book to promote is… well it’s the difference between being a hungry reporter in 1973 and a palace courtier in 2020,” writes the American Prospect’s David Dayen. “Many people were going to die from minimizing the extent of the pandemic and not acting on knowledge of its impact. An author with as big a financial cushion as Woodward would recognize that and act in the interest of humanity rather than his first printing.”
Of course, I’ve seen people say “well, even if Woodward had published a story, it wouldn’t have made a difference.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. Nobody can know. But that distracts from the much more elemental point here: The journalist’s job is to contemporaneously report vital information so that the public is informed. That’s why a free press is so critical to a democracy — it is supposed to provide a check on the government.
Centuries after that most basic tenet of republican democracy was enshrined in the constitution, the most famous member of that free press used his power not to inform the public, but to help a president deceive the public, to the point where the president is this morning citing the deception as proof of his innocence.
Anyone defending this behavior is not only an apologist for 200,000 coronavirus deaths, they are complicit in the ongoing downfall of our democracy.