By Jessie Seigel
Investigative journalist and author Bob Woodward just released tapes of phone conversations with Donald Trump that give us plain, irrefutable evidence of Trump’s full and early knowledge of, and deliberate lies about, the dangers of COVID-19. Though anyone sensible knows Trump has been lying for months, hearing it out loud in his own words—at this moment in time—might make enough of those in the Trump cult finally come to their senses during this election season, and end the national horror we’ve been enduring for the last three-and-a half years.
However, if Woodward, an associate editor at the Washington Post, had written articles and released these tapes earlier, instead of timing the taped revelations to promote his new book, Rage, which will be published on September 15, he could, potentially, have saved thousands of lives.
In an article on Wednesday (9/9) in the Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan quoted Woodward as saying that, in February, when these phone calls with Trump occurred, there was not yet a “panic” over the virus and neither the source of Trump’s information nor the truth of what he was admitting was clear. Fair enough. But why didn’t Woodward report Trump’s statements that “it goes through the air,” “it’s more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” and “it’s not just old—it’s plenty of young people,” or release the tapes in May, when the extreme dangers of COVID-19 were clear? Sullivan cites his reasoning:
Woodward said his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.” (Former Washington Post publisher Phil Graham famously called journalism “the first rough draft of history.”) […] It took months, Woodward told me, to do the reporting that put it all in context, which is what he believes his mission as an author is […] Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture—one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.
If Woodward had said he struggled between the public benefit of saving people from COVID-19 in the short run and preventing an authoritarian takeover in November in the longer run, I could, perhaps, understand his thinking as a legitimate ethical struggle. But, in my view, Woodward’s framing of his reasons smacks of a sense of self-importance and self-aggrandizement.
In stating, “I knew I could tell the second draft of history,” Woodward is placing his own sought place in history ahead of his duty as a journalist to give the public not only what they—as media people are so fond of putting it—“have a right to know,” but what they have a need to know. In maintaining that his highest purpose is to give his readers the big picture, Woodward is ignoring the higher purpose, as a human being, to give people information at a time when it will make a difference for their survival.
Sadly, Woodward’s major considerations here square with my general view of him and his work. Woodward plays along to “get his story.” Playing along is necessary to get the story—agreed. But for how long? And to what purpose? Woodward’s purpose seems to have been his stature and his pocketbook—not about getting an important story of corruptive horror out, getting to the public what they needed to know when they needed to know it. There surely are news people who see their work in similar terms. But they are not the journalists I respect.
Some may argue that earlier exposure of Trump’s statements would have made no difference, that his outrages are always quickly lost in the wake of his next outrage. Since Woodward chose to hold off on exposure, we’ll never know for sure. But I am strongly reminded of the film,, A Face in the Crowd, at the end of which the Trumpian demagogue Lonesome Rhodes unwittingly expresses his contempt for his followers on-air, and they finally understand what he is and desert him. This, in real life, could have been a similar moment. Certainly, some of those confused by Trump’s and the scientists’ opposing instructions would have been affected by hearing Trump, in his own voice, confidentially tell Woodward of the COVID-19 dangers while publicly urging them towards their deaths. Surely, where their lives were at stake, some of them would have turned away from Trump’s public blather and followed the scientists’ advice.
Don’t get me wrong. Trump is the true villain here. I am very, very glad that Woodward has released his tapes of the phone conversations with Trump. I just wish that he had done it earlier or that his considerations of when to do so had been about us, rather than about furthering of his own interests.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.