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March 12, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

In which a Slate writer decides to fact-check Bob Woodward and discovers how he manages to be wrong without being wrong: The troubling things I learned when I re-reported Bob Woodward’s book on John Belushi.
posted by no regrets, coyote (55 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:55 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do not understand why the guy who wrote Maestro and Bush at War has his judgements taken seriously.
posted by shothotbot at 2:02 PM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I remember when I respected Bob Woodward. That changed after "Bush at War".
posted by surplus at 2:04 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Whenever people ask me about John Belushi and the subject of Wired comes up, I say it’s like someone wrote a biography of Michael Jordan in which all the stats and scores are correct, but you come away with the impression that Michael Jordan wasn’t very good at playing basketball.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 2:07 PM on March 12, 2013 [27 favorites]


I do not understand why the guy who wrote Maestro and Bush at War has his judgements taken seriously.

But the thing is, you might think Woodward's problem was just politics, either partisan personal or pandering to fit the moment as he sees it. But, if Belushi gets the same treatment it indicates the problem is rather deeper than politics. Woodward is a creature of Karl Rove's world, where there is a divide between the "reality based community" and the people who make reality. Woodward wants to be one of the people who make reality.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:15 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Belushi’s drug use is surely a key part of his life—drugs are what ended it, after all—but shouldn’t a writer also be interested in what led his subject to this substance abuse in the first place? If you want to know why someone was a cocaine addict for the last six years of his life, the answer is probably hiding somewhere in the first 27 years. But Woodward chooses to largely ignore that period, and in doing so he again misses the point. In terms of illuminating its subject, Wired is about as useful as a biography of Buddy Holly that only covers time he spent on airplanes.

Damn, that is a sweet burn.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:19 PM on March 12, 2013 [59 favorites]


From Woodward and Bernstein Uncovered, "Surprising glimpses into the very different lives of the two men who broke the Watergate story and brought down a president"
Tim Robinson, former Post editor:
Bob was not a good writer. Others have said English is a second language to Bob. Carl was the writer; Bob did the digging.
That seems to be the essence of Tanner Colby's findings, too. Well, not the part about Carl Bernstein being the writer.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:20 PM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Woodward wants to be one of the people who make reality.

That doesn't seem to be quite the thesis of this piece. It's more "Woodward is just amazingly bad at understanding what people are telling him." It's not like trashing Belushi fit into some larger worldview that Woodward was trying to push.

It's a good piece, I think. It makes a strong case for the tendentiousness of Woodward's book while acknowledging the inevitable problems of rereporting a book a long time after it came out.
posted by yoink at 2:21 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've never read Wired, but I have read most of Woodward's other books. From the Slate piece it sounds as if Wired is largely an anti-drug rant couched as a biography of a comedian. Context is important and this book was published during the rise of the "Just Say No" campaign and the "crack epidemic" reporting that was permeating the American collective consciousness at the time.

I wish I could say I was shocked that a journalist representing the establishment press just played right into that propaganda, but I'm not.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:22 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


The movie version of Wired is an amazing trainwreck that needs to be seen to be believed, though Nathan Rabin's review is a good substitute. It has an amazing pinball table, and Woodward interacting with Belushi's ghost. I sorta remember Woodward as the villain of the movie, actually.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:23 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Tempting as it may be to ascribe some sinister motive to Woodward‘s apparent disconnect with reality, could it be that the man is just, well, stupid? That‘s the pattern I see, anyway; note that he doesn‘t alter data to fit his worldview, just... misinterprets it, the way stupid people sometimes do.
posted by Jughead at 2:25 PM on March 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


Whenever I see him I think his face is what you would get if you took "shit-eating grin" and subtracted out the "grin".
posted by benito.strauss at 2:27 PM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've never read Wired, but I have read most of Woodward's other books. From the Slate piece it sounds as if Wired is largely an anti-drug rant couched as a biography of a comedian. Context is important and this book was published during the rise of the "Just Say No" campaign and the "crack epidemic" reporting that was permeating the American collective consciousness at the time.

I wish I could say I was shocked that a journalist representing the establishment press just played right into that propaganda, but I'm not.


Yeah, there's a part of me that thinks "guy who isn't as bright as people might have thought gets played by the propaganda" and another part that thinks "guy who is clever like a fox realizes that by doing so he'll continue to get the access that allows him to continue to live the journalistic superstar lifestyle to which he has become accustomed."

Not sure which I actually believe -- probably an unpleasant combination of both.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:28 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


But, Nooooo.....
posted by jonmc at 2:31 PM on March 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


That was really interesting. He could dig up all the facts, he just didn't know what they meant or how they all fit into the bigger picture or know which facts were more important than which. Glad I never read the book. But I may have to go back and re-read "All the President's Men" with fresh eyes.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 2:34 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


That doesn't seem to be quite the thesis of this piece. It's more "Woodward is just amazingly bad at understanding what people are telling him." It's not like trashing Belushi fit into some larger worldview that Woodward was trying to push.

Well, what can you say? I don't know why the writer here decided to spin this as Woodward is somewhere on the Autism spectrum wrt human relations. He's pulling his punches. I don't think Woodward is incapable of understanding human beings. I just don't think Belushi, as a human being, was all that important to him. He had a audience he was trying to sell a bunch of anecdata to. A melange of received opinion about Hollywood, Just Say No, and the War on Drugs that he was repackaging and selling.

Tempting as it may be to ascribe some sinister motive to Woodward‘s apparent disconnect with reality, could it be that the man is just, well, stupid?

stupid or evil? the perennial question of the age...
posted by ennui.bz at 2:35 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.
posted by empath at 2:40 PM on March 12, 2013 [78 favorites]


I suppose there‘s an argument to be made that he made a decision to focus on Belushi‘s drug use as the hook, to sell units to a scandal-hungry public...

How ‘bout stupidly evil?
posted by Jughead at 2:41 PM on March 12, 2013


Decades ago, newspaper reporting and writing often were two separate jobs. You may recall the cliche where the reporter runs to the phone and yells, "Get me rewrite!" The reporter fed the facts to the rewrite man (it was most assuredly a man) and between the two of them they crafted a story. I wish it still worked that way. Digging out facts and presenting the story are two different skills. Not everyone has them in equal measure.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:43 PM on March 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


My favorite Bush-era Woodward story is his defense of Bush's deceptive "no war plans on my desk" comment:
Bush responded to a question by saying, "I have no war plans on my desk." But Woodward's book suggests otherwise: In November 2001, Bush apparently ordered Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to have General Tommy Franks begin devising war plans, and, five weeks later, Franks briefed the president on the military's initial strategy for attacking Iraq. How can Bush square these conflicting narratives? Perhaps he was speaking literally. According to Woodward, "That desk, I've been there. … [There's] never anything on it. And he keeps a clean desk."
The story doesn't show any stupidity or malice, just a nice illustration of what happens when the job of a reporter is reduced to little more than writing down what other people say.
posted by compartment at 2:50 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't think the "it was the era of Just Say No, therefore Woodward chose to turn the book into a hatchet job" thing adds up. There would have been lots of ways to turn the book into a "Just Say No" preach-a-thon without slagging off Belushi. "OMG, look what the demon drugs did to this beloved comic" for example. If anything, making Belushi a shmuck rather diminished the significance of the drugs; why should we care all that much about the drug-ridden downfall of someone we're not supposed to find remotely engaging?

I think it's more "he found an angle and he was going to work it no matter where the data seemed to lead."
posted by yoink at 2:53 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


MR. WOODWARD . . . ZERO. POINT. ZERO.
posted by Falconetti at 2:56 PM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


"I need to know how to describe your relationship with Gallagher."

"Just... say we were involved."

"That's true, isn't it?"

"No. But it's accurate."
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:59 PM on March 12, 2013


The Hitchens article linked in that Slate piece is damning.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:14 PM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


*bob woodward pulls out katana sword, points it at his belly with a look of exasperated disbelief*
posted by pyramid termite at 3:16 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just happened to finally read Wired a couple weeks ago. It wouldn't be overstating things to say that I'd been looking forward to reading it for years. I mean, it's Belushi, first of all. Insane comedy talent, insane inner demons, etc. Then it's the early days of SNL. And it's partying in the 70s with DeNiro, Robin Williams, the Blues Bar. Plus it was juicy enough to get Jimmy Belushi quoted as saying, "Fuck you, Bob! Kiss my fucking ass!" or something similar in Shales' SNL book. I had been looking forward to Wired like an immense ice cream sundae.

So I put that piece of shit down about halfway through, after skipping forward to skim through the death bit. It was unbelievably monotonous and dull. It was simply a tabulation of drug-taking events with absolutely no sense of story or buildup or arc or interpretation. How many times can you recount, "John ran down the street. He ducked in a bar and did some cocaine. John's handler tried to stop him. John's handler shook his head. Boy, John was in bad shape." I swear, it went on like this for hundreds of pages. Fuck you, Bob.
posted by Mapes at 3:42 PM on March 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


I learned to distrust Bob Woodward from meeting Michael Dare in the 1980s. He took one of his "altered Polaroids" of me and my then-not-yet-ex-wife. We worked on the same radio project at different times and compared notes (his were much more interesting). Dare is one of the people I WISH I could list in my 'brushes with fame', but in his case, I'd have to spend too much time explaining that his fame - or infamy - was based on Bob Woodward's crappy excuse for investigative reporting.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:55 PM on March 12, 2013 [19 favorites]


I actually liked Continental Divide (granted, I was a teenager). It's sad if the failure of that movie is what sent him on his final downward spiral.

I started disliking Woodward after Wired. He's still riding the credibility of Watergate though he really hasn't done much since to bolster it.
posted by Red Loop at 4:01 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I may have to go back and re-read "All the President's Men" with fresh eyes.

Two aspects of AtPM should be noted: he worked with another journalist (Carl Bernstein) on the project, and they were essentially writing about themselves. Combined, these aspects minimize the "Woodward context" problem.
posted by 1367 at 4:02 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Charlemagne In Sweatpants: "The movie version of Wired is an amazing trainwreck that needs to be seen to be believed..."
In a New York Times piece on the film's troubled distribution, Feldman complained, "We didn't get the usual kind of answers you get when you're showing people a $13 million dollar picture. The majors turned it down even though we were going to pay the prints and advertising costs. They wouldn't turn down your wedding pictures if you pay for the prints and advertising." That may be true, but it doesn't take into account that the average wedding picture has more artistic value than Wired. Unless, of course, your wedding pictures also open with John Belushi's bloated corpse belching, then fleeing his body bag so he can embark on wacky posthumous misadventures with a wisecracking Puerto Rican guardian angel cab-driver.
Dear, God. I've never heard of this movie but I absolutely need to see it now.
posted by brundlefly at 4:06 PM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I own Continental Divide on DVD. I loved that movie when I was a kid.
posted by thelonius at 4:11 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


John Belushi was a comic genius, and while he certainly was no choirboy, deserved better than Wired.
posted by jonmc at 4:22 PM on March 12, 2013


Al Franken tells a story in one of his books about being interviewed for Wired; Woodward's first question was "Did you ever see John doing cocaine," to which Franken replied "Only once, with Carl Bernstein." Woodward ended the interview and didn't bug Franken again.
posted by the_bone at 4:22 PM on March 12, 2013 [45 favorites]


Dear, God. I've never heard of this movie but I absolutely need to see it now.

And written by the screenwriter of Buckaroo Bonzai.
posted by empath at 4:56 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wish I could say I was shocked that a journalist representing the establishment press just played right into that propaganda, but I'm not.

Eh, this is just as much speculation as anything else, but that doesn't ring true to me. My own theory is that Woodward is Neidermeyer, to cite Animal House. Turned 20 in 1963, spent the 60s holed up at a desk in the basement of the Pentagon as a junior Naval intelligence officer. You know that Robin Williams quote about if you remember the 60s, you weren't there? I bet Bob Woodward remembers the 60s. Complete straight-arrow small town guy, conscientious, a believer in Mom and apple pie. Everybody thinks of him as a counter-culture guy because he helped bring down Nixon; I'd bet he's more like a g-man or Clark Kent.

So the reason he focuses on the mountains of blow is because he can't fathom it; the reason he tells the story about Belushi messing up the desk that way is because he's the type of guy who would be completely horrified to find someone'd been ever-so-slightly messing with his desk to rile him up, who'd have no sense of humor about it at all. He's the type of guy who'd blush to tell a blue joke in front of a lady, and so sees Belushi raving about dick names in front of the actress he's going to do a love scene with as completely boorish and uncouth. A complete Neidermeyer. The 70s didn't happen to everybody.

In a way that makes me trust his writing about DC a little more; DC is filled with prigs and stick-up-their-asses and straight arrows. I bet he understands those people better than the SNL crew.
posted by Diablevert at 5:06 PM on March 12, 2013 [20 favorites]


oneswellfoop: "I learned to distrust Bob Woodward from meeting Michael Dare in the 1980s. "

Holy shit, that is worth an FPP on its own.
posted by notsnot at 5:27 PM on March 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


The thing that seems to be missing here is a little context. I don't like Woodward, but I also think that considering he was interviewing people fresh off of Belushi's death from an overdose, in some cases days after the death, I can see why he might have been a bit obsessive over drug use thing. Thirty years later is bound to offer a different perspective than 80s America had an attention span for. We wanted Jim to be a junkie then, it's how we dealt with the loss. Now we prefer the saint.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:22 PM on March 12, 2013


That's an amazing article.

Basically, if the LAPD hadn't gotten piggy for the big bust instead of just arresting him alone, John Belushi might still be alive today

I'be heard variations of this in other sources. Is it generally accepted to be true?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:24 PM on March 12, 2013


The Dare piece is great.
posted by maryr at 6:27 PM on March 12, 2013


Woodward is a creature of Karl Rove's world, where there is a divide between the "reality based community" and the people who make reality. Woodward wants to be one of the people who make reality.

I don't think Woodward does what he does out of some Nietzschean desire to make his own reality (as Rove might), but because of journalistic conventions. Chuck Klosterman put it best. A non-fiction news story can lie in two ways, either as "facts plus bullshit" or "facts minus truth." Woodward is more of a "facts minus truth" guy. He's not indifferent to the truth the way a bullshitter would be, but he constantly reports things in such a way as to misunderstand them even though he rarely gets something totally technically wrong. It's as if Woodward believes that inferring the correct context from reported journalistic facts is somehow a betrayal of journalistic objectivity. I see Woodward more as a self-deluded useful idiot of the Washington establishment than doing this out of craven calculation.
posted by jonp72 at 6:58 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Now we prefer the saint.

Actually I'd prefer the human being, who probably did some good and some bad.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:09 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not like trashing Belushi fit into some larger worldview that Woodward was trying to push.

Huh. I came away from the piece with exactly that perspective on what Woodward was trying to do: trash Belushi's reputation thoroughly. After enough folks have mentioned something like, "he had taken the facts that I told him, and put an attitude to them that was not remotely right," it seems just as likely to me that Woodward had a reputation-trashing axe to grind as that he was merely colossally and repeatedly tone-deaf. Not sure how to choose between them, actually. Why are you?
posted by mediareport at 7:26 PM on March 12, 2013


Woodward, after viewing All The President's Men, finding himself incapable of pursuing facts past their face value, concluded that he was, in fact, Robert Redford.
posted by sendai sleep master at 7:42 PM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


This article highlights for me what John Cassidy said the New Yorker:
The real rap on Woodward isn’t that he makes things up. It’s that he takes what powerful people tell him at face value; that his accounts are shaped by who coöperates with him and who doesn’t; and that they lack context, critical awareness, and, ultimately, historic meaning.
Woodward's main skill is, and always has been, access to information. The recent kerfuffle with the Obama administration over the sequester has really highlighted his flaws. I want to say it's regrettable that he's become somewhat tarnished toward the end of his career, but I think it's ultimately a good thing that people are realizing that he doesn't have a good understanding about what he writes.
posted by mokin at 7:53 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


"I need to know how to describe your relationship with Gallagher."

"Just... say we were involved."

"That's true, isn't it?"

"No. But it's accurate."
*smashes watermelon*

Al Franken:
“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.”


To be fair, like 3/4 of Demons (The Possessed) is about puking though. Stavrogin pukes. Shatov pukes. The whole group of five. It's rather a nasty book.

I saw the film "Wired" a bit back. Much nastier. I mean you have to have some charisma and talent to be that successful and famous and all that seems to have been, y'know, overlooked.

Is it possible Woodward is just lazy? He doesn't like editing? He gets some story and just has to shove it in regardless of meaning?
I dunno. Weird.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:08 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm still stuck on that Michael Dare piece that onefellswoop linked above. Thank you for sharing that.

"Unfortunately, the prevailing message of Wired, the book and the film, was simple, do drugs - die. This may be a popular thing to say but it is a lie. Everybody who does drugs does not automatically die. Some people do drugs and then get on with their lives, like I did. If everybody who did drugs died a horrible death like John Belushi, illegal drugs would be a very small industry. What is the growth potential of a consumer item that guarantees certain death? Obviously SOMEBODY is doing drugs and living or the enormous drug trade would have no repeat customers."
posted by gingerbeer at 10:42 PM on March 12, 2013


I suspect some of the issue is just that Woodward came to the conclusion that Belushi was an asshole, and wrote a book that highlighted his assholeness. There winds up being a Rashomon quality, where the same story is told from several perspectives, and the story is substantially different based on the perspective of the teller.

I think there is a case to be made that Belushi was an asshole. Jane Curtain certainly saw him as being a misogynist who deliberately undermined the contributions of female writers. And while Woodward may have misrepresented Belushi as being a sloppy performer on Animal House, the recent oral history of Blues Brothers showed a performer who was wildly out of control, could not be counted on to show up onset, and caused massive cost overruns on the film. He used so many drugs on SNL that one night a physician reportedly gave him 50/50 odds of dying onset (the Kate Jackson episode) from his lungs filling with fluid (the quality of his performances during that season were consistently quite poor.)

That being said, if a journalist comes to a conclusion about somebody, and presents that person based on that conclusion, it's nice to be clear about it, rather than suggesting that, journalistically, he's just presenting facts. Given those same facts, we might draw very different conclusions about Belushi, or some of the same but find him more complex and contradictory a person that Woodward presented him as being. There's an extent to which it is better to present somebody without interpretation, and let the audience make up their own mind, and it sounds as though Woodward failed definitively at this.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:06 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'be heard variations of this in other sources. Is it generally accepted to be true?

Well, the LAPD may have been rumored to use such tactics in the past. But that's off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.
posted by dhartung at 2:22 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That this crude personalization works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation, is, for the people who find it useful to talk to Mr. Woodward, its point. What they have in Mr. Woodward is a widely trusted reporter, even an American icon, who can be relied upon to present a Washington in which problematic or questionable matters will be definitively resolved by the discovery, or by the demonstration that there has been no discovery, of “the smoking gun,” “the evidence.” Should such narrowly-defined “evidence” be found, he can then be relied upon to demonstrate, “fairly,” that the only fingerprints on the smoking gun are those of the one bad apple in the barrel, the single rogue agent in the tapestry of decent intentions.
Joan Didion, the deferential spirit.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:02 AM on March 13, 2013


Huh. I came away from the piece with exactly that perspective on what Woodward was trying to do: trash Belushi's reputation thoroughly. After enough folks have mentioned something like, "he had taken the facts that I told him, and put an attitude to them that was not remotely right," it seems just as likely to me that Woodward had a reputation-trashing axe to grind as that he was merely colossally and repeatedly tone-deaf. Not sure how to choose between them, actually. Why are you?

You misread what I wrote. I didn't say that he wasn't hell-bent on trashing Belushi, I said that he wasn't doing so in the sevice of promulgating some larger ideological story (or, at least, that the larger ideological story--drugs are bad, mmmkay--would have been better served by a more sympathetic portrait of Belushi, and that it therefore is not sufficient to account for Woodward's decision to trash him.)
posted by yoink at 7:26 AM on March 13, 2013


Another possible bias is the one that's driven journalism from the start and usually trumps any other ideological bend: commercialism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:31 AM on March 13, 2013


John ran down the street. He ducked in a bar and did some cocaine. John's handler tried to stop him. John's handler shook his head. Boy, John was in bad shape

NO, JOHN BELUSHI, YOU ARE THE DEMONS
posted by Greg Nog at 8:53 AM on March 13, 2013


Regarding Woodward's Bush books-- I thought Bush at War and Plan of Attack were both essentially throwaways to get him access so he could write State of Denial? Is that not how those books are seen?
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:43 PM on March 13, 2013


The recent kerfuffle with the Obama administration over the sequester has really highlighted his flaws.

Obama Teases Reporters Bob Woodward, Ed Henry At Gridiron Club Dinner
posted by homunculus at 5:35 PM on March 13, 2013


History Comes To Call
posted by homunculus at 2:25 PM on March 15, 2013


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