Friday, May 01, 2009

An incon in his time!

"People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got." (November 18, 1973)

Good Day Readers:

If you've seen Bob Woodward interviewed he's indeed impressive. There's something about his low key, disarming, matter-of-fact approach which endears him to the powerful. One of our favorite authors - investigative journalism like it should be.

Clare L. Pieuk
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Chronicler of the truth
The Saturday Interview
Kevin Libin, National Post

Published: Friday, May 1, 2009

Bob Woodward has no trouble engaging a crowd of a certain age. He helped unearth one of the biggest scandals in U.S. history, aborting Richard Nixon's presidency; he has privileged access like no other reporter to the highest levels of world power; and he was lucky enough to have been played in All the President's Men, the story of his work in uncovering the Watergate scandal, by a leading hunk of Seventies cinema.

But speaking at Calgary's Teatro restaurant last week, the Washington Post veteran reporter had the crowd more than just interested and admiring. They were astounded. Astounded at the way he described the casualness with which he is able to access government sources, high level and low, as if it were only a matter of tenacity; at the vast patience granted to him by the world's most powerful men, the reporter having spent more than seven hours interviewing former president George W. Bush for his book on the decision behind launching the Iraq War; and astounded at the very possibility that a mere journalist could get his hands on volumes of top secret documents, internal memos, and minutes and notes from Washington's most sensitive briefings.

Mr. Woodward's methods, as he explained them, were not much beyond the basic, shoe-leather reporting work taught at every journalism school in North America. To hear him report that these methods actually worked at exposing the backstage of government was, to the ears of his audience, as if he were describing another culture entirely. In a way, he was.

"Your career in Canada would be inconceivable," Tom Flanagan, the Calgary political science professor and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff marvelled. "No prime minister in Canada would give you seven minutes, let alone seven hours. And the thought that you would get all these hundreds of interviews with underlings, and meetings, it just wouldn't happen. There's like light years of difference between Canada and the United States."

Mr. Woodward told me he was passingly aware of this.

"From the evidence I have," he said of Canada's reputation for poor transparency, "I think that's true." There is something in the U.S. culture that may not be here, some "national character trait," he suggests. Perhaps it is America's revolutionary history, or its reverence for liberty and rights instilled at the youngest ages. Maybe he had something to do with it: that Americans had caught their leaders in cover-ups before-"because of things like Vietnam and Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal, and Clinton"-and have learned better than to trust them.

Mr. Woodward, author of 15 bestsellers, is a reporter from the old school - he has been at the Post since 1971 - and he sticks, publicly at least, with a neutrality that feels quaint in today's world where many journalists tacitly or overtly take sides.

He is, to hear him describe it, a straightforward chronicler, dedicated, he says, to showing how the "sausage" of policy "is made," so voters can have "transparency in the process and hopefully ... debates about these things."

Surprisingly, for an investigative reporter, he comes off more credulous than suspicious: discussing President Barack Obama's promise to return moral authority and transparency to the White House, he says without any trace of distrust, "We'll see." If not, he says, "We're going to find out. And that's fine." He concedes that "Obama love" infests newsrooms across the United States, and he is no fan of it, but is convinced there are enough sober reporters to hold this presidency to account.

To the political operatives, lawyers, journalists and everyday news-consumers gathered to hear Mr. Woodward at the Salon Speakers Series, the idealistic belief that truth will, inevitably, come out, strikes as rather alien. Many here know well that in Canada, government functionaries and politicians are generally petrified to speak off-script, let alone share sensitive documents; trials are routinely hidden by publication bans; government information, on the rare occasion when it can be pried loose, often comes heavily redacted and nearly useless; journalists are compelled by courts to reveal sources; and reporters following government's trail have had their homes and offices raided by police.

"We have a judicial commission appointed to investigate things that Brian Mulroney did in the final years of his administration 15 years ago and we still don't know the truth, and we probably won't know the truth even after this commission is finished," Mr. Flanagan tells him. "I imagine in the United States, the truth would have been published at the time on the front page of the Washington Post."

More than $100-million in lawsuits were launched after inquiries into Mr. Mulroney's Airbus involvement, notes Harvey Cashore, a senior editor with CBC's The Fifth Estate, which investigated the story. Canada's libel laws are that much more powerful than those in the United States, where malice must be proven. "After that, even reporters who wanted to cover the story would have thought twice," Mr. Cashore says.

And for what risks news organizations here do take, the public is rarely appreciative, says William Kaplan a Toronto lawyer who has written two books about the Airbus matter. "We don't have an ingrained tradition of investigation of journalism that's celebrated," he says.

Nor is there anything here with the weight of Congressional hearings or crusading special prosecutors, he adds. In Canada, governments dictate parameters for the public inquiries that would investigate them, as former prime minister Paul Martin did for the Gomery hearings.

To Mr. Woodward, this picture is unsettling. In Washington, he admits, the White House, under former presidents Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush, became increasingly guarded, but never impenetrable. He mentions a meeting he attended with officials so powerful that "if you knew who they were and what they did you wouldn't believe me;" he insists this is something any U.S. reporter - not just celebrities like him - can do, with persistence.

"What I worry about is secret government. If a group of people can seize the government and control it in a secret way, then you're not going to have the rights that are inherent in our constitution and in yours," says the man who helped expose the criminal actions of a president.

"Democracies die in darkness."

From this stems his unshakable confidence that journalism, despite the grave troubles it faces today (even Washington Post Co. lost US$54-million in the last quarter,) must still thrive. "At age 66, I remain very bullish on the news and information business." He agrees with his former editor, Ben Bradlee, that while the media of delivery may evolve, "there will always be a group of people ... who gather information about what's going on and broadcast and publish what they believe the truth to be. I believe that to the bottom of my toes," he says. The press's role is "too important" to lose, and he is certain this is enough to guarantee its endurance.

National Post


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