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Murray Waas Is the Woodward of Now

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It should be obvious from the work who the Woodward of Now is. And if it isn't Greg Sargent can explain things to you over at the American Prospect.

The guy's name is Murray Waas; he's an independent journalist who recently went to work as a staff writer for the National Journal and the Atlantic Media Company, which owns the Atlantic Monthly, the Journal, and other titles. Waas has been in the game since he was 18, when he started working for the columnist Jack Anderson. He's also written for the Huffington Post.

By Woodward Now I mean the reporter who is actually doing what Woodward has a reputation for doing: finding, tracking, breaking into reportable parts--and then publishing--the biggest story in town. He's also putting those parts together for us.

The Biggest Story in Town (almost a term of art in political Washington) is the one that would cause the biggest earthquake if the facts sealed inside it started coming out now. Today the biggest story in town is what really went down as the Bush team drove deceptively to war, and later tried to conceal how bad the deception--and decision-making--had been.

We are still "in" that story today, as is the press, and so a lot rides on what comes out. (See my post, What if Bush Changed the Game on You?)

Not only is Woodward not in the hunt, but he is slowly turning into the hunted. Part of what remains to be uncovered is how Woodward was played by the Bush team, and what they thought they were doing by leaking to him, as well as what he did with the dubious information he got-- especially since, as the Washington Post reported on April 9, evidence leaked by Scooter Libby to Woodward on June 27, 2003 "had been disproved months before." (See Waas, February 24, 2006 at HP: Did the White House "Authorize" Leaks to Woodward?)

According to the account by David E. Sanger and David Barstow in the New York Times, same day: when Libby described the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate to Woodward, other senior officials in Bush's government were thinking about declassifying it through normal means, and did not know that Bush had done it himself so parts could be leaked. Cheney and Libby knew, and they went to Woodward before they went to others on their team-- like, say, the national security adviser. Why?

They went to Woodward to leak the portions of an intelligence estimate that tended to exonerate them. But the information they were sharing had gone bad. And yet they felt they could do that to Bob Woodward, give him bad information, the credibility of which had collapsed even within their own shop. Why?

You would think Woodward would be in a position to tell us. He was there, so to speak. But that's just the trouble, isn't it?

Plus... he's already on record predicting (on Fresh Air July 7, 2005) that when "all of the facts come out in this case, it's going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great."

Jim Romenesko front-paged David Broder's statement Friday when he was asked about ...it's going to be laughable: "Subsequent events do not appear to be supporting that forecast." That was in a Q & A between Broder and Post readers. Say, why doesn't Woodward start doing these things?

There's an official story about Woodward's journalism, which now incorporates his nonfiction books. It goes like this. When Bob Woodward, the greatest reporter of his generation and our time, gets on to a story, he dominates it. He gets people to talk who wouldn't before. (They know he'll be fair.) He gets the documents others don't. He remembers the details others miss. And so he gets the stories other reporters try to get but can't. You can't beat Woodward. His sourcing is too good, his instincts too sharp. And his track record over time shows that.

That's my version.

"No reporter has more talent for getting Washington's inside story and telling it cogently," wrote
Ted Widmer in a New York Times review of Woodward's Plan of Attack. That's his version. By "Washington's inside story" he means stuff you normally don't find out about until the Administration is over, unless some spectacularly successful reporter reveals it. And Plan of Attack (2004) had lots of that.

William Powers of the National Journal, who began his career as a researcher for Woodward, explained in a column last year why the man is peerless in a city teaming with aggressive and talented journalists. (See my post, about it.)

Imagine the agony of other hardworking Washington reporters. They'll toil away for years on a big beat -- the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, the White House, the CIA -- and feel they've done a bang-up job. After all, they broke some news, scored big interviews, revealed the "inner workings" of government. Then Woodward comes along, spends a year on the same subject, and launches the news equivalent of an atomic bomb: a week's worth of jaw-dropping headlines that obliterate everything the regulars have done.

And that has happened. It might happen again. Especially since Woodward has a book on Bush's second term due in 2006. A lot rides on it. For these days Woodward is the one being eclipsed by the determination, savvy, and multiple sourcing that Murray Waas has developed in and around the Fitzgerald investigation. Murray's throats tell him stuff; he goes away, puts it together with other things he knows, then scoops the rest of the press. And it's factual territory Woodward has been in before, to put it mildly.

Dan Froomkin reads all the coverage (it's his job) and wrote this on March 31:

Slowly but surely, investigative reporter Murray Waas has been putting together a compelling narrative about how President Bush and his top aides contrived their bogus case for war in Iraq; how they succeeded in keeping charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election; and how they continue to keep most of the press off the trail to this day.

And so the biggest story in town is partly a story about the ways of the Washington press. On March 31 Waas emerged from his workshop and added a critical piece ("Insulating Bush") to which other big pieces attach:

Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, cautioned other White House aides in the summer of 2003 that Bush's 2004 re-election prospects would be severely damaged if it was publicly disclosed that he had been personally warned that a key rationale for going to war had been challenged within the administration.

This story said that "Bush had been specifically advised that claims he later made in his 2003 State of the Union address -- that Iraq was procuring high-strength aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon -- might not be true." But then he went ahead anyway.

Froomkin says the rest of the Washington press corps should wake up to what Waas is uncovering. "Waas's fellow reporters at major news operations should either acknowledge and try to follow up his stories -- or debunk them. It's not okay to just leave them hanging out there. They're too important." (See also eriposte at the Left Coaster on Waas putting the pieces together.)

In an appreciation of his mentor, Jack Anderson, who died in December, Waas told us something about his own approach. "The public has pushed back against insider, access journalism-- whether practiced by Bob Woodward, Judith Miller, or Robert Novak," he wrote. "Anderson always understood it was his role to be an outsider, not just in regard to the politicians he covered, but also vis-a-vis the established order of journalism." And Waas is that outsider, as Woodward was 34 years ago when he began investigating a burglary at the Watergate.

It is worth noting too that the runners-up to Waas in the Woodward of Now competition would be the reporters at the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau, especially Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and Ron Hutcheson. Strobel and Hutcheson wrote last week about "a pattern of selective leaks of secret intelligence to further the administration's political agenda." Two points for recognizing that a pattern is news.

"Much of the information that the administration leaked or declassified, however, has proved to be incomplete, exaggerated, incorrect or fabricated," they added. Notice how they say this on their own authority, stating it as a fact because they know they've done the reporting that confirms it.

And to close the circle, in Waas's latest ("Libby Says Bush Authorized Leaks") there is a juicy part about Woodward. It tells how badly Bush wanted his people to talk to the greatest reporter of his generation:

Other former senior government officials said that Bush directed people to assist Woodward in the book's preparation: "There were people on the Seventh Floor [of the CIA] who were told by Tenet to cooperate because the President wanted it done. There were calls to people to by [White House communication director] Dan Bartlett that the President wanted it done, if you were not co-operating. And sometimes the President himself told people that they should co-operate," said one former government official.

Why, exactly? We don't know. But we're going to know from Murray Waas much sooner than from Woodward, who was there but somehow missed it.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. He writes PressThink, where this initially appeared.

This post is a continuation of Grokking Woodward. (Dec. 9, 2005).... ""Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk."

Want more Waas? Here, his articles for the American Prospect. Here, his body of work for National Journal. And here is his blog where he sometimes posts pieces. Plus: Amy Goodman interviews Murray Waas (April 7, 2006).

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