Bob Woodward's new book, "The Commanders" (Simon & Schuster) came out the other day, at about the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court was polishing its opinion in Masson vs. New Yorker magazine. It's a good time to talk shop.
Woodward's book may remind many old-timers of a radio comedy that enjoyed modest popularity 40 or 50 years ago. The skits revolved around Baron Munchausen, teller of tall tales. When his straight man expressed total incredulity, the baron had the same crushing riposte: "Vass you dere, Chollie?"That is the problem here. Woodward's book is an exercise in "trust me" journalism. It purports to be the behind-the-scenes story of how President Bush and his military leaders came to their decisions in Panama, the Philippines and Iraq.
Let the author explain his technique: "Direct quotations from meetings or conversations come from at least one participant who specifically recalled or took notes on what was said. Quotation marks are not used when the sources were unsure about the exact wording."
It is thus fair to infer that when Woodward does use quotation marks, we are in fact getting the exact wording. He sought "to re-create as closely as possible the way the discussion flowed." The author says that his book "falls somewhere between newspaper journalism and history."
Is that where this book falls? Beats me. None of us can check his secondary sources. We don't know who they are.
For example, Woodward "re-creates" a talk between Gen. Colin Powell and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador, on Aug. 3 of last year. Powell says the United States is prepared to send a rather large force.
"`How many are you talking about?' Bandar asked.
"Powell said 100,000 to 200,000.
"Bandar let his breath out audibly. `Well, at least this shows you're serious.' "
Was this EXACTLY what was said? At one historic point, "Bandar felt his hair stand up." Really? How high did Bandar's hair stand up? Vass you dere, Bobby? Woodward taped some of his interviews. In some instances he had verbatim transcripts of press briefings. Readers may accept these as reliable. But the gasps of Prince Bandar, the sacrilegious profanity of a congressman and the private thoughts of Gen. Welch - who knows?
This kind of trust-me journalism lies at the heart of the libel suit brought by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson against The New Yorker. In a two-part article about Masson's difficulties as projects director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, reporter Janet Malcolm attributed certain statements to him in direct quotation marks. Masson felt he had been defamed.
"I was like an intellectual gigolo," she quoted him as saying. It appears from the evidence that Masson very probably had said something like that. But had he said EXACTLY those words? Apparently not. Does it matter? The high court heard argument in the case in January. An opinion could come down any day.
Speaking for myself (and for many other newspaper people also), I say it matters greatly. It is all very well to tidy up a subject's syntax and to eliminate the ahs, ers and you-knows, but direct quotation marks are a reporter's iron-clad, honor-bound guarantee that something was actually said. "The Commanders" is fascinating reading. Let it go at that.