I wonder what the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward thinks about this article in today’s Washington Post-owned Slate, which attempts to trash — key word being “attempt” — one of Woodwards’s few non-political* books, Wired, his look at the drug-fueled death of John Belushi, which had occurred in 1982.
Two years after Belushi died, as a favor to Belushi’s widow, and no doubt knowing it was a great story about a very public figure, Woodward produced a reporter’s look into the superstar comedian’s self-destruction. Woodward explored how a gifted, intuitive performer who had possibly the most intense charisma — it just poured into the camera lens, magically — of anyone who came out of the SNL/Lampoon/late night comedy circuit of the 1970s would implode so spectacularly after leaving SNL to concentrate on movies.
In order to cast aspersions on Woodward’s anti-Obama reporting — and isn’t this rich, a “liberal” journalist angry at another liberal journalist because he’s (at least as of now) anti-establishment — Slate gives space for author Tanner Colby, who has written his own biography of Belushi, along with a book focusing on his later SNL doppelganger Chris Farley, to pick apart Woodward’s reporting on some of the quotidian details of Belushi shooting his scenes.
Such as Animal House:
First off, Woodward wrongly calls the cafeteria scene a rehearsal, when half the point of the story is that Belushi pulled it off without ever rehearsing it once. Also, there’s actually nothing in the anecdote to indicate laziness or lack of discipline on Belushi’s part, yet Woodward chooses to establish the scene using those words. The implication is that Belushi was so unfocused and unprepared that he couldn’t make it through the scene without the director beside him telling him what to do, which is not what took place. When I interviewed him, Landis disputed that he ever referred to Belushi as lazy or undisciplined. “The greatest crime of that book,” Landis says of Wired, “is that if you read it and you’d just assume that John was a pig and an asshole, and he was anything but. He could be abrupt and unpleasant, but most of the time he was totally charming and people adored him.”
The wrongness in Woodward’s reporting is always ever so subtle. SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue—who died before I started the book but who videotaped an interview with Judy years before—told this story about how Belushi loved to mess with him:
I am very anal-retentive, and John used to come over and just move things around, just move things a couple of inches, drop a paper on the floor, miss an ashtray a little bit until finally he could see me just tensing up. That was his idea of a fine joke. Another joke he used to do was to sit on me.
When put through the Woodward filter, this becomes:
A compulsively neat person, O’Donoghue was always picking up and straightening his office. Frequently, John came in and destroyed the order in a minute, shifting papers, furniture or pencils or dropping cigarette ashes.
Again, Woodward’s account is not wrong. It’s just … wrong.
So Woodward isn’t wrong, but he’s wrong. He’s accurate but fake, apparently. Not to be confused with “fake but accurate,” which eight and a half years ago was a perfectly acceptable journalistic defense by the New York Times. Or as the Washington Post wrote a year ago in their defense of Mike Daisey, after the monologist had been caught by NPR lying about Apple’s factories in China, “The main point he drives home is that he felt it was necessary to embellish his story in order to retain the ‘truth’ of the message of his show. He lied to tell the truth, basically.”
But apparently Woodward telling the truth is lie. I think I need new scorecards.
Fortunately, they’re available in the lobby; the Wikipedia page for Woodward’s book has already been updated with passages such as these:
In 2013 Tanner Colby, who had coauthored the 2005 Belushi: A Biography with Judy, wrote about how the book exposes Woodward’s strengths and weaknesses as a journalist. While in the process of researching the anecdotes related in the book, he found that while many of them were true, Woodward missed, or didn’t try to find, their context.
The late Michael Crichton coined a phrase he called “the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect,” named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
Which, ultimately, is what Colby’s article boils down to. In other words, if Woodward didn’t produce a satisfactory write-up of the day they shot Belushi’s Animal House cafeteria scene, or didn’t provide an appropriately sympathetic portrait of Belushi as his life spiraled out of control, we shouldn’t trust his reporting on anything else. Or at least in articles that says bad things about The Anointed One. Gotcha.
(And again, if the Washington Post wants to use its bandwidth to tell us that reporters from the Post botch their reporting, carry on. I’m sure Newsbusters and the Media Research Center will appreciate the paper making their jobs that much easier.)
Near the beginning of his article, Colby writes:
When Wired came out, many of Belushi’s friends and family denounced it as biased and riddled with factual errors. “Exploitative, pulp trash,” in the words of Dan Aykroyd. Wired was so wrong, Belushi’s manager said, it made you think Nixon might be innocent. Woodward insisted the book was balanced and accurate. “I reported this story thoroughly,” he told Rolling Stone. Of the book’s critics, he said, “I think they wish I had created a portrait of someone who was larger than life, larger than he was, and that, somehow, this portrait would all come out different. But that’s a fantasy, not journalism.” Woodward being Woodward, he was given the benefit of the doubt. Belushi’s reputation never recovered.
Gee, I’ll bet many of Nixon’s associates felt the same way after their reputations were torn apart by The Final Days and especially after All the President’s Men and its movie version, starring as Woodward none other than Robert Redford at the peak of his matinee idol career. (And to repeat my request from the PJ Lifestyle blog, for a tiny amount of counter-balance, can we please finally see Victor Lasky’s It Didn’t Start With Watergate in Kindle form?) But if the Washington Post and its spin-off publications want to continue to destroy their single best-known journalist’s reputation, as another comedian who also did his own tour of duty on SNL famously said…
No wonder, John Podhoretz looked at Colby’s article and tweeted:
This piece is an absurd embarrassment, and I say that as someone who is not a Woodward fan. slate.com/articles/arts/…
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) March 12, 2013
Actually, Podhoretz’s whole Twitter stream on the above article, which is where I originally found it, is also worth a read.
* Since the left views the personal as being the same as the political (see also, Colby’s hit piece above), from their perspective, what has Woodward written that isn’t a political tome?