Not Just the Facts, Ma’am

In a post yesterday on the continuing discussion of how and whether journalists are compensated, I observed there was more to political journalism than just ferreting out facts; interpretation, analysis, context–these are all just as and sometimes more important than the much-revered shoe-leather reporting skills (and for some of us with hourly deadlines, it’s all we can possibly do!).

In any event, there’s a good example today of a famously old-school reporter and how his meticulously documented facts sometimes did not lead to any real understanding of what he was reporting. The reporter in question is Bob Woodward, and Slate published a critique of his long-forgotten Belushi biography, Wired, by Tanner Colby, who worked with Belushi’s widow twenty years later to present a fairer picture of the late comic genius and thus spent lots of time essentially checking over Woodward’s version.

He provides multiple examples of how Woodward got his facts right, but distorted their meaning:

Wired is an infuriating piece of work. There’s a reason Woodward’s critics consistently come off as hysterical ninnies: He doesn’t make Jonah Lehrer-level mistakes. There’s never a smoking gun like an outright falsehood or a brazen ethical breach. And yet, in the final product, a lot of what Woodward writes comes off as being not quite right—some of it to the point where it can feel quite wrong. There’s no question that he frequently ferrets out information that other reporters don’t. But getting the scoop is only part of the equation. Once you have the facts, you have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It’s here that Woodward fails.

Over and over during the course of my reporting I’d hear a story that conflicted with Woodward’s account in Wired. I’d say, “Aha! I’ve got him!” I’d run back to Woodward’s index, look up the offending passage, and realize that, well, no, he’d put down the mechanics of the story more or less as they’d happened. But he’d so mangled the meaning and the context that his version had nothing to do with what I concluded had actually transpired.

Sounds about right. As I happens, I read Wired many years ago, and the impression I immediately had was that Woodward doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, which is a serious handicap in trying to explain the life and death of a comedian.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.