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Bob Woodward and the Perils of Anonymous Sources

by Donald Ritchie

Bob Woodward‘s title at the Washington Post is assistant managing editor, although he has been out of the paper’s management for over two decades. Deborah Howell, the Post’s ombudsman, recently described Woodward as coming and going as he pleases, reporting only to the paper’s executive editor, and keeping the “juicy stories” to himself until ready to publish them as promotion for his latest book. She attributed his special status to his mastery of anonymous sources.

Woodward and those anonymous sources have provided the Washington Post with its greatest success and worst embarrassment. Early in the Nixon administration, Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Post at the time, denounced the use of “deep backgrounders” by White House officials as a conspiracy to restrain public truth. Bradlee demanded that his reporters seek specific attribution -a policy that Bradlee promptly abandoned once Deep Throat began channeling Watergate information to Woodward. A few years later editorial page editor Meg Greenfield publicly complained that reporters were allowing their sources to evade responsibility by promising them anonymity. As a result, she wrote, the Post too often published “the cooked-up part, the image that the politician, with our connivance, hopes to convey and generally does.”

In the afterglow of Watergate, Washington journalists’ ever-growing reliance on anonymous sources left both reporters and editors vulnerable to manipulation. As editor of the Post’s Metro section, Bob Woodward failed to challenge a promising young reporter who submitted a sensational article on an eight-year-old drug addict, based entirely on anonymous sources. After Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World” in 1981, an internal investigation exposed the story as fictitious. The Cooke incident derailed Woodward’s rise within the Post’s management and resulted in his nebulous position as assistant managing editor.

Donald A. Ritchie is the author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps.

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