Back in February, there were plenty of questions about just how deadly the coronavirus was, and how it could be transmitted. Was it really all that lethal? Could you catch it through the air? Some experts said it probably wasn’t airborne. Few seemed to have definitive answers. But the nation’s most famous celebrity journalist knew — and knew the president did too — but decided not to tell anyone, and nearly 200,000 Americans have died since.
This is the story of Bob Woodward — the man who earned fame and fortune uncovering the Watergate scandal, and now the man who decades later was informed by the president of the United States that a pandemic was deadly and airborne, and decided to hold that information for seven months so he could juice book sales at a more opportune time closer to the election.
“It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch,” Trump told Woodward in early February, months before scientists publicly pressed the World Health Organization to acknowledge the airborne nature of the disease. “You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so, that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your — you know, your, even your strenuous flus.”
Trump openly admitted to Woodward that he wanted to downplay the severity of the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told him in March. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
It is important to remember two things: 1) the first set of comments came in FEBRUARY, well before there was widespread public awareness of the lethality of the virus, and 2) as much of a buffoon as he is, Trump is not some rando just speculating. He is quite literally the president, with access to the world’s top scientists. So he was divulging crucial, newsworthy, and time-sensitive information. Clearly, he knew more about the lethality and transmission of the virus than he was publicly letting on, and yet he was still downplaying the severity of the disease and insinuating that it is like the common flu.
That’s a horrific crime against humanity — but it was aided and abetted by the popular face of investigative journalism: Mr. All the President’s Men himself.
Crimes like this often happen in secret. They take years to suss out – and in many instances, their details never see the light of day. Journalists’ job is, in part, to try to prevent disasters from happening and to protect the public interest – indeed, the motto of the Washington Post is literally a warning that “democracy dies in darkness.” In other words, our job is to try to expose such crimes as they are taking place, in order to both deter them and to make the public aware of imminent danger.
Woodward did the opposite. He was informed of the crime taking place. And yet rather than immediately using his platform — possibly the biggest media platform in the entire world — to sound an alarm, Woodward instead followed a code of omerta that aided and abetted the wrongdoing.
Let’s be clear: Stories take time to authenticate and fact check. But Woodward didn’t hold the story for months in order to fact check it. He wasn’t using the time to report it out. He had the damn audiotape of the president of the United States, which is newsworthy unto itself.
Yet, he concealed that tape as the perpetrator kept telling people to go about their business, kept trying to reopen the economy, and kept endangering millions of lives. And now that the information is out, we have to watch the grotesque spectacle of the Washington Post reporting on it as a standard matter-of-fact news story only about Trump — rather than also as a monumental scandal at their own newspaper, which apparently allowed their own associate editor to conceal information of national import for months.
This is one of the biggest scandals in the modern history of journalism. It calls into question the most basic code of reporting — the question about whom the reporter serves.
Yes, reporters serve their news organizations and their bosses. But this is about something deeper. Is journalism supposed to serve the public interest? Or should it only serve a journalist’s own personal economic interests?
Woodward used his enormous celebrity power and access to choose the latter, which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Woodward regularly does paid speaking gigs with corporate lobbying group interests.
But in this instance, the choice of personal gain over the public interest is followed by nearly 200,000 casualties.
Those deaths aren’t all his fault. However, history should never forget that America’s most famous journalist had a rare chance to sound an alarm about the pandemic the country was facing and instead chose to stay silent so he could preserve his access to the White House and sell a few more books to a nation locked down in quarantine.
That is peak 2020. It is a greed-is-good, screw-everyone-else attitude to the extreme. It is a crime against humanity.