Questioning journalism’s heroes isn’t disrespectful — it’s just good reporting

What did Bob Woodward know, and when did he know it?

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That was the question two journalists had for Woodward late last month, when they asked why he waited to reveal that the President acknowledged the novel coronavirus was deadly as early as February. But rather than respond to Shira Stein, a health policy reporter from Bloomberg, or Karen Ho, a global finance and economics reporter from Quartz, Woodward dismissed the concerns of the two women reporters, demanded apologies from them both, and interrupted them to offer copies of his book.

“You don’t understand the circumstances…” Woodward told Stein, at the first-ever virtual Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference. “It’s just not fair, it’s not good journalism, to leap out of the box and say I was wrong.”

Why not? What about questioning a fellow journalist’s ethics, motivations, or approach is “not good journalism”? Even when, or especially when, that journalist happens to be Robert Upshur Woodward?

Woodward’s comments to both Stein and Ho were dismissive, patronizing and, at times, bordering on racism and misogyny. He suggested to Stein that if she had more experience, she would understand his viewpoint and apologize. He told Ho, a Chinese-Canadian journalist reporting on the coronavirus pandemic since January, that she was overstating the importance of the unreleased tapes. 

You people are getting all steamed up about something that is not an issue,” Woodward said, adding that in February, the coronavirus was “a China problem.”

Woodward’s comment about what constitutes good journalism, and his treatment of the two reporters, points to a larger issue: When we put journalism’s icons on a pedestal, like Woodward, we do the field a disservice. 

Like many young reporters, I read pieces like “Frank Sinatra has a Cold,” listened to stories about the “golden age of journalism,” and idolized duos like Woodward and Bernstein in school; that’s the canon of journalistic heroes that communications courses and internship editors held up for me. (Almost all of the journalists I was assigned to read in individual classes were white, and most were male.)

But even my role models now aren’t heroes beyond questioning. And I’ve found that mythologizing specific journalists, rather than looking at them as real people with real flaws, can be harmful for a number of reasons.

First, the canonization of American journalism’s heroes can flatten their actual work — framing it as a model of contemporary journalistic norms like objectivity or neutrality — even when journalists themselves have not always adhered to those values in the first place. Woodward himself has been criticized for burning sources (or, in the case of Brett Kavanaugh, refraining to burn sources in order to maintain a connection).

Second, pretending these journalists are beyond reproach can keep us from asking questions about them in critical, often necessary ways. Many individuals currently held up as exemplary by the (mostly-white) field of American journalism have rarely questioned the way they approach their work; some, like Woodward, defend objectivity and argue that reporters should be “as careful and as neutral as possible.” 

But even their valuation of neutrality betrays a privilege to seem distanced from a subject, an ability that isn’t afforded to all journalists equally — newsrooms today, often led by white men, have been critiqued for behavior that at best renders them out of touch when it comes to issues like racial violence or sexual assault, and at worst alienates their readers or impairs their coverage of key news events. These journalists’ preference for neutrality acts as a blind spot rather than a magnifying glass; upholding their legacies without questioning their values only undermines the field’s credibility.

And finally, that canon of heroes, alongside their preservation of journalistic norms like objectivity, often serves to erase a vibrant history of journalists who did not adhere to those norms and still found success. The detached, neutral perspective of “objectivity”, argue journalists like Lewis Raven Wallace and Wesley Lowery, has been used to exclude and discredit marginalized reporters’ work for generations. Black journalists who reported on the struggle for civil rights like Ida B. Wells, T. Thomas Fortune, and Marvel Cooke were never neutral on the subject, and did not claim to be; gay journalists like Andrew Kopkind reported stories that were shaped and strengthened by their own connection to queer issues and movements. Asking questions about these journalists’ legacies allows us to more comprehensively understand the perspectives from which they spoke and the ethics that informed their work — their reporting was critical in part because of the context they wrote from, not in spite of it.

The emphasis on writers like Woodward create a false narrative meant to inspire young reporters, but instead diminishes a rich field of work from other potential heroes that aren’t straight white cis men. And it further flattens and obscures barriers of race, class, and language that mean those young reporters’ access to the field will inevitably differ from those of their role models.

At IRE, Ho continued to pry at Woodward’s reporting methods, asking what influenced his decision not to release the quotes.  

“To be clear, you did not consult with people from the medical community, or specifically people in the international health community, regarding the possible release of this information?” Ho asked.

“You are not listening, you are not listening,” Woodward said. 

“It is my job to listen,” Ho responded. “…it is patronizing, and incredibly frustrating, to watch you continue to interrupt women and demand apologies for serious questions regarding an ethical concern that many reporters at this conference are seriously concerned with.”

Ho is correct. The pressing of her question, the clarification offered, and the measured response are all good practice. If your source doesn’t agree that a question is important, it’s still your job to ask — even if your source is a famous journalist. 

The issue is not that we have heroes, but that we conflate the quality of journalists’ work for the infallibility of their person. Holding power to account is only successful when we continue to question where power lies, when it shifts, how it moves.

We should question: What power do these journalists hold? With whose values does their work align? Where are their biases, and how do they affect ours? 

As Woodward himself might say, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Hannah Chinn is a contributor for the Objective. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Chelsea Cirruzzo.

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