Why Woodward had to rely on confidential sources for 'Fear'

A version of this article first appeared in the Reliable Sources newsletter. ...

Posted: Sep 12, 2018 10:15 AM
Updated: Sep 12, 2018 10:15 AM

A version of this article first appeared in the Reliable Sources newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

"I'll deny ever saying this."

Every politics and business reporter knows this to be true: Some people have a tendency to lie on the record and tell the truth off the record.

In some cases the word "lie" is too strong a word, but you know what I mean. They spin, they fib, they pretend everything's hunky-dory when it's not. Then comes the ask. "Can we talk on deep background?" "Don't quote me." "You didn't get this from me." "I'll deny ever saying this." That's when the truth comes out. At least something closer to the truth. The colleague they were just complimenting? Yes, he's got problems. The rumors of a C-suite shakeup? Yes, it's imminent. The shocking story about West Wing incompetence? Yes, of course it's true, and it's even worse than you know.

This is the complicated reality of the reporting process. And it is playing out in the reactions to Bob Woodward's book "Fear." I'm wondering: How can reporters do a better job explaining this reality to viewers and readers? How can we peel back this curtain without burning sources?

Here's the problem

I've been trying to say "confidential sources" instead of "anonymous." Because the sources are not anonymous to the reporters and editors who are doing the work. But no matter what word you use, reliance on unnamed sources is growing... While trust in media is shrinking.

On Tuesday's episode of The Daily podcast, Michael Schmidt asked Woodward if it's fair to say "we've seen anonymous sources used probably more than at any time in a previous administration." Woodward said "I think that's true." Why? "Well, because things are more hidden. Because it's the only way to get at the truth." Agreed. But telling the audience to "trust us" is not sufficient. Not even close.

W.H. pressuring former aides to push back on Woodward

"Fear," which officially came out on Tuesday, is exposing a broken White House. And the W.H. is responding by pressuring people to put out denials. That's what Gary Cohn and Rob Porter did on Tuesday... The two men issued half-hearted denials without refuting the specific details reported by Woodward... But here's the thing: A source close to the White House told CNN that the W.H. applied "a lot of pressure" on Cohn and Porter. The two men were told that the president was upset.

The W.H. is "pushing anyone who is remotely associated with the book to discredit the information," a separate source told CNN.

This reporting is key -- and I'm glad it is being conveyed to the audience -- because it shows what's really going on...

Who do you think he's talking about?

Woodward speaking on The Daily: After "Fear" started leaking last week, "one key person who's in office called me and said: 'Everyone knows what you've said here is true. It's 1,000% correct.' And then this person has said some public things that contradict that."

"It's like reporting on smoke"

Re: my point about people lying on the record and truth-telling off, Jonathan Swan replied and said, "They also lie on background. A lot." Sometimes they even "lie off the record, hoping you'll smuggle it into your copy some day."Maggie Haberman chimed in and said it best: "It's like reporting on smoke."

B&N says sales look "phenomenal"

On CNN's "New Day" Tuesday morning, I tried to convey what makes this book different from all the other Trump-related titles this year. Here's a data point: "Fear" sales "look phenomenal out of the gate," B&N senior director of merchandising Liz Harwell told me via email. "Even with a strong roster of bestselling political titles this year, Woodward's book is on pace to have the biggest first day sales of the bunch."

No. 4 book of the year on Amazon

This time yesterday, "Fear" was No. 6 on Amazon's best sellers of 2018 list. Since then, the book has jumped ahead of James Comey and Jordan Peterson. It is now No. 4. This means "Fear" has outsold all but three books so far this year, on Amazon, almost entirely thanks to pre-orders. Pretty incredible. So what are the three higher sellers? No. 3 is the motivational tome "Girl, Wash Your Face." No. 2 is the "Last Week Tonight" parody of the Pence bunny book. And No. 1 is... drumroll please... "Fire and Fury." Can Woodward top Michael Wolff?

Read more of Tuesday's Reliable Sources newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

"Fear" scares up big ratings for Colbert, too

Frank Pallotta emails: Monday's "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," which included a Woodward interview, nabbed a 3.0 overnight rating for the CBS broadcast. It was the highest-rated episode for the show in nearly five months. Colbert devoted most of the show to an interview with the famed reporter...

→ WEDNESDAY: Woodward will be on Fox with Dana Perino and on CNN with Anderson Cooper...

For the Record

-- CNN moves: Poppy Harlow's 9/10am ET co-host John Bermanmoved to "New Day" earlier this year. Now Harlow has a new co-host: Jim Sciutto. His first day will be on Monday...

-- Sciutto will remain chief national security correspondent. But Alex Marquardt will now be on the beat as well: He's moving to DC and covering national security as senior national correspondent...

-- Apple's event starts at 1pm ET... We'll have live coverage on CNNMoney... This is my first time attending an Apple product launch, so I'll share my thoughts in tomorrow's letter...

-- Missed this yesterday: Apple has struck deals for "two family-focused movies." Anousha Sakoui says it "suggests that Apple is seeking Oscar-worthy films..." (Bloomberg)

The Atlantic's new cover: "Is Democracy Dying?"

The Atlantic is rolling out this special issue on Wednesday and Thursday... The mag says "the editors have assembled some of the top voices on law, race, history, and the constitution, to look at the slow-motion crisis to democracy in America, and what can be done to right the ship." Among the contributors: Justice Stephen Breyer, Anne Applebaum, Ibram X. Kendi, Amy Chua, Yoni Appelbaum, and Jeffrey Rosen...

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 93556

Reported Deaths: 2810
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds6974155
DeSoto541155
Harrison373272
Jackson338867
Madison320886
Rankin319075
Lee260667
Jones242078
Forrest239070
Washington217971
Lafayette208439
Lauderdale1999124
Bolivar179465
Oktibbeha175050
Lamar163134
Neshoba1536103
Panola144027
Sunflower141744
Lowndes139957
Warren138150
Leflore136980
Pontotoc123416
Pike121248
Monroe118865
Scott116425
Copiah116233
Coahoma112327
Holmes109258
Marshall107615
Lincoln106753
Grenada106135
Yazoo103829
Simpson101143
Union97824
Tate95137
Leake93937
Adams91936
Wayne87721
Pearl River86550
Marion84133
Prentiss81117
Covington80522
Alcorn77311
Itawamba76221
Newton75723
Tallahatchie75418
George74913
Winston72419
Tishomingo65837
Chickasaw65524
Tippah64216
Attala64125
Walthall59325
Clay57817
Hancock56121
Jasper55415
Noxubee54315
Clarke53539
Smith52314
Calhoun50612
Tunica47913
Montgomery45520
Claiborne45216
Lawrence42512
Yalobusha41714
Perry40718
Quitman3745
Humphreys37315
Stone35511
Greene34517
Webster33113
Jefferson Davis32511
Carroll31212
Amite31110
Wilkinson30217
Kemper28615
Sharkey26312
Jefferson2429
Benton2191
Franklin1893
Choctaw1795
Issaquena1033
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 131405

Reported Deaths: 2292
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson19015337
Mobile13066289
Montgomery8674173
Madison758375
Tuscaloosa7240114
Lee571359
Shelby568450
Baldwin506149
Marshall383543
Etowah335547
Calhoun333839
Morgan319726
Houston270822
Elmore254947
DeKalb235519
St. Clair223435
Walker222680
Talladega206926
Limestone199519
Cullman184517
Dallas174826
Franklin174328
Russell17132
Autauga169024
Lauderdale164633
Colbert160626
Escambia156225
Blount155114
Jackson150611
Chilton148527
Dale133043
Covington130927
Coffee12778
Pike11559
Tallapoosa113683
Chambers113042
Clarke104917
Marion94228
Butler90938
Barbour8357
Winston70912
Marengo69919
Lowndes64827
Pickens63514
Bibb63210
Hale61528
Randolph60812
Bullock58714
Lawrence58520
Monroe5758
Geneva5724
Cherokee56516
Washington54613
Clay5427
Perry5376
Wilcox53111
Conecuh52311
Crenshaw52331
Macon47720
Henry4724
Fayette4219
Sumter41819
Lamar3462
Choctaw34512
Cleburne3236
Greene30015
Coosa1643
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