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ANALYSIS: Should Bob Woodward Have Told Us What Trump Said in March?
The big news of Wednesday – which will almost certainly be forgotten once we discover whatever becomes the big news of today – is that President Trump admitted to deliberately downplaying the severity of the coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic. In an interview with Bob Woodward in February, Trump said that the virus was airborne and "more deadly than even your strenuous flus." But publicly, Trump said the virus would disappear by April and told Fox News "we've never closed down the country for the flu."
In March, after most Americans were already self-quarantining, he told Woodward he "still [liked] playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic." Trump appeared to confirm that rationale Wednesday. When asked if he downplayed the severity of COVID-19 "in order to reduce panic," he replied, "perhaps that's so."
But, I'm not here to cast aspersions on Trump. Plenty in the press are already doing that and, if polls are to be believed, about 53% of you will harangue him, and 43% will find an excuse for him. That's just how it is. This piece today is about Bob Woodward, and what journalistic or moral duty he may have had to release these astounding comments months ago. Would it have saved lives? Would it have been ignored? If it's possible that Woodward's knowledge could have made a difference in America's handling of the pandemic, was it ethical for him to hold on to these comments to help sell his new book six months later?
The journalistic community is decidedly split on this. ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman asked if revelations from Woodward would have made some of Trump's supporters take the virus more seriously in March and April.
The Gambit editor and former Buzzfeed Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton tweeted: "If there was any chance [releasing the tapes] could save a single life, he was obligated to do so."
Data has shown that states with stronger support for Trump socially distanced less in the early months of the pandemic. Perhaps if Trump's comments to Woodward had become public, this gap would have diminished. Of course, the caseload and death toll from COVID-19 was also greater in big cities (typically Democrat-heavy) in March, April, and May. More rural, Republican-heavy areas didn't get hit hard by the virus until later in the summer, so this gap may not have mattered much in the long run.
Other journalists leaped to Woodward's defense. NYT reporter Nick Confessore said he couldn't remember any other time a reporter was critiqued for holding onto a scoop for a publication date.
WaPo media critic Erik Wemple interviewed Woodward following the release of the comments Wednesday. Woodward defended himself, arguing that the revelations would not have saved lives and that he would have gone public "if anything he gathered was a legitimate public health issue." Woodward insisted his goal was to gather information which he would report in time for the November election.
Woodward did tell WaPo media columnist Margaret Sullivan, however, that he had no formal embargo agreement with the White House, and that he was free to release recordings of the interviews at any time. He says waiting to publish all his findings in a book would "provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story."
To me, the factors that bolster Woodward's argument the most are:
- Back in February, we really didn't know how bad the pandemic would be, and it was unclear where Trump was getting his information, and
- Was a news story from a journalist, even one as legendary as Woodward, going to reasonably change public opinion or encourage significantly different actions?
I'm inclined to think that the last six months would have played out exactly the way they did even if Woodward sent the recordings to every newsroom in America. For those February recordings, when so much was unknown, it's possible to give Woodward a pass. It's not as easy to do that, however, for the March recordings. Trump told Woodward he still wanted to downplay the virus after much of the country had taken to their homes, after the NBA season had shut down, and after the deadliness and infectiousness of SARS-CoV-2 was incredibly apparent. This feels like something that should have been revealed to the public, book or no book, election or no election.
As Sullivan argues in her column, "the chance — even if it's a slim chance — that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument against waiting this long."