Bob Woodward broke the first rule of journalism when his book deal Trump-ed his public duty | Helen Ubiñas
To be clear: Bob Woodward, a white, celebrated hero of journalism, sat on information (in order to sell a book) that disproportionately cost more Black and brown people their lives.
That’s what a journalist at the Kenosha News was told by the paper’s editor when he objected to the headline of an article about a rally in support of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer.
At the event last month, Blake’s father spoke about visiting his son in the hospital, participants sang songs and read poetry about unity, and thousands peacefully marched behind the Blake family calling for social and criminal justice reforms.
But the click-bait headline that topped the Kenosha News website for several hours quoted an unnamed participant: “Kenosha speaker: ‘If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours.’”
Daniel J. Thompson, a digital editor who said he was the only full-time Black staff member at the paper, took vacation time to attend the rally.
The headline, he said, left a false impression of the gathering, and worse, it was irresponsible and dangerous during such tense times.
“I don’t even know if I can associate with the company after that,” Thompson told Bob Heisse, the executive editor, in a text exchange. “I need to calm down, but I wanted you to know immediately.”
To be fair, Thompson used the wording first, according to the screenshots of his conversation that he provided reporters. But as someone who has been in this situation, I imagine he was just anticipating what would come next. You sound the alarm enough times as a journalist of color in a mostly white newsroom, you get pretty good at predicting the dismissive response.
“Yes you should calm down,” Heisse responded. “That is a public threat, and it is an exact quote at a rally that was to that point totally on message.”
Oh, the times I’ve been told, in one way or another, to calm down after bringing up legitimate concerns in a newsroom.
And, oh, the times I’ve wanted to quit over the patronizing pats on the head.
Thompson actually did quit, though —and now he’s embarking on a new path to bring “a better news source in Kenosha.”
I’m rooting for him.
But there’s another reason I’m bringing up the condescending phrase so often utilized and weaponized (usually against women) to dismiss legitimate concerns — and it goes way beyond newsrooms.
Consider the people — especially the Black women — who warned us about Donald Trump when he was campaigning and continue to do so as our national nightmare has only gotten worse.
Calm down: He’s all bluster and bravado.
Calm down: He doesn’t really mean what he says about women or people of color or white supremacists.
Calm down: It’s not racism, it’s economic anxiety.
How’s all that eKKKonomic anxiety working out for us?
And now we have Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post journalists whose legendary reporting helped take down Richard Nixon, hawking his new book based on taped interviews where Trump admits in March that he intentionally downplayed the deadly coronavirus while publicly likening it to a seasonal flu that would magically disappear.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said in a recorded call. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
More than 190,000 Americans are dead, but, hey, calm down everybody.
Obscene, no doubt. But surprising to exactly no one who has watched the despicable acts of an administration fueled by deadly lies.
And yet, that didn’t stop reporters and pundits from running to the closest TV set and op/ed page to breathlessly talk about the president’s well-documented moral and ethical failings.
Except my attention was on someone else’s failings:
Woodward, a white celebrated journalism icon, who sat on information (seemingly to sell books, though he insists otherwise) that disproportionately cost more Black and brown people their lives.
When I first brought that up on Twitter, many insisted I was shooting the messenger. It wouldn’t have made any difference when Woodward disclosed it. Trump and his supporters wouldn’t have changed course.
But this says less about Trump and more about a journalist — and spare me the “he’s not a journalist anymore” bit; he’s got an honorific title of associate editor — who put book sales before his duty to the public.
Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Maybe it wouldn’t have saved any lives.
But then we’ll never know, will we? And that’s inexcusable in any book.
Trump even agrees with me (2020 continues to be some cruel joke), although, for him, it’s just a deflection, as usual:
“Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
There it is: “Calm…”
Maybe a little easier to stay calm when the people whose lives are most at risk don’t look like you.
So I couldn’t help but wonder: Maybe if those who are disproportionately dying of COVID looked like the author, someone might have thought releasing potentially lifesaving information was more important than a book release.
This brings me back to Thompson, the lone Black journalist who called out that reckless headline.
Just a headline, some might say.
But here’s the thing for those of us who know how vital diversity and equity and inclusion is in journalism: It’s never about just one headline, or one story, or one newsroom that fails to represent the world around it. It’s about cumulative complicity that causes real harm to real people.
In case anyone still wonders, that matters. It’s not just PC window dressing or the latest way to be woke.
Turns out, it can actually be life-and-death.