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There’s still plenty of buzz about Bob Woodward’s upcoming book on President Donald Trump and, specifically, about Woodward’s decision to hold on to months-old quotes in which Trump said he knew the coronavirus was deadly and that he was purposefully downplaying its impact.
A day later, I feel the same as I wrote Thursday — I have no issues with Woodward’s decision. By the time Woodward could confirm Trump’s comments, the whole world knew we were in the midst of a global pandemic that was extremely contagious and extremely deadly. And we also knew, at that point, that Trump was downplaying the virus.
However, Woodward is being criticized for holding on to the quotes. The argument is, perhaps, Woodward reporting in real time could have altered Trump’s public comments on the coronavirus and, perhaps, it could have saved lives.
Oddly, one of Woodward’s defenders was Trump. Although Trump was really trying to defend himself by essentially saying that if what he said was so bad, Woodward would have run the quotes back in the spring.
However, CNN’s Chris Cillizza makes a great point: Woodward is not the president.
Cillizza wrote, “There is, without doubt, a worthy debate to be had as to whether Woodward, who technically works for the Post but in practical terms has been writing books for years now, should have immediately gone to the Post after Trump made his statements about downplaying the virus and demanded space on the website (and in the next day’s paper) to write a big contemporaneous piece about it. But that conversation pales in comparison to this one: If the president of the United States knew that COVID-19 was worse than people thought — and worse than he was letting on by comparing it to the seasonal flu — why didn’t HE go tell the American public about it?”
That’s also one of the points made by my colleague Al Tompkins in his column for Poynter.
For those who think this is just another blip in the news cycle and will quickly be forgotten, I’m not so sure. This story seems to have legs and, as you will see below, look for Joe Biden and Democrats to bring up Woodward’s book again and again until Election Day. Trump might ultimately regret speaking to Woodward.
Speaking of which, Trump did address in a Thursday press conference why he spoke to Woodward for the book.
“There were a series of phone calls, mostly phone calls,” Trump said. “Bob Woodward is somebody that I respect just from hearing the name for many, many years — not knowing too much about his work, not caring about his work. But I thought it would be interesting to talk to him for a period of, you know, calls. So we did that. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I don’t even know if the book is good or bad.”
The New York Times’ Peter Baker has an insightful and detailed piece on Trump’s decision to talk to Woodward, writing in part, “He has infinite faith in his ability to spin his own story. He is forever seeking approval and validation from celebrity and establishment figures like Mr. Woodward. And as much as he likes to excoriate the ‘fake news,’ he is drawn irresistibly to the spotlight.”
And this might be a good spot to add this: Can we stop for just one moment and recognize once again the relevance of Bob Woodward? Nearly 50 years after his work on Watergate, the 77-year-old Woodward continues to be at the forefront of crucial journalism in this country.
Is he the world’s most famous journalist?
What Trump and Biden are saying
What are the two presidential candidates saying about Trump’s comments in Woodward’s book that Trump wanted to downplay the virus?
Trump said in a news conference Thursday that he was trying to show leadership.
“I want to show a level of confidence and I want to show strength as a leader,” Trump said. “There was no lie here, what we’re doing here is leading and we’re leading in the proper way. I don’t want to jump up and down and shout ‘death, death.’ … I have to lead a country.”
Along the way, he got into a dustup with ABC News’ Jonathan Karl after Karl asked why he “lied to the American people and why should we trust what you have to say now?”
Trump said, “That’s a terrible question and the phraseology. I didn’t lie. … Your question, the way you phrased that is such a disgrace. It’s a disgrace to the ABC television network. It’s a disgrace to your employer and that’s the answer.”
During an appearance with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Biden said, “That’s why we have no confidence in his leadership. … This caused people to die.”
Biden added that Trump knew one thing about the coronavirus but told the American people the opposite because he was more worried about the stock market.
“He waved a white flag,” Biden said. “He walked away. He didn’t do a damn thing. Think about it. Think about what he did not do. And it’s almost criminal.”
Another disturbing charge
There’s much more to Woodward’s book than Trump’s comments about the coronavirus that grabbed all the attention on Wednesday. There is another disturbing charge that involves the media.
Trump bragged that he protected Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from congressional scrutiny after the crown prince was accused of being behind the murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. On Jan. 22 of this year, Woodward asked Trump about Khashoggi, an opinion columnist for The Washington Post.
Woodward, who spent most of his journalism career at the Post, told Trump, “The people at the Post are upset about the Khashoggi killing. That is one of the most gruesome things. You yourself have said.”
The conversation turned to the crown prince and Trump said, “I saved his ass. I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”
When asked during a Thursday press conference what Trump meant by that, the president said, “You’ll have to figure that out yourself.”
Trump told Woodward he did not believe Crown Prince Mohammed had ordered Khashoggi’s murder. However, that goes against the conclusions of the U.S. and other foreign intelligence services which believe the crown prince was behind the journalist’s assassination.
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We know President Trump watches a lot of TV. We know because things that are often said on Fox News one minute are tweeted out the next minute by the president. But it was still pretty odd to hear Trump talking during a Thursday press conference about watching TV in the wake of the Woodward interviews.
He said, “I watched Fox Business. I watched ‘Lou Dobbs’ last night. I watched ‘Sean Hannity’ last night. ‘Tucker’ last night. ‘Laura’. I watched ‘Fox & Friends’ in the morning.”
I wish I could watch this much TV — and part of my job is watching TV.
- “CBS This Morning” launched a new series Thursday called “Eye on Innovation.” As a part of it, CBS News correspondents will report on the increasing role of science and technology in our world. In the debut piece, CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti spoke with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute who have been studying the larvacean, a mysterious sea creature and possible key in the fight against climate change. The next installment is planned for Sept. 30 and will look at the use of augmented reality to train U.S. Air Force pilots.
- Fox News was the most-watched TV network in America over the summer. From May through August, Fox News had an average total audience of 3.5 million viewers. That was more than even the big networks of ABC, CBS and NBC. Forbes’ Mark Joyella has more details.
- MSNBC’s Brian Williams will interview Edward Snowden tonight at 11 p.m. Eastern.
- Earlier in the day on MSNBC, in the noon Eastern hour, Andrea Mitchell will interview Dr. Anthony Fauci.
This opinion should have been skipped
Fox Sports 1 commentator Skip Bayless has built a very lucrative career by giving hot takes and having strong opinions. However, I’ve always questioned how sincere his opinions are. His propensity to have against-the-grain commentary (such as his constant criticism of LeBron James) makes you wonder if he says things he doesn’t believe just to get a rise out of people.
When you play a contrarian on TV, and I believe that’s exactly what he does, you’re occasionally going to say some dumb things. But there’s a difference between doubting James’ basketball or leadership ability and saying what Bayless said Thursday on his show “Undisputed.”
In a recent interview, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said he dealt with feelings of depression this past offseason — partly because of the coronavirus and partly because his brother died by suicide on April 24. But Bayless said he had no sympathy for Prescott going public with his emotions.
Bayless said, “I have deep compassion for clinical depression, but when it comes to the quarterback of an NFL team … it’s the ultimate leadership position in sports, am I right about that? You are commanding an entire franchise. … And they’re all looking to you to be their CEO, to be in charge of the football team. Because of all that, I don’t have sympathy for him going public with, ‘I got depressed’ and ‘I suffered depression early in COVID to the point that I couldn’t even go work out.’ Look, he’s the quarterback of America’s team.”
Now, to be clear, Bayless noted that Prescott said he was having feelings of depression even before his brother’s death, and that’s the part that seemed to rankle Bayless. Still, what Bayless said was an incredibly heartless thing to say about someone who had the strength to go public with his vulnerability. And the thing is, even before Bayless said what he did, he knew he was wading into controversy. He said, “I’m going to ask our audience to feel free to go ahead and condemn me, if you choose, as cold-blooded and insensitive on this issue.”
Okay then, Skip, you’re cold-blooded and insensitive on this issue. At that moment, Bayless was more concerned about the competitive edge of the quarterback of his favorite NFL team — Bayless is a noted fan of the Cowboys, which is a whole other set of issues for a national commentator — than the mental health and well-being of a 27-year-old human being.
Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz wrote Bayless “sunk even lower than his usual standards.” The Dallas Morning News’ Joseph Hoyt, who said he has battled depression his whole life, tweeted, “What Skip Bayless said today is the reason why there’s a stigma about depression. It’s the reason why people are afraid to open up. Don’t listen to him. It takes so much strength to open up about depression, like Dak Prescott did. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to get help.”
The headline on Liam McKeone’s piece for The Big Lead was “Skip Bayless Owes Dak Prescott An Apology.”
The Athletic’s Levi Weaver tweeted, “Don’t listen to Skip Bayless about depression, or anything else for that matter.”
Weaver’s suggestion seems like a good one.
- Writing for The New Yorker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remembers her father, who died in Nigeria, and reflects on grieving during a pandemic in “Notes on Grief.”
- Good stuff from The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr with “What’s Up with Tucker Carlson’s Leaked Tapes of Michael Cohen’s Secret CNN Conversations.”
- NBC News’ Julia Ainsley with “DHS Spokeswoman Pushed NBC News to Retract Accurate Story About Terrorists at the Border.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Sign up to receive our new Coronavirus Facts newsletter — PolitiFact and MediaWise
- Journalists in Peril: Creating a Safer, Equitable Future Together— Sept. 16 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern, Journalism Institute, National Press Club
- Building a Scalable Personal Brand (Online Group Seminar) — Sept. 25 – Nov. 6, Poynter
- The 2021 Media Transformation Challenge (MTC) Program: A Poynter Institute Executive Fellowship — Apply by: Nov. 20, 2020
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