ST. LOUIS – Talk radio and cable news have eaten up hours in chewing over Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” debating its insider look at the decision-making before the war in Iraq – who said what and when.

Less energy has been spent on a more basic issue: Can a book that reconstructs events without naming its sources be trusted as real history?

Woodward’s book re-creates private conversations between decision-makers word for word, even though no reporters were present.

Except for a few on-the-record interviews, the book makes no mention of who told Woodward what had been said at these meetings.

Woodward has used the same no-attribution technique in all of his books. But because of messy scandals involving fabricated material by reporters Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, newspapers have put the no-attribution approach under closer scrutiny.

Although “Plan of Attack” was published as a book, Woodward’s boss at The Washington Post embraces “Plan of Attack” as a joint venture of Woodward and the paper. And the boss insists that the book follows the paper’s guidelines for attributing information.

But two historians in this area have doubts about the usefulness of Woodward’s book as history.

In fact, said Professor Mark Hanley of Truman State University in Kirskville, Mo., “Woodward’s book isn’t history. It’s a book by an investigative reporter who’s enormously important – and who knows what will make his book interesting.”

Those who lump Woodward’s book under the heading of “journalism” will get agreement of sorts from Leonard Downie Jr., the top editor at Woodward’s paper.

For five days last week, The Post ran long excerpts from Woodward’s book. The byline atop each excerpt read, “By Bob Woodward, Washington Post Staff Writer.”

When the Associated Press beat The Post to its own story by distributing an early account, Downie told The New York Times he was confident that readers would nevertheless “realize this is a Washington Post/Bob Woodward production.”

And in a phone interview Thursday, Downie said, “In writing this book, Bob was at all times a Washington Post employee.”

As an employee – and not as an independent author whose book is being serialized in the paper – Woodward falls under the paper’s standards for documenting his work. And Downie said in the interview, “It is consistent with our guidelines.”

To explain those guidelines to readers, Downie wrote an article published March 7. His article recounts the efforts of editors to rid The Post of news attributed only to anonymous officials – and also sighs at the bureaucratic culture that often frustrates such efforts.

His essay makes no mention of stories almost totally lacking in attribution – for example, Woodward’s book.

Downie said, “My article didn’t cite the whole list of guidelines, because they go on for pages and pages. But the guidelines say that when a reporter is dealing with long narratives, and if attribution is going to louse up the narrative, it’s OK to tell the reader in another way about attribution.”

In the case of the excerpts from Woodward’s book, “another way” amounts to a brief notice that ran with each day’s story. It mentioned that the articles were based on 75 interviews and said in part:

“These interviews were conducted on background, meaning the information could be used but the source would not be identified. … Where thoughts, judgments or feelings are attributed to participants, they were obtained from the person directly, a colleague with firsthand knowledge or the written record.”

The paper’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote in late February about another excerpted book by another Post employee – Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars,” about the CIA and Osama bin Laden.

Getler said that despite its depth of details, Coll’s work “has almost no specific attribution.” Instead, Getler noted, each excerpt ran with a paragraph giving a generalized description of the sources.

“This is what some call trust me’ journalism,” Getler wrote, “because it involves trust on the part of the reader about the author and the publication. The fast-moving and exciting narrative is not interrupted by those phrases we are all used to, and comforted by, such as according to so and so.'”

But, like Downie, Getler noted that the paper’s guidelines allowed this technique. Unlike Downie’s article, Getler’s quoted from the guidelines: “It is not always necessary to interrupt a narrative constantly to attribute small details to specific sources. It is sometime possible to attribute the details … in a single sentence or paragraph.”

Thus, the daily notices that ran last week with Woodward’s stories.

In the on-line edition of The New Republic last week, senior editor Gregg Easterbrook took a dark view of Woodward’s technique. “Woodward and his editors have cheapened the quotation mark,” Easterbrook wrote, “changing its meaning from what was said’ to whatever sounds right.'”

Easterbrook concluded that Woodward’s technique “must contribute to loss of public confidence in journalism.”

Woodward didn’t return a call placed through his publisher, Simon & Schuster. Nor did spokeswoman Aileen Boyle respond to an inquiry about Simon & Schuster’s standards for documentation.

Truman State’s Hanley teaches U.S. history and is the author of “Beyond the Christian Commonwealth” (1994), a scholarly study of the confluence of religious and political thought in 19th-century America. He said publishers aimed certain books at certain readers.

“I can pick off my office shelves books that have more pages of end notes than pages of text,” he said. “But most general readers wouldn’t want that sort of thing.”

In fact, he said, some publishers ask writers to lighten up on footnotes “and just get by with a bibliographical essay. Many publishers think footnotes make a book less reader-friendly.”

But footnotes count with Hanley, whose own book has 38 pages of documentation. Without documentation, he said, “From a historian’s viewpoint, you’re going to be on shaky ground.”

Had a Woodward-style book been written in 1954 about Dwight D. Eisenhower, would Hanley use it today?

“You might use if for certain things,” he said, “but it wouldn’t work as the basis of what you’re trying to say about the Eisenhower administration. There would be too many blind spots. And that kind of blindness carries a lot of liability when a historian is interpreting events.”

Will historians of 2054 find value in Woodward’s book?

“I’d say Woodward’s book wouldn’t be terribly consequential a half-century from now in any assessment of the decision to go to war in Iraq,” Hanley said.

“By then, there will be so much information clarifying things that Woodward’s book will be largely irrelevant.”


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