From John Belushi to John Boehner–Bob Woodward’s Problems With Understanding The Facts

Tanner Colby has an interesting look at the type of reporting done by Bob Woodward. Colby had a unique way to fact-check Woodward:

Two years after Belushi died, Bob Woodward published Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. While the Watergate sleuth might seem an odd choice to tackle such a subject, the book came about because both he and Belushi grew up in the same small town of Wheaton, Ill. They had friends in common. Belushi, who despised Richard Nixon, was a big Woodward fan, and after he died, his widow, Judy Belushi, approached Woodward in his role as a reporter for the Washington Post. She had questions about the LAPD’s handling of Belushi’s death and asked Woodward to look into it. He took the access she offered and used it to write a scathing, lurid account of Belushi’s drug use and death.

When Wired came out, many of Belushi’s friends and family denounced it as biased and riddled with factual errors. “Exploitative, pulp trash,” in the words of Dan Aykroyd. Wired was so wrong, Belushi’s manager said, it made you think Nixon might be innocent. Woodward insisted the book was balanced and accurate. “I reported this story thoroughly,” he told Rolling Stone. Of the book’s critics, he said, “I think they wish I had created a portrait of someone who was larger than life, larger than he was, and that, somehow, this portrait would all come out different. But that’s a fantasy, not journalism.” Woodward being Woodward, he was given the benefit of the doubt. Belushi’s reputation never recovered.

Twenty years later, in 2004, Judy Belushi hired me, then an aspiring comedy writer, to help her with a new biography of John, this one titled Belushi: A Biography. As her coauthor, I handled most of the legwork, including all of the interviews and most of the research. What started as a fun project turned out to be a rather fascinating and unique experiment. Over the course of a year, page by page, source by source, I re-reported and rewrote one of Bob Woodward’s books. As far as I know, it’s the only time that’s ever been done.

Wired is an anomaly in the Woodward catalog, the only book he’s ever written about a subject other than Washington. As such, it’s rarely cited by his critics. But Wired’s outlier status is the very thing that makes it such a fascinating piece of Woodwardology. Because he was forced to work outside of his comfort zone, his strengths and his weaknesses can be seen in sharper relief. In Hollywood, his sources weren’t top secret and confidential. They were some of the most famous people in America. The methodology behind the book is right out there in the open, waiting for someone to do exactly what I did: take it apart and see how Woodward does what he does.

Colby found that the problem wasn’t that facts cited by Woodward were necessarily false, but that “a lot of what Woodward writes comes off as being not quite right—some of it to the point where it can feel quite wrong.” He had difficulty putting facts into context.

This is now meaningful in light of the way in which he totally got the story wrong when reporting on the budget battle, and his rather strange claim that the White House was threatening him. The problem was not as much getting individual facts wrong about the negotiations between Obama and Boehner on the budget but that Woodward seemed ignorant of all the other important facts about these negotiations needed to put what he saw into context. He didn’t get the facts wrong about what the White House said to him, but anyone seeing the exchange in context would disagree with his assessment that he was being threatened.


  1. 1
    Jeff S. says:

    I have been wondering about Woodward for a while.  It seems that he has a genuine dislike for the Obama administration.  That is fine, I don’t care, but it seems to be affecting his reporting.  I’ve been saying that for well over a year, and then the latest “threat” thing just confirms it.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    I’ve read that Woodward is unhappy with Obama due to not getting as much access as he wants. He seems to prefer writing books based upon inside access as opposed to actually digging up information, resting on his Watergate-era laurels.

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