If the Washington Post were to set up a special investigative unit to put what one might call a “spotlight” on the bad behavior of powerful elites being covered up by other powerful elites, boy do I have a story for them:
Almost anyone who works in the Washington Post newsroom can look inside its publishing system, Methode, to see what stories are coming. And at the height of the furor over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, some who did saw a shocking article awaiting publication.
In the article, Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”
Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)
The article, described by two Post journalists who read it, would have been explosive, arriving as the nominee battled a decades-old sexual assault allegation and was fighting to prove his integrity.
The article was nearly ready when the executive editor, Martin Baron, stepped in. Mr. Baron urged Mr. Woodward not to breach his arrangement with Mr. Kavanaugh and to protect his old source’s anonymity, three Post employees said. (The three, as well as other Post journalists who spoke to me, insisted on anonymity because The Post prefers that its employees not talk to the media.)
Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and “bad for Bob” to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.
It’s worth emphasizing here that Kavanaugh made a sua sponte affirmative public assertion that a story he had personally provided to Woodward wasn’t true. It should be pretty obvious that this abrogates the implicit promise of confidentiality. Indeed, Kavanaugh essentially violated the deal himself:
if an anonymous source publicly disputes information they provided, journalists have absolutely no obligation to uphold a deal that’s already been broken—really fucking embarassing for marty baron https://t.co/rRLjlgESu7 pic.twitter.com/aLpUUsJrTO— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) June 29, 2020
Brett Kavanaugh was being considered for a lifetime appointment to the nation’s most powerful court, and the Senate confirmation hearing was considering a serious allegation that made Kavanaugh’s credibility a material issue to a matter of great public concern. Kavanuagh had decided to burn Woodward, and did so by almost certainly lying in the letter to an editor to defend his grossly unethical recent boss.
Obviously, protecting the anonymity of sources who were promised anonymity is an important principle, but also obviously it’s not an absolute one. Woodward, the reporter who had the most to lose by exposing Kavanaugh, believed that the principle did not apply in this case, and he was right. Baron’s assumption that his decision to spike the story would protect the Post’s reputation is overwhelmingly likely to prove false.