Bob Woodward Heckled for Doing His Job
The norms of social discourse are rapidly changing in the #MeToo era.
A man who is arguably the nation’s most esteemed print journalist interviewed two prize-winning women about their new book on the #MeToo movement as part of a forum on their book. The audience didn’t like it one bit.
It seemed like the perfect combination of three Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalists: The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward interviewing the New York Times’s Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey on Wednesday about their best-selling book, “She Said,” a deep dive into their investigation of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
But about 20 minutes in, things got awkward. As Woodward repeatedly interrupted the authors to ask questions or clarify facts, audible murmurs rippled through the crowd. Eventually, one attendee yelled, “You’re interrupting her!” as many applauded in agreement. The audience grew increasingly frustrated, particularly when Woodward told Twohey and Kantor that they were “dodging” his question about what might have motivated Weinstein’s alleged abuse. “STOP!” several crowd members yelled at Woodward as he continued to press the topic. Some people heckled and hissed; others left early.
The conversation started out pleasantly as Woodward called the book “a masterpiece” and asked Kantor and Twohey about the origins of their reporting on Weinstein. Tension in the crowd started building during a discussion about Irwin Reiter, Weinstein’s accountant, who ended up being an invaluable source. As Woodward broke in while Kantor was speaking, some people in the audience lost patience.
“Let her finish!” a woman yelled from the balcony, as others started clapping.
Woodward, Twohey and Kantor briefly paused, then quickly moved on. But the atmosphere became uncomfortable several minutes later when Woodward asked about the reasons for Weinstein’s behavior.
“If you spent all the time on him, you have to ask the question, which you really don’t address in the book, and that is: Why did he behave this way?” Woodward asked. “I know you’re not psychiatrists or psychologists, but share with us the ‘Why?’ … because there’s so many strange things he does.”
“That’s a good question — I think we could spend days or weeks or even months trying to get to the bottom of his psychology,” Twohey said, adding that the question applies to the psychology of Weinstein’s enablers as well. This led into a discussion of his brother, Bob Weinstein, who begged Harvey to get help.
“You’re artfully dodging the question,” Woodward said, and the audience started rumbling.
“I’ll tell you what we know. It’s that this story is an X-ray into power, and how power works,” Kantor said, as the crowd erupted into loud applause.
“It’s also about sex, isn’t it?” Woodward asked.
“No!” several attendees yelled at the same time.
“It’s not about sex in the romantic sense,” Kantor said, adding that “part of the way it’s about power is that it’s about work.” She noted that some of their sources were harassed as soon as their first day on the job.
Despite the increasingly loud muttering of a frustrated audience, Woodward continued his line of questioning, asking about Weinstein’s possible reasons behind his “perverted sexual crime.” “So, why? I’m sorry, I know this puts you on the spot. What is driving him?”
“Stop!” someone else yelled.
“Let’s get to the Q&A!” hollered another attendee.—Washington Post, “Bob Woodward interviewed the ‘She Said’ authors at a book event. Things got tense. Then there was heckling.”
I’ve attended dozens of these sorts of events, which are a DC staple. The format here is typical. A moderator, often a celebrity journalist but sometimes a think tank president or similarly prominent person, questions the authors of a new book, report, or whathaveyou, followed by an audience question-and-answer session. It’s perfectly normal for the interviewer to interrupt the guest when they’re not answering the question or simply going on too long.
What’s not normal—at least, I’ve never encountered it—is for the audience to interrupt the flow of events in this manner. The only exception, which I’ve seen two or three times, is Code Pink protestors, who sneak in for the express purpose of doing so in order to call attention to themselves. It’s simply expected that guests patiently wait for the main event to finish and hope to get called on during the Q&A.
Granting that all I have to go on here is a written report and not the video, Woodward’s conduct here was rather typical. His fixation on what motivated Harvey Weinstein seems beside the point but, frankly, the moderators are often interested in different things than the audience. Goodness knows I’ve often wished the moderator would shut the hell up and get to the Q&A; it’s never occurred to me to holler out demanding one do so.
Moreover, Kantor and Twohey seemed not only to be perfectly fine with the line of questioning but to have handled it brilliantly. They bounced off Woodward’s line of inquiry to hammer home their reporting and shift the focus back to Weinstein’s victims.
Ditto this exchange later in the proceedings about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh:
“Do you believe her?” Woodward asked.
“What I can tell you is that Christine Blasey Ford is probably the most precise and diligent source subject that certainly I have ever reported on,” Twohey said, adding that Ford refused to be coached by advisers for her testimony.
“She didn’t have some precise memory on when this happened or exactly where and so forth, and that has been used to undermine what she testified to and said,” Woodward said. “I think the interesting question now is: With all that’s available about Christine Blasey Ford and that allegation, and Kavanaugh, if he were, say, a judge here in the District of Columbia, and somebody gave you that information, is it enough to publish a story?”
“All women deserve to be heard!” yelled a woman from the balcony, as the crowd started to grumble once again.
“Was it sufficient?” Woodward continued. “Would it have met your standard in the New York Times to publish that?”
“You know, I think the reason your question is so interesting is it was your paper, The Washington Post, that did publish what really was exactly that story,” Kantor said.
Again, a perfectly reasonable line of inquiry from Woodward followed by thoughtful responses by Kantor and Twohey. The audience, which was presumably disproportionately female, likely didn’t come to get into the nuances of journalistic rules of evidence. But it’s not surprising that a reporter would ask that of other reporters.
Kantor and Twohey didn’t seem fazed by the audience reaction or Woodward’s questioning. Later, as they waited for attendees to line up for their turn at the microphone, Kantor got her chance to ask Woodward a question: What investigation would he assign into the Trump administration? After she found his reply somewhat insufficient, Kantor good-naturedly responded: “I don’t think you’re answering my question,” to the audience’s knowing laughs and applause.
Again, a perfectly normal give-and-take among professionals.
But the crowd wasn’t done voicing their displeasure with how the conversation had unfolded. A woman approached the microphone, thanking Twohey and Kantor for their hard work before turning her attention briefly to Woodward: “Mr. Woodward, you’re one of the legends of the profession, but hearing you repeatedly interrupt these women all night …” she started, before being drowned out by the audience clapping. She noted it was “frustrating.”
After the talk wrapped, the audience was still buzzing with frustration as they sat in the pews, complained to Sixth & I staff and stood in line to have their books signed. Roslyn Simpson, 49, said that as a moderator, Woodward “interrupted too often, which is what happens when women want to tell their stories.” She pointed to a lack of self-awareness on his part. “It was very surprising, disruptive and rude,” Simpson said.
Sarah Burgess, a 33-year-old consultant who was attending the book talk with her sister, was disappointed that Woodward steered the authors away from talking about their journalism and their sources — because he wanted to spend more time talking about Weinstein, the perpetrator. “I think that it’s been really clear in the news in the past couple of years that society doesn’t take women’s voices seriously, so I think it’s really important that we make sure that we’re making space for women to speak and that we’re listening,” Burgess said.
Again caveating that I wasn’t in attendance and am just reacting to a written summary, Woodward was doing what he was brought in to do and doing it very much in the way I’d have expected Woodward to do it. If it’s “rude” to interrupt people who aren’t answering a question to one’s satisfaction, then rudeness is a sine qua non of the craft of journalism.
Clearly, those frustrated with the proceedings were somehow expecting something different: a pure affirmation of the two women authors and a spotlighting of the victims. Maybe whoever organized the event should have brought in a woman to moderate the event, or skipped the moderator format altogether. But Kantor and Twomey were certainly allowed to speak and Woodward gushed praise over their reporting and book. The hostility of the crowd was simply bizarre.