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.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Media, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DrDaveT says:

    James, are you really completely unaware of how important it was that it was an older man interrupting younger women, and why that matters? You don’t seem to address that in your comments.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It’s perfectly normal for the interviewer to interrupt the guest when they’re not answering the question or simply going on too long.

    I’ve never been to one of these things, so I certainly can’t say what is or is not normal for them. And as a man who spent 35 years in construction and never once worked on a jobsite with a woman, so I really can’t say much about man-woman interactions in a professional environment either. But…

    *Damned near every woman* I know has had the experience of a man talking over her, and they are tired as fuckall of it, and they damned well aren’t putting up with it in their personal lives even if it is a daily occurrence in their professional lives where they don’t dare say anything about it because Dawg forbid they get labeled as “difficult to work with”.

    It is something all men would do well to become more aware of.

    ** It’s not like I have discussed this topic with all the women I know, and I certainly haven’t taken a poll, but the times it has come up, it is invariably what they say.

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  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Yep. What DrDaveT said. That audience likely saw it as mansplaining by a boomer… Not what they came to hear.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    James, you may be right about this being typical in Washington, but I suspect the audience was not typical and Woodward was unable to read that and therefore couldn’t adjust.

    – He mentioned that he had tuned his hearing aids to block out the audience so he could focus on the women. They didn’t react negatively to his questions but the audience did and because he didn’t hear them he didn’t explain or even acknowledge their reactions. I suspect this resulted in increasing hostility as they felt they were ignored.

    – I also suspect the audience had fewer people there to see the Legend that is Bob Woodward (TM) and a lot more younger people who didn’t distinguish him from myriad other old white males.

    – The audience that was there wanted to hear about exactly the things the women wanted to talk about. Woodward instead seemed intent on cutting them off to show that he had captured the real questions, ones he felt these recent Pulitzer winners hadn’t sufficiently explored but he was willing to mansplain to them as nauseum. Unfortunately, the audience thought his line of questioning annoying rather than revealing.

    – And finally, what he was obsessed with was the sex. It was incredibly tone deaf for him to lecture these women about how wrong they were to see this as more about sex than power. He should have known this would have been seen as creepy at best.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    – I also suspect the audience had fewer people there to see the Legend that is Bob Woodward (TM)

    My understanding is that Woodward has a reputation as a great reporter, but not as a particularly good analyst. Great at worming his way in to ask the questions, but not terribly adept at understanding the implications of the answers.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    James, are you really completely unaware of how important it was that it was an older man interrupting younger women, and why that matters?

    He’s not a random old man interrupting a random younger woman; he’s the moderator of a panel who is there to interview the women in question. Interruption is part and parcel of that job.

    @OzarkHillbilly: *

    Damned near every woman* I know has had the experience of a man talking over her, and they are tired as fuckall of it, and they damned well aren’t putting up with it in their personal lives even if it is a daily occurrence in their professional lives

    Again, this isn’t a random man “talking over” a woman. It’s a panel moderator doing what panel moderators do.

    @MarkedMan:

    James, you may be right about this being typical in Washington, but I suspect the audience was not typical and Woodward was unable to read that and therefore couldn’t adjust.

    Yes, I think this is the case. We had an audience that wanted affirmation and pandering and they instead got a journalist asking critical questions.

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  7. Joe says:

    Maybe whoever organized the event should have brought in a woman to moderate the event, or skipped the moderator format altogether.

    These are the people who failed to anticipate a fairly predictable dynamic.

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: I wasn’t going to downvote until that last sentence. I’m an old white guy, and I see that as condescending. As a wise man once said, “The times, they are a-changin’.”

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08: I never thought about it like that. I don’t bother reading his books because they are all about sources and access and seem almost naive in accessing credibility and understanding how he might be being played.

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  10. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    We had an audience that wanted affirmation and pandering and they instead got a journalist asking critical questions.

    Like you I am working from reported sources but I didn’t think that was the complaint. It seemed more like he had his own take on the Weinstein story and merely saw the authors as a convenient vehicle to let him expound on that take. And he wouldn’t move on from it.

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    We had an audience that wanted affirmation and pandering and they instead got a journalist asking critical questions.

    That’s an interesting takeaway, given that the stories you quote describe an audience that wanted a discussion of the book the women had written, and instead got a moderator focused on talking about his preferred topic (sex) instead.

    The job of the moderator is, in part, to keep the discussion on-topic. This sounds like the opposite of that.

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  12. KM says:

    @James Joyner :

    He’s not a random old man interrupting a random younger woman; he’s the moderator of a panel who is there to interview the women in question. Interruption is part and parcel of that job.

    No, it’s really not. It’s a tool in the interviewer’s arsenal to maintain control of the proceedings and not something that “just happens”. It’s a deliberate choice on their part to employ that tool. If the interview is getting out of hand or drifting off course, perhaps some interruptions are understandable. However, if you can’t wait five seconds to ask a clarifying question then you are just being impatient and rude. Constant interruptions and talking over by the moderator means they’re not moderating – they’re actively controlling what they want said and how it’s being expressed. It’s also a power thing – you don’t break into the speech of someone you respect or who’s got power over you. If the interviewer is disrespecting the interviewee(s), why would you expect the audience to side with him? The audience isn’t there for Woodward and couldn’t give a damn if his question was brilliant or not. They want the answer and they want to hear it from the panelists. May ole’ Bob needs to understand his role better and leave some of the ego at home…..

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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    Again, this isn’t a random man “talking over” a woman. It’s a panel moderator doing what panel moderators do.

    No James, this was “an asshole older man trying to put 2 women in their place.”

    It’s all a matter of perspective James. If you want to understand what was happening, you need to put yourself in the place of the audience members. Both povs may be legitimate but neither is absolutely correct.

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  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    they instead got a journalist asking critical questions.

    You mean critical questions like,

    “It’s also about sex, isn’t it?” Woodward asked.

    Sure Bob. the same way rape is about sex.

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  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    It’s perfectly normal for the interviewer to interrupt the guest when they’re not answering the question or simply going on too long.

    Except that doesn’t appear to be what was happening. They were answering his question, but it wasn’t an answer he liked, so he was interrupting to correct them with what he thought they should be saying.

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  16. Jen says:

    Context is everything.

    It might be “normal” for an interviewer to interrupt the guest(s)* if they are going on too long or not answering the question, but in THIS case, with THIS topic, and THESE guests, it was stupid and an utterly tone-deaf approach.

    Some free advice from a longtime PR practitioner: Know your audience. Every time you step on a stage, before you say a single word, know your audience.

    *Like @Stormy Dragon: says, that doesn’t appear to be what was happening in this case, he just went into full-mainsplainer mode when he didn’t care for the direction they were going with their answers.

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  17. Paul L. says:

    @Jen:

    he just went into full-mainsplainer mode

    This is what happened when the credibly accused Duke Lacrosse and UVA Frat Gang rapists escaped justice by having Rape apologists like Steven Miller makng the narrative too hurtful, toxic ad insulting.

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    I have to wonder how much was him not getting any feedback from the audience. Would he have gotten to the point where he was throwing out the idea Weinstein’s assaults were just “weird foreplay” if he had heard the audience’s increasingly negative reactions to his previous questions?

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  19. Monala says:

    @MarkedMan: Exactly. James wrote: ” It’s perfectly normal for the interviewer to interrupt the guest when they’re not answering the question or simply going on too long.” But they women did answer his questions; he just didn’t like their answers.

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  20. Jen says:

    @MarkedMan: Agreed, and I regret my poor choice of the phrase “tone-deaf” in my comment above.

    I stand by the rest of it though. Having men talk over you all the time gets old very quickly, and yes, women are tired of it and will usually call it out now when they see it happening in forums like this.

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  21. Moosebreath says:

    Vox has a good article about this event from the other side:

    “But Woodward’s refusal to accept Twohey and Kantor’s answers to his questions — and his repeated attempts to talk over them as they tried to respond — was a refusal to accept their expertise as journalists, and a decision to prioritize his own understanding of sexual violence over theirs without any apparent education in the field.

    Ironically, the conversation ended up replicating the very power dynamics that Twohey and Kantor were trying to explain, the power dynamics that let Weinstein get away with what he did for so long: a man exerting his own institutional power over the women in the room with him, just because he could.”

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  22. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think this is a great example of the collision of differing frames of reference. Many of the women in the audience have been interrupted or talked over a lot by older men, and so they respond as they did. They didn’t want to see that here.

    Now, as it turns out, I have been interrupted and talked over a lot. Ignoring the times my wife has done it (she feels safe with me, is my takeaway), most of it was done by other men. I didn’t like it either, even though it was socially acceptable.

    But there’s a conflict here between a frame of reference that says it’s ok to push at people – to wrestle a bit with each other verbally – in a civilized conversation. Whilst other people think that’s too much overt hostility and does not belong in book discussions. I think that’s where most of the audience was.

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  23. KM says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    But there’s a conflict here between a frame of reference that says it’s ok to push at people – to wrestle a bit with each other verbally – in a civilized conversation.

    Wrestling a bit verbally is one thing. We call that a dialogue or conversation. Pushing and speaking over someone because you didn’t get an answer you wanted to your “critical question” is another. We call that bad manners. In fact, it’s bad manners even in a conversation and it’s never been socially acceptable. It’s something that happens because certain people (mostly men) think their opinion or point is more important then yours and should be vocalized right now. You can have a spirited debate and not talk over each other. You can challenge, be critical or even be outright hostile and still have the manners to wait until someone is done speaking. Woodward isn’t in the right even in his own “frame of reference”.

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  24. Cheryl Rofer says:

    I read this in my RSS feed and came over to tell James to check his white male privilege, but I see that others have done the job much more thoroughly and eloquently.

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  25. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Jay L Gischer: You are illustrating my point.

    We call that bad manners. In fact, it’s bad manners even in a conversation and it’s never been socially acceptable.

    I’m sure you do call that bad manners. But you are asserting a universality to your understanding of manners that does not exist. I have worked in many contexts where that behavior is completely acceptable.

    It is also the case that people act out of prioritization of interests, that they will violate one norm knowingly in pursuit of a goal they hold to be more important. I make no judgement here about which goal is more important, particularly not in the case at hand, the discussion interview about a book. Please bear that in mind. I am observing how humans behave.

    I think you might be aware of how “be polite!” is a way to shut people up, and to avoid uncomfortable questions and issues, and how that’s been used, for instance, against women on the internet. This is a thing that operates in many spheres in many ways.

    My point is that this is less a black-and-white thing than it appears to be to you. Yet, I think it’s fair to describe Woodward as “tone deaf”. “Literally deaf” might be fair, because of the remarks about his hearing aid.

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  26. An Interested Party says:

    I wonder if this dynamic will play out in the presidential contest if Warren wins the Democratic nomination…for all the talk about Trump’s rabid base, there are a lot of women out there who are disgusted with his behavior and, much like this audience, want to be heard and not talked over by some male blowhard…

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  27. SheWhoMustNotBeNamed says:

    I’m arriving late to this party, but I add the following two cents:

    1) The audience commentary sounds extremely nuanced to me, particularly the comments about rape. The notion that rape is not ‘about sex’ is one that is genuinely perplexing to many people, but is common among survivors of sexual abuse.
    2) I’m a member of the legal profession, and have had very occasional instances of working with judges and other attorneys helping clients who are survivors of rape and sexual violence. One of the primary frustrations I observed in these admittedly rare instances is that the victims end up with tremendous and debilitating clinical depression as a result of what happened to them. Predominantly male judges and attorneys have a tendency–in my observation–to discount the testimony and perspectives of victims precisely because they present as clinically depressed. As you may understand, this tendency compounds the hurt and shame survivors are trying to heal from.
    3) I don’t want to apologize for Mr. Woodward, but I would make the point here that the understanding of sexual violence in the context of extremely public cases like Harvey Weinstein brings this frustration–among many others– into full view and leaves everyone at their most vulnerable. Victims are hurt by having their trauma ignored or minimized. The MeToo culture has been great for providing education on the real dynamics of recovery from sexual abuse. However, I would make the point here that shouting at someone because they display ignorance is not going to make them less ignorant or less hurtful any faster.
    4) While I take James’ point that Woodward was acting the way a panelist is supposed to act, his odd topical focus on sex and his interruptions–what ever motivated them– made the audience reaction pretty predictable. The way we discuss sexual predators in the public sphere is changing, and it should. I don’t think anyone needs to be a full on psychotherapist to understand that these are extremely sensitive subjects and at a minimum, people should probably be allowed to finish their sentences.

    That’s more than two cents.

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