Ouch. If you really wanted to hurt a reporter what would you say? h/t Allen McDuffee who alerted me to a mesmerizing read on a very public rebuke of famed Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. The article, written Tanner Colby at Slate was not about Woodward's political reporting, but of all things about, John Belushi. Belushi and Woodward had grown up together in the small town of Wheaton, IL and Belushi's wife had asked Woodward to investigate his death, which is how the book Wired about Belushi's life came to be. The book painted a portrait of Belushi as a perpetually drugged out, boorish sloth, that was unrecognizeable to his many friends and coworkers who had given interviews to Woodward for the book.
But in the Slate article, Colby takes the extraordinary step of reinterviewing all the people that Woodward originally interviewed for the Wired book. He did so at the behest of Belushi's widow who commissioned a biography of him. Colby finds that although Woodward has gotten the quotes and stories factually correct, he's missed widely the significance of key vignettes or the context of a quote or situation. As Colby writes, it's not that Woodward was willfully manipulating information, rather:
Like a funhouse mirror, Woodward’s prose distorts what it purports to reflect. Moments of tearful drama are rendered as tersely as an accounting of Belushi’s car-service receipts. Friendly jokes are stripped of their humor and turned into boorish annoyances. And when Woodward fails to convey the subtleties of those little moments, he misses the bigger picture.
It’s not that Woodward is a manipulator with a partisan agenda. He doesn’t alter key evidence in order to serve a particular thesis. Inconsequential details about rehearsing movie dialogue are rendered just as ham-handedly as critical facts about Belushi’s cocaine addiction. Woodward has an unmatched skill for digging up information, but he doesn’t know what to do with that information once he finds it.
The article is just devastating. It is like telling an artist that he knows how to paint in terms of physcially getting paint on canvas, but the painting lacks texture, depth, feeling, subtlties, light, and its missing a soul, and by the way, he's missed half the canvas and a bunch of paint is now on the floor.
But it got me to think about what insult to a scholar would be equally damning. I suppose the scholarly equivalent of such an attack would be that one made claims they could not support with the data, misinterpreted existing data, did not collect enough data to adequately answer the question, collected the wrong kind of data that does not answer the question, asking unimportant/unoriginal/wrong questions, or passing off your own personal views as "research". Still somehow I think I'm missing it. Maybe my scholarly friends can tell me what they regard as the most damaging critique of a scholar's work.