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Journalists Like Jo Becker Claim To Hold Power Accountable But Are Really Establishment Tools

The New York Times’ Jo Becker receives front-page placement for her pieces on the Supreme Court and is becoming Woodwardism’s preeminent practitioner.


The “human story is the core,” was Bob Woodward’s unintentionally revealing explanation for how he approached his work after the Watergate revelations made him Washington’s dean of political journalism.

This approach assured Woodward high-value interviews while also placing him in the pocket of the same insider institutionalists who had benefited from President Richard Nixon’s removal: the operators who place the leaks and drive the coverage that maintains the power of the capital city. After all, when the focus is on the flaws and virtues of politicians (“the human story”) what gets lost is the story about structural power: which institutions are running what agenda and warding off what threats to their control. By ignoring this story, journalists like Woodward who purportedly keep power accountable become its tools.

Today, Woodward is 80, but as huge segments of America revolt against the structures he fronted for, Woodwardism is flourishing in response, most obviously in unrelenting attacks on the Supreme Court: the one Washington institution with the power and the intent to limit the influence of the capital city. In the process, The New York Times’ Jo Becker, now receiving front-page placement for her pieces on the court, is becoming Woodwardism’s preeminent practitioner. Becker is new to the court beat, but painting personal portraits rather than looking at power dynamics has been her real beat for 15 years. Like Woodward, it has assured her considerable success.

Failing to Take on the Administrative State

She won her first Pulitzer Prize in 2008, working with Barton Gellman on a Washington Post series about how and why Vice President Dick Cheney used his influence to expand the power of the administrative state. This was valuable journalism for anybody opposed to administrative growth, but it also stopped with the vice president, as any good “human story” would, just as he was in disrepute and on his way out of power. It didn’t extend to the defense contractors and government officials, the nonprofit organizations and think tankers, who helped seed the ground for his actions and stayed in the “gilded capital” to benefit from them up to today.

By 2012, Becker was at the Times, where her approach to another investigative project with important national security implications was even more personalized and insider-driven. Probing President Barack Obama’s use of drone warfare outside congressional authorization at the start of an election year, her front-page story quoted anonymous White House sources calling Obama “a student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas” who “believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions” and calling Obama’s national counterterrorism adviser John Brennan “a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama.”

The piece gave no space to the White House’s obfuscations to congressional committees trying to oversee these programs — the real story about power in Washington — and spent five sentences airing and dismissing military criticisms that its policies risked creating a new Vietnam.

At the same time, Becker found another story to personalize, availing herself of an invitation to embed with “Hollywood industry adviser” Chad Griffin, who in 2012 became president of the LGBT nonprofit the Human Rights Campaign. Off this access, she wrote a 2014 book, Forcing the Spring, about a Supreme Court case Griffin, Rob Reiner, and other politically connected Hollywood players unsuccessfully tried to make the hinge of the gay marriage movement.

In the book’s first page, she compared Griffin’s decision to fight for gay rights to Rosa Parks’ refusal to get up from her seat on the Montgomery bus, earning criticism from prominent activists for diminishing history, but her book was praised by Times’ reviewers and landed on its bestseller list. Again, the real story about power — how the Human Rights Campaign was using Hollywood and Washington connections to become a corporate-funded behemoth interlinked with the Democratic Party and hated by many LGBT activists — was ignored.

Then there was Russia and Trump: the source of Becker’s second and third Pulitzer Prizes in 2017 and 2018. This was the most potentially reportorial of her work — if the allegations had been true, they would have represented a clear power play by a foreign government aided by Americans — and the most flawed, since it flowed from clear violations by national security agencies. After President Donald Trump’s election, these agencies repeated what was arguably their playbook from 1972, working to delegitimize a president who threatened their power, though unlike in 1972 no smoking gun existed. But like in 1972, the press was crucial to their play, this time with Becker not Woodward at the helm.

SCOTUS Now the Target

Now, the Supreme Court is Becker’s target. For almost a year and a half, Becker’s beat has been the justices, the focus of 12 of the 14 stories she filed in that time. Six of these stories have been about the conservative activism of Ginni Thomas, Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife; two about allegations of leaks from the office of Justice Samuel Alito; two about nonprofits’ and law schools’ ties to the court; and the two most recent about Justice Thomas himself.

Seven of these stories have made the Times’ front page. Their focus is not court cases or tangible connections between the justices and plaintiffs. Their focus is the reporter’s method (the sources she turned to, the papers she reviewed) from which she paints a portrait of the justices’ milieu.

Not surprisingly, the portrait is suggestive — the justices are powerful people and know powerful people, many of whom are tied to conservative politics and have indirect stakes in cases before the court. But it also isn’t journalism. None of these stories are “about” anything, reportorially speaking: They reveal nothing people didn’t know, or what they do reveal says nothing about the court’s business. Their angle is the “human story”: “a glimpse behind the Supreme Court curtain.”

Justice Thomas’ “friendships … have brought him proximity to a lifestyle of unimaginable material privilege.” His “RV vehicle is a key part of the justice’s just-folks persona” but also “a luxury … funded by someone else’s money.” Scalia Law School at George Mason University “has offered the justices a safe space in a polarized Washington … where … their personal needs are anticipated.” A well-connected minister’s campaign against abortion “offers insights into the court’s boundaries and culture.” Ginni Thomas’s “raw feelings” after the 2020 election were significant because she and Justice Thomas are “a fiercely close couple.”

The implied point, of course, is that the social bleeds into the legal, that loose connections outside the bench affect rulings on it. But, without actual evidence and with six conservative justices holding long-developed legal philosophies that cause them to diverge on cases, the stories are just that — loose collections of anecdotes with a personal edge.

The real story here isn’t what’s in the pieces; it’s that the pieces are getting written at all, by someone who’s reached the top of Washington’s establishment through turning reporting into a personality beat. Woodward once elaborated on his method that “I am waiting — if I can say this — for the call from somebody on the inside saying ‘I want to talk.’” Today, if people in Washington want to “talk” to a reporter who, like Woodward, can be trusted to follow a line in their favored direction, there’s a new mantra at hand: Call Jo Becker.

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