Wait...you don't look a thing like Robert Redford!

Monday was a rather remarkable day this week, proving once again that the gifts of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship just keep on comin'. (It helps to refuse to leave Ann Arbor.) It was the program's annual public policy seminar and this year the topic was government secrecy with information. Quite a star-studded event, the panel of journalists included the New York Times' managing editor Jill Abramson, NPR's security correspondent Jackie Northam, FOX's Greta Van Susteren and investigative reporting legend Bob Woodward. In his all-too-brief keynote speech, Woodward addressed what he called "the elephant in the room" -- the Iraq war and, more specifically, the business of covering it under the most secretive administration to date. His approach to the topic was interesting as he outlined five points that he said provided us with the context in which the Iraq war is being conducted and reported.

First, he said, the impulse to go to war in Iraq "comes from a lot of idealism on the part of President Bush." He quoted Bush as saying, early on, that Bush believes "we have a duty to free people, to liberate people." Woodward noted that this zeal for liberating people is a crucial element in understanding what's happening.

Next, Woodward said, "In the Bush administration, reality avoidance is a habit." This level of secrecy is not only difficult for the government but "perilous for reporters." We have so much going on in secret, stacks of classified documents that are contradictory to what the administration says publicly.

His third, perhaps most simple, assertion was this: "There is no strategy for war in Iraq." A statement so bold, so certain that Woodward didn't embellish. Fourth, he noted that there is a tremendous amount of disagreement within the powers that be about how to proceed in Iraq. He quoted a secret memo penned by Donald Rumsfeld, in which the then-secretary of defense wrote that the current administration was so messed up in its strategy regarding Iraq that "competence is next to impossible."

Lastly, Woodward pointed out our lack of patience, the pressure from all sides of the political spectrum to produce a solution that will quickly and tidily solve a problem that's going to take years to reconcile.

"Of all the things we have to worry about," Woodward said, "the thing we ought to worry about is secrecy....Democracies die in darkness."

Powerful words indeed, coming from a journalism legend, a force to be reckoned with in the business of both uncovering (and, frankly, keeping) secrets that changed the world. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, was that he comes across as an extremely affable guy, with a good sense of humor.

I was also impressed with Greta Van Susteren. I admit, it may be easy to be both wowed by her high-profile status and cowed by her employment at FOX, but she said a lot of good and sensible things in support of journalists' access to information. She said early in the event that journalists should always be disatisfied with their level of access to government information and fight constantly for a greater level of disclosure. Right on, Greta.

Van Susteren also pointed out that it was only logical that government officials provide greater access to individual reporters and news outlets they feel will preserve their image: "Administrations always want to talk to someone who they think will put them in the best light and not someone who will challenge them....They are not out there to make themselves look bad." That said, she stressed that it is journalists' jobs "to dig deeper" and go beyond the spin they're handed.

 

Notably, Van Susteren was the only panelists to make a plea to the general public to help assist reporters in their efforts to get more information. "If you want more information, if you believe that more information is the bedrock of democracy -- and I do -- then you need to figure out a way to get more protection for journalists."

She noted that fear is an extremely powerful deterrent, that journalists want to live safely as much as anyone else and that reporters want to be able to do their jobs without risking spending 18 months in jail for digging up the truth. Suggesting that the general public press elected officials for legal changes that would protect reporters, she added: "You get us more protection and I think there will be more hard-charging journalists out there...."

My status as editor of the KWF newsletter landed us an invitation to Wallace House for dinner with the crew where the thrill of my evening was getting to meet Woodward and escorting him over to the bar. Sigh. It wasn't much, but there you have it -- I can tell people I once had dinner with Bob Woodward and it wouldn't be a factually incorrect statement. Not a bad way to spend a Monday night.