Bob Woodward's new book, Fear: Trump in the White House is dominating the news this week.

Woodward always seems to get an immense amount of inside access to administration officials, and he is a famously decorated journalist. What is standard whenever he comes out with his latest revelatory offering are the direct quotes or attributions, followed by denials by the parties involved, followed by Woodward talking about his voluminous notes, transcripts and recordings that make up his source materials.

“The idea I ever called the President an idiot is not true," Kelly said, adding that the claim "is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes." ........

In a statement emailed to USA TODAY, Dowd said he has not read the book and does not plan to address "every inaccurate statement" attributed to him, but he denied he replayed the mock interview before Mueller, that he questioned the president's truthfulness and that he made the remark attributed to him about the orange jumpsuit........

In the wake of the White House attacks, Woodward told the Post he stands by his reporting.

USA Today: Trump calls Woodward's book "a con on the public"; Kelly denies calling the president an "idiot"

Subjects and critics of Woodward’s books over the years have complained about his zealous approach to narrative reconstructions and some of the details in his reporting, while largely failing to undermine the broader thrusts of a body of work built upon heaps of in-depth, recorded interviews and ample documentation.

Bloomberg Opinion: Fear and Loathing in Woodward's White House

Is anyone familiar with what kind of formal vetting process publishers follow for books like these? I'd imagine that if an author made up high-profile and sensational claims, it would open up a publisher, let alone the author, to massive civil liability.

Is there some kind of independent, outside auditor who gets access to the source/reference materials an author has, so they can assess the accuracy of claims being made? Are the editors or publishers usually made privy to the source information?

Does someone of Woodward's historical record and stature get the courtesy of blind trust on his claims?

I've noticed that people denying the accuracy of Woodward's attributions have not specifically stated he has permission to release unedited documentation/recordings to verify his claims vs theirs. Does that mean that, yes, they probably said it and are denying to save face, or is the rule of source confidentiality so inflexible that a journalist would never do that, in any case, so that's why no one puts that challenge out there?

I'm not enamored with having to go on who is more credible, alone. Knowing the background on this would fill in a lot of gaps for me.

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    On a vaguely-related note - NYTimes has an anonymous op-ed from a senior administration official, claiming to be part of the inside "resistance" that is intentionally thwarting Trump's "worst inclinations," as claimed by Woodward. They offer a link for people who wish to submit questions about their vetting process, especially for that piece. Wow. nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/… Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 21:17
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    The nature of the individuals involved affects the calculus here: The president and White House officials are such public figures they would have difficulty -- under American libel law -- showing in court that they had been defamed. The greater issue for the publisher in this case, Simon & Schuster, may be their overall credibility. Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 21:24
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    in journalism, an editor is responsible to the publisher to verify the author's claims.
    – dandavis
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 21:25
  • @dandavis - So, is it accepted or normal for an editor to review a reporter's confidential source information? Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 21:26
  • yes, absolutely, that's what editors do. editors can also bring in outside experts to guide them in unfamiliar topics, typically under an NDA or other confidential agreement. For veteran reporters, they may just accept the word of the journalist, for others, or for extreme claims, the editor will say "i'm going to need your sources to verify", after which the reporter rounds up the tapes, memos, etc and gives them to the editor.
    – dandavis
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 21:27

2 Answers 2


In any investigation, whether the field is journalism, history or politics, the goal is to locate primary sources. Where primary sources are not found, secondary sources can be used.

What is most important is clearly stating the source.

We can review two colleges' description of primary sources and secondary sources. See Research Process published by Northcentral University Library

Primary resources contain first-hand information, meaning that you are reading the author’s own account on a specific topic or event that s/he participated in. Examples of primary resources include scholarly research articles, books, and diaries. Primary sources such as research articles often do not explain terminology and theoretical principles in detail. Thus, readers of primary scholarly research should have foundational knowledge of the subject area. Use primary resources to obtain a first-hand account to an actual event and identify original research done in a field. For many of your papers, use of primary resources will be a requirement.

Examples of a primary source are:

  • Original documents such as diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, records, eyewitness accounts, autobiographies
  • Empirical scholarly works such as research articles, clinical reports, case studies, dissertations
  • Creative works such as poetry, music, video, photography

Secondary sources describe, summarize, or discuss information or details originally presented in another source; meaning the author, in most cases, did not participate in the event. This type of source is written for a broad audience and will include definitions of discipline specific terms, history relating to the topic, significant theories and principles, and summaries of major studies/events as related to the topic. Use secondary sources to obtain an overview of a topic and/or identify primary resources. Refrain from including such resources in an annotated bibliography for doctoral level work unless there is a good reason.

Examples of a secondary source are:

  • Publications such as textbooks, magazine articles, book reviews, commentaries, encyclopedias, almanacs

Identifying Primary and Secondary Resources by Santiago Canyon College

Sources of information are often categorized as primary or secondary depending upon their originality. Click here https://vimeo.com/scclibrary/primary-and-secondary-sources/ to view the tutorial.

Primary Sources A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources provide the original materials on which other research is based and enable students and other researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a particular event or time period. Published materials can be viewed as primary resources if they come from the time period that is being discussed, and were written or produced by someone with firsthand experience of the event. Often primary sources reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Primary sources can be written or non-written (sound, pictures, artifacts, etc.). In scientific research, primary sources present original thinking, report on discoveries, or share new information.

Examples of primary sources:

  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Diaries, personal letters, and correspondence
  • Interviews, surveys, and fieldwork
  • Internet communications on email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups
  • Photographs, drawings, and posters
  • Works of art and literature
  • Books, magazine and newspaper articles and ads published at the time
  • Public opinion polls
  • Speeches and oral histories
  • Original documents (birth certificates, property deeds, trial transcripts)
  • Research data, such as census statistics
  • Official and unofficial records of organizations and government agencies
  • Artifacts of all kinds, such as tools, coins, clothing, furniture, etc.
  • Audio recordings, DVDs, and video recordings
  • Government documents (reports, bills, proclamations, hearings, etc.) Patents
  • Technical reports
  • Scientific journal articles reporting experimental research results

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. A secondary source is generally one or more steps removed from the event or time period and are written or produced after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. Secondary sources often lack the freshness and immediacy of the original material. On occasion, secondary sources will collect, organize, and repackage primary source information to increase usability and speed of delivery, such as an online encyclopedia. Like primary sources, secondary materials can be written or non-written (sound, pictures, movies, etc.).

Examples of secondary sources:

  • Bibliographies
  • Biographical works
  • Reference books, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases
  • Articles from magazines, journals, and newspapers after the event -Literature reviews and review articles (e.g., movie reviews, book reviews)
  • History books and other popular or scholarly books
  • Works of criticism and interpretation
  • Commentaries and treatises
  • Textbooks
  • Indexes and abstracts

The publisher of the book made a press release Simon & Schuster to Publish Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House on JULY 30, 2018 relevant to the book by Bob Woodward, which in pertinent part states

Drawing from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources, contemporaneous meeting notes, files, documents and personal diaries, FEAR brings to light the explosive debates that drive decision-making in the Oval Office, the Situation Room, Air Force One and the White House residence.

Also instructive specifically in the field of journalism is Handbook of Journalism Vetting Tips by Reuters

Checking Stories for Fairness

Before You Publish: Some Thoughts

Follow the Trust Principles. Our stories should be balanced and free of bias.

  • Seek comment from everyone named in the story. The goal is to practice “no surprises” journalism: The people and institutions we are writing about shouldn’t be surprised when they read our story about them. Fully explain to them what we’re saying about them, and seek their response.
  • Craft a nut or significance paragraph(s) high up. It should explain why the story matters; and, if the story is a scoop of fact or analysis, it should explain what’s original about the story. Make sure the reporting delivers on the promise of the nut.
  • State explicitly why a story’s premise may be overstated. In other words, don’t shy away from acknowledging the story may be more complicated than it seems and add nuance. (“To be sure…”)
  • Disclose the holes in a story. Acknowledging the key facts or mysteries our reporting could not resolve adds to a story’s credibility.
  • When a key subject, company or institution declines to comment, provide its point of view. Preferably, this would come from a credible, on-the-record source; at the very least, provide contextual information that may put things in a more neutral light.
  • State clearly what already is already known about the subject we are writing about and what is new news.
  • Use anonymous quotes only if they are absolutely crucial. Otherwise, paraphrase or cut -- especially anonymous critics attacking other people. The goal of any story is to use only on-the-record sources.
  • Show, don’t tell. Anecdotes, examples, documentary evidence and statistics should be the meat of our stories, in most cases. Quotes should be the spice.
  • Be sure the outside “experts” we cite really know what they are talking about. If they and other sources have an agenda or axe to grind, disclose it.
  • Anticipate how an ongoing story is likely to develop and flag to readers what may be the next shoe(s) to drop.
  • Bring stories that read overly prosecutorial or conclusory into tonal balance, avoiding language that makes it look like we are taking sides. For example, “he/she says” vs. “he/she admits” is neutral – and best.
  • If this story were about a family member, would you find it fair?
  • Again, follow the Trust Principles. When in doubt, cut the copy, seek more reporting – or spike.

What is instructive in this case is the conversation between Bob Woodward and President Donald Trump published by the Washington Post September 4, 2018 concerning the book at Exclusive: Listen to Trump’s conversation with Bob Woodward, where Woodward describes his attempts to interview President Trump himself, his investigative methodologies how sources are named and quoted, and President Trump more than once stating that "nobody mentioned it" to him responding to Woodward's attempts to interview the President

President Trump: What you can count on is that I have been very careful. And. Evelyn, are you on?

Evelyn Duffy: Yes.

Bob Woodward: Evelyn Duffy, who is my assistant, Mr. President.

President Trump: Hello, Evelyn.

Bob Woodward: She transcibed all the tapes cause with permission I taped people for hundred of hours.

President Trump: Good.

Bob Woodward: And I think there's nothing in this book that doesn't come from a first hand source. Is that is correct, Evelyn?

Evelyn Duffy: I believe that's

President Trump: But are you naming names? Or do you just say sources?

Bob Woodward, Yeah, well, it names real incidents, so

President Trump: No but do you name sources? I mean naming the people? Or just say, you know, "people have said"?

Bob Woodward: I say, at 2 o'clock on this day, the following happened, and eveyone who's there, including yourself, is quoted. And I'm sorry I didn't get to ask you about these.


Bob Woodward: Everything is going to be factual. And it is not a good thing for my business, if I may say this to you, Mr. President, to the presidency, or to the country, to not have real, full exchanges on these. And I broke my speak on it trying to get to you.

President Trump: Well, other than Lindsey, who did mention it, nobody mentioned it.

  • +1 for the thorough answer, especially for finding and linking the vetting handbook. Exactly what I was looking for. I'll wait a few days and see if anyone else has something interesting to add, but this was exactly on point. Thank you. Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 16:38

The only way to verify this is to have recordings of the interviews he did for the books (which Woodward says he has)

He did record the President in August after asking him, so I assume it worked for other witnesses.

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    What I'm after, more, is, prior to publication, or even afterwards, does anyone else - editor, publisher, independent auditor, etc. get to check/confirm/verify these resources, as part of a normal vetting process, or do they just go on him saying "yeah, I have it documented." Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 20:55
  • @PoloHoleSet That's going to fundamentally depend on the ability of the offended party to sue successfully for libel.
    – origimbo
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 22:57
  • @origimbo - I'm not sure I understand that comment correctly, because it would seem like the ability to sue would be somewhat dependent upon the level of rigor followed before publication, not the other way around. Or are you stating that the likelihood of them being rigorous is very dependent on the perceived probability that the subjects will aggressively litigate, as a matter of how they would normally react (kind of like the practice of "defensive medicine" where excessive tests are performed to preemptively defend against hypothetical/potential litigation)? Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 16:18
  • @PoloHoleSet Exactly. If everyone involved is dead (i.e. impossible to libel) then due diligence is a lot simpler than if you're publishing about a living private figure in a medium with exposure somewhere like the UK. Of course, the lawyers might also recommend changing the language of the claims depending on the nature of the evidence.
    – origimbo
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 19:42

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