Investigative reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker earlier this year chalked up perhaps the greatest feat of political reporting in the Bush years. They rummaged through the entire federal bureaucracy and came up with a definitive portrait of Vice President Dick Cheney. Titled “Angler,” after the veep’s Secret Service code name, the Washington Post’s four-parter in late June documented Cheney’s secretive ways and his big foot in policy areas ranging from anti-terrorism to taxes.
Now it’s time for the book, and Gellman has sold the project to Penguin Press. “I’m expecting to do a book that expands the ‘Angler’ series,” says Gellman. “The book—and all its prospective flaws—is going to be mine.”
But what about Becker? Is she OK with that?
“I’m proud of the series, but I don’t have any comment on anything beyond that,” she says as she hurries Dept. of Media off the phone.
Behind every “no comment,” of course, lies a story.
Before the “Angler” series hit the streets, Becker jumped from the Post and took a job in New York with the New York Times. There, she went to work on a big piece on Wall Street Journal suitor Rupert Murdoch, setting up what media observers called a first: On June 25, Becker had front-page investigative bylines in both the Post and the Times.
But it was the Cheney series that had the East Coast chatterati obsessed. MSNBC, Charlie Rose, the NewsHour—everyone wanted to run a feature segment on the Post’s findings. The “Angler” PR job fell by default to Gellman, who made the rounds and took on the softball questions about whether Cheney was the most powerful vice president ever. Becker didn’t partake in the post-publication media frenzy—she wasn’t going to pimp a story that ran in a competing paper, even if it carried her byline. So Gellman was left to tout his partner: “I’m going to miss her. She’s great,” said Gellman on Charlie Rose.
Amid all the excitement came feelers from book people—would the two authors agree to an even bigger project on the veep? Becker raised the issue with Gellman, who demurred. Personal issues, responded the Postie, prevented him from undertaking a book.
About two months later, around Labor Day, Gellman asked to meet up with Becker. The two met for breakfast in New York, and Gellman came out with the news. He was closing in on a book deal and had come in search of Becker’s blessing.
According to sources, Becker felt taken aback, pissed. The discussion hovered over Becker’s extensive contributions to the Cheney project. Before she left the Post, Becker shared with her partner much of the material she had gathered, some of which ended up on the cutting-room floor. “I knew who she was talking to, and she knew who I was talking to,” says Gellman.
Becker wanted to know how Gellman would treat her reporting for the series. Gellman’s response didn’t please her. “She came away from the meeting concerned about how Bart would use material that was largely her reporting,” says a Post source.
What followed was a series of discussions that reached the top of the Post masthead. Mary Ann Werner, the paper’s recently departed counsel, reached out to Becker to gauge her concerns. The paper’s two top editors, Leonard Downie Jr. and Phil Bennett, dove in as well, hashing out how best to handle Becker’s contributions. They eventually arrived at a solution requiring Gellman to re-report Becker’s material, an accommodation that reportedly satisfies Becker.
Gellman suggests that all the back-and-forth was a waste of time. “What [the Post] asked me to do was exactly what I’d proposed to do, and exactly what I’d intended to do from Day One,” says Gellman.When pressed on Gellman’s version of events, Becker declines to comment. On the same question, Bennett replies, “I don’t know what he and Jo discussed but he was in complete and immediate agreement with the solution when we talked to him about it.” Nor does Downie address the rift between the reporters. “This is an unprecedented situation and it was necessary to figure out how to handle it,” he says.
Whatever the disagreements, says Bennett, the parties came up with “sort of a good-faith agreement.”
Good faith, OK. But kind of lame, too. How hard is it, after all, to read another reporter’s notes and pry the same stuff from the sources?
Perhaps half-measures are the only measures that’ll address the anomalies at hand. After all, Becker is now working at another paper. As per custom, the Post has first rights to the book material, meaning that Gellman’s key findings will likely be plastered over successive front pages. There’s no chance the paper would allow a reporter from the Times to collaborate. A joint Washington PostnNew York Times investigative piece—now that would be a first.
The trick for the Post at this point is timing. Bush’s term in office is waning, and the race to succeed him is claiming more and more of the public’s attention. Gellman was supposed to complete a follow-up to “Angler” on foreign policy before year’s end but instead proposed rolling that piece into his book. “We had hoped that Bart would have written the foreign policy piece by the end of the year,” says Bennett, adding that the “trade-off” of getting much more additional material via a book project was worth taking.
Especially given the author. “No one…has a better record of high-impact enterprise reporting than Bart Gellman, and I think that the series reflected that…and it could never have been done without Jo Becker’s involvement,” says Bennett.