The Troubling Things I Learned When I Re-Reported Bob Woodward’s Book on John Belushi

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March 12 2013 5:42 AM

Regrettable

The troubling things I learned when I re-reported Bob Woodward’s book on John Belushi.

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Belushi, John:
          cocaine habit of, 15, 17-33, 64-65, 76, 81, 93-94, 100, 103-05, 110, 128, 142-43, 145, 155-56, 159-60, 163-65, 170, 187-89, 193, 205-6, 218-19, 221, 243-44, 247-50, 262, 273, 297, 298, 301, 303, 306-8, 310-11, 316-53, 359, 361-65, 372-74, 385-89, 392-93, 395-400, 413-14, 422

That’s just the coke. It goes on to include “marijuana smoked by,” “mescaline taken by,” and “mushrooms (psilocybin) eaten by.” And those are just the drugs that start with the letter “M.”

Of course, John Belushi did do all of those drugs, and there’s little doubt that the drug stories Woodward uses actually happened. But he just goes around piling up these stories with no regard for what is actually relevant. Just to compare and contrast: At one point, Woodward stops the narrative cold to document a single 24-hour coke binge for the better part of eight pages. Nothing much happens in these eight pages except for Belushi going around L.A. doing a bunch of coke; it’s not a key moment in Belushi’s life, but it takes on an outsized weight in Wired’s narrative simply because Woodward happened to find the limo driver who drove Belushi around and witnessed the whole thing, providing him with a lot of juicy if not particularly important information. Meanwhile, the funeral of Belushi’s grandmother—which was the pivotal moment when he hit bottom, resolved to get clean, and kicked off his year of hard-fought sobriety—that event is glossed over in a mere 42 words, and a quarter of those words are dedicated to the cost of the plane tickets to fly to the funeral ($4,066, per Woodward, as if it matters to the story).

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Whenever people ask me about John Belushi and the subject of Wired comes up, I say it’s like someone wrote a biography of Michael Jordan in which all the stats and scores are correct, but you come away with the impression that Michael Jordan wasn’t very good at playing basketball.

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.

All of which helps explain the recent Sperling affair. What did Woodward do? He took a comment from a source, missed or misinterpreted the subtext of what was being said, and went on to characterize it in a way that bore no resemblance to reality. What’s damning about the Sperling emails—and Wired—is that we can go back to the source and see the meaning and subtext for ourselves; normally with Woodward’s confidential reporting, we can’t.

After Wired was published, Woodward said to Rolling Stone that there was some warmth to Belushi that he “didn’t capture,” but he also passed the buck to his sources, saying he tried to get them to “talk about the good times” but kept getting horrible drug stories or stories that didn’t in his estimation reflect the true Belushi. “When you do something like this,” he told Rolling Stone, “you have to learn that people can’t see reality, especially in Hollywood.” I spoke to almost all of those same sources myself. Not only did Belushi’s contemporaries from Saturday Night Live and Hollywood offer colorful tales of a beloved if troubled and complicated man, they themselves are some of the greatest writers, performers, and storytellers of the last quarter-century. They tell good stories. The problem was the filter those stories were put through.

Granted, I wasn’t working from the same notes and transcripts as Woodward. People’s memories change. Stories evolve over 20 years of telling. Surely there were people who were mad at Belushi in 1983 who prefer to look back on him fondly today. And if it were one or two people disputing Woodward’s characterizations, you might chalk it up to rose-tinted glasses. You might do the same if it were nine or 10 people. But when it’s practically everyone, when person after person sits down across from you and remembers, specifically, as Blair Brown did, this is what Woodward mischaracterized and this is really what happened, a pretty clear pattern begins to emerge.

It’s also easy to discount Wired by saying that Woodward just doesn’t have a sense of humor and was out of his depth writing about a comedian. And that’s true as far as it goes. But the stories from Animal House and Continental Divide aren’t really about comedy so much as they’re about human beings interacting, which is a lot of what goes on at the White House, too. The simple truth of Wired is that Bob Woodward, deploying all of the talent and resources for which he is famous, produced something that is a failure as journalism. And when you imagine Woodward using the same approach to cover secret meetings about drone strikes and the budget sequester and other issues of vital national importance, well, you have to stop and shudder.

*Correction, March 13, 2013: This article originally stated that John Belushi died of a "cocaine overdose"; Belushi had taken a speedball, a combination of cocaine and heroin, the night he died, and the coroner's report concluded that either drug may have been ultimately responsible for his death.