By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Journalist Bob Woodward has uncovered scandals and shed a withering light on secretive policy decisions for decades, so when he expressed outrage about an emailed crossfire with a senior White House aide, Washington sat up and took notice.
But a closer examination of his dust-up with White House economic adviser Gene Sperling may undercut Woodward even as it sheds a light on hardball tactics used by President Barack Obama's team to try to rein in reporters.
A complaint by Woodward that the White House had basically threatened him by saying he would regret some of his reporting about a budget deal with congressional Republicans looked overplayed when a transcript of the email exchange came to light.
"I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim," Sperling wrote to Woodward, the Washington Post journalist whose reporting with Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s helped contribute to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The email chain, leaked to Politico, showed Sperling contesting Woodward's public accusation that Obama had gone back on a 2011 promise not to seek to raise taxes in a new deficit-reduction deal.
Sperling's tone was not aggressive.
"I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today," wrote Sperling, a bespectacled economic analyst who heads Obama's National Economic Council.
Neither Sperling nor Woodward responded to emailed requests for comment.
Far from a reputation for nastiness, the traditional complaint from journalists about Sperling is that he would give lengthy, boring briefings on the economy during former President Bill Clinton's administration.
"I think you cannot read those emails and come away with the impression that Gene was threatening anybody," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, himself a former White House correspondent for Time magazine.
"Look, I have enormous respect for the work that Bob Woodward is famous for," he added. "I think a lot of us probably got into the business in part because we read 'All the President's Men' or saw the movie or both. But you know, we had a factual disagreement that I think we stand by."
The author of a series of insider books featuring interviews with top Washington figures that provide blow-by-blow accounts of major political decisions, Woodward had already drawn the ire of the White House recently.
He wrote that a series of budget cuts likely to take effect on Friday - known as sequestration - was originally Obama's idea, a fact the White House at first disputed then finally acknowledged.
His battle with Sperling was emblematic of similar run-ins that many reporters have daily with a White House team that fiercely defends Obama and his policy positions.
National Journal reporter Ron Fournier, for example, wrote on Thursday that a White House official he would not name had become so abusive that he asked the official to stop emailing him.
Obama supporters were eager to try to undermine Woodward's hard-won reputation.
Former Obama White House adviser David Plouffe tweeted that Woodward was like retired baseball slugger Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Woodward is 69.
Sperling did not escape some ribbing either, with one wag creating a Twitter profile called @ToughGuyGene.
(Editing By Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)