On the Woodward Affair

Posted: Feb 28, 2013 11:35 AM

The CNN clip seen 'round the blogosphere dominated our homepage for hours last night, and Kate had more on this controversy this morning.  As more information comes to light, some context is in order: Bob Woodward, a fixture on American journalism's Mount Rushmore, has been at the forefront of national reporting over the current budget fight.  He's repeatedly asserted that it was the White House -- not Congress -- that proposed the automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration," which has complicated Democrats' preferred narrative.  Woodward's fact-gathering has been confirmed by a senior elected Democrat, and Republicans have widely cited his work while pushing back against the president's efforts to blame them for his idea.  The president has criss-crossed the country denouncing his own plan, demanding that Republicans agree to replace the sequester (an act he once threatened to veto) with an alternative package that includes new tax increases.  If the current set of cuts is implemented, he's argued, the pain will be searing and widespread.  Despite weeks of fear-mongering, the public remains skeptical-to-ambivalent.  Now that the moment of truth is near, administration officials have been caught lying and misleading about the consequences of the looming cuts -- and some are accusing the White House of purposefully targeting some of the most important services for immediate cuts, entirely for political reasons.  Woodward sharply criticized this approach on MSNBC yesterday morning, singling out one particular decision as "a kind of madness I haven't seen in a long time:"


Between Woodward's accurate reporting on their sequestration blame game and his exposure of their reckless political stunts, the White House had seen enough.  A "very senior" Obama administration official sent what Woodward characterized as a thinly-veiled threat via email, warning the legendary reporter that he would live to "regret" his actions:

(Oh yes, I'm sure the president would be horrified to learn that this sort of thing has been done in his name.  He's never transparently allowed others do his dirty work while pretending to hover above the fray).  Buzzfeed's Ben Smith scoops the official's identity: White House Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, who apparently berated Woodward at length over the phone before fashioning an apology email that included the "regret" phrase:

The aide "yelled at me for about a half hour," Woodward said, and then sent a follow-up email that read, in part: "You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. … I think you will regret staking out that claim." Officials often threaten reporters that they will "regret" printing something that is untrue, but Woodward took the remark as a threat. "They have to be willing to live in the world where they're challenged," he told Politico. "I've tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there's a young reporter who's only had a couple of years — or 10 years' — experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, 'You're going to regret this.' You know, tremble, tremble. I don't think it's the way to operate."

Though it appears that Woodward may have oversold the severity of the so-called "threat," this is an important point.  Bob Woodward has a platinum journalistic reputation, especially among the establishment press.  He's been around the block a few times and has the stature and confidence to stand up to powerful, overbearing officials.  But how many younger reporters have been cowed into silence by the Obama White House?  What stories haven't been printed on account of aggressive intimidation?  The Left's initial explanation was that the word "regret" was employed to suggest that Woodward had made a factual error, and was not a threat at all.  That's certainly plausible, given the full context of Sperling's missive.  But the Politico story referenced above makes it very clear that the email's recipient saw no such ambiguity.  Is the suggestion that Bob Woodward, of all people, can't properly identify a threat from a hostile White House?  This isn't his first rodeo; and his most prominent White House showdown had much higher stakes than partisan finger-pointing over the provenance of a budget mechanism.  (Say, how did that episode turn out for the administration involved?)  Also, the notion that the Obama White House would never stoop to berating or threatening a respected reporter is easily refuted.  At least two administration officials heaped abuse upon CBS News' Sharyl Attkisson for daring to report on the Fast & Furious scandal.   Liberal Democrat Lanny Davis also says his editor was threatened by the White House over critical columns he's written. 

Just as interesting as the White House v. Woodward skirmish itself was liberals' (including many journalists) real-time response throughout the brou-ha-ha.  Mobilizing to protect their demigod, online lefties quickly began a campaign to denigrate and mock Woodward, suggesting that he'd (a) suddenly become an anti-Obama partisan, (b) gone off the deep end, or (c) become senile.  David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager a long-time White House senior advisor, conspicuously entered the fray with this eye-opening tweet:

That's not some obscure lefty troll.  That's a powerful Obama ally and confidante making a deliberate statement for public consumption.  His message: Woodward's old and washed up -- so what does he know?  The lesson: No matter who you are, if you question Barack H. Obama, your reputation, your integrity and even you lucidity will be instantly impugned.  Remember, the Nixon White House leveled threats against Woodward's newspaper over stories about presidency-threatening criminal acts.  Team O went semi-nuclear on Woodward for reporting budget minutiae that has made their political posturing a little bit harder.  I'll leave you with this incisive analysis from National Journal's Josh Kraushaar:

To understand why the White House is aggressively contesting Bob Woodward’s account of who’s responsible for the sequester, you only have to take a look at how high the political stakes are for President Obama. Instead of tactically conceding on a short-term fix that would provide for smarter spending cuts -- as the Republicans did during the fiscal-cliff fight, when the White House held more leverage -- Obama has chosen to pick a fight over the fairness of deep spending cuts, at the expense of more significant items on his plate. Now the White House’s entire agenda, from guns to immigration, is in jeopardy, and the president’s approval is taking a hit, with much more on the line in the coming month.

Read the whole thing.