WASHINGTON – Is there dissension in the ranks of the Big Media over the Obama administration’s heavy hand on even friendly media?
It would appear so with legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward blowing the whistle on what he saw as a veiled threat from Barack Obama’s economic adviser Gene Sperling over Woodward’s contention that the White House was the architect of the sequestration cuts it now blames on Republicans.
But far from the press establishment rallying around Woodward, some elements are wondering how and why he wandered off the reservation with his criticism of the administration.
The headline on a New York Magazine story by Jonathan Chait says it all: “What the Hell Happened to Bob Woodward?”
Politico reported the email exchange between Sperling and Woodward.
Sperling told Woodward he would “regret” questioning White House statements on the origins of sequestration.
“I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall – but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest,” Sperling wrote.
“I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying (sic) that Potus [the president] asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
Sperling continued his admonishment. “The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain (sic) with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding – from the start. Really.”
He said he was not “out to argue and argue” but just to offer “my sincere advice.”
“Your call obviously,” he wrote.
In his New York Magazine column, Chait wrote: “Threats, by their nature, often involve ambiguous language. (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” could mean “we’ll shoot him if he refuses,” but it could also mean, “let’s make him a really attractive offer.”) You certainly can’t disprove the possibility that Sperling, a diminutive but feisty policy wonk, was attempting to make Woodward fear being targeted for anything ranging from a tax audit to a drone strike.”
Chait said that “the more plausible interpretation,” however, “which comes through in Sperling’s pleading email, is that Sperling meant that Woodward would regret tarnishing his reputation with an easily debunked claim.”
Chait suggested Woodward has the prestige “to withstand a hundred terrible op-eds.”
But then he turned.
“Woodward was, and remains, an elite gatherer of facts. But anybody who has seen him commit acts of political commentary on television has witnessed a painful spectacle. As an analyst, Woodward is a particular kind of awful – a Georgetown Wise Man reliably and almost invariably mouthing the conventional wisdom of the Washington Establishment.”
Chait said Woodward “entered the current debate in a way that is fundamentally analytical, not reportorial.”
“His op-ed does not bring to bear any new facts, but merely crams already known facts into an argument so tendentious that not even Republicans thought to make it before Woodward did. Woodward’s argument is that Obama agreed that the failure to secure a debt agreement would trigger automatic budget cuts, or sequestration. Since sequestration did not include tax increases, he claims, Obama is ‘moving the goalposts’ by demanding them.”
Slate’s Matthew Yglesias charged that Woodward, “the legendary Watergate reporter turned reliable chronicler of insider accounts of political events, has made a series of bizarre assertions over the past week.”
Yglesias said Woodward’s description of Sperling’s attack as a “threat” was “a ridiculous interpretation that the ridiculous conservative media has been running with.”
As a result, he said, “Woodward’s reputation among journalists is going to suffer from flagrant wrongness.”
Ben Smith of BuzzFeed wrote: “Officials often threaten reporters that they will ‘regret’ printing something that is untrue, but Woodward took the remark as a threat.”
He called the Woodward controversy a “distracting sideshow.”
And even while denigrating Woodward, Chait admitted he was right about Obama.
“Obama is moving the goalposts in the sense of trying to alter the terms of the automatic sequestration. But then, so are the Republicans, who also want to alter the terms of the automatic cuts. The 2011 agreement was designed to forestall a debt ceiling crisis and force some kind of agreement on the budget later, the parameters of which the two sides would have to contest. Literally nobody involved believes that Obama agreed, in any literal or figurative sense, that a failure to get a deal before the election meant he would give up trying to include revenue.”
Chait, however, described Woodward’s arguments as not “coherent enough to define with any certainty.”
Woodward’s original column explained simply that even though the president denied being responsible for the sequester idea, and blamed it on Congress, that was wrong.
“My extensive reporting for my book ‘The Price of Politics’ shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of [Jack] Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors – probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government.”
WMAL radio in Washington, D.C., reported today that Woodward is not the only one who has been on the receiving end of “threats” from the White House.
Lanny Davis, a longtime close adviser to President Bill Clinton, told the station he had received similar threats for newspaper columns he had written about Obama in the Washington Times.
Davis said his editor, John Solomon, “received a phone call from a senior Obama White House official who didn’t like some of my columns, even though I’m a supporter of Obama.”
“I couldn’t imagine why this call was made.”
Davis said the Obama aide told Solomon “that if he continued to run my columns, he would lose, or his reporters would lose their White House credentials.”
WMAL reported Davis’ support for Woodward.
“Firstly, you don’t threaten anyone. Secondly, you don’t threaten Bob Woodward. He’s one of the best reporters ever. He’s factual. You can disagree with facts that he reports, but he’s factual.”
At the National Journal, Ron Fournier wrote that he, too, had been badgered by the White House.
He said a regular White House source was angered by his Tweet in support of Woodward. The Tweet said: "Obama White House: Woodward is 'willfully' wrong.' Huh-what did Nixon White House have to say about Woodward?"
Fournier wrote that the White House official blasted him with, "What's next, a Nazi analogy?"
From those who have spent years inside the Obama camp, however, there was another opinion. Twitchy reported former Obama adviser David Plouffe tweeted: "Watching Woodward last 2 days is like imagining my idol Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Perfection gained once is rarely repeated."
Twitchy interpreted that to mean Plouffe thought Woodward "should be put out to pasture."
Tucker Carlson of the Daily Caller told Fox News the full emails suggest Woodward "hyped" the claim.
While he said Woodward "has really hurt the White House," he argued the claim of a threat was undercut by the chummy tone of the exchange.
"It looks to me like Woodward hyped that claim," Carlson said.
And Breitbart's Big Journalism complied a list of journalists who have scolded Woodward.
Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, for example, wrote: "Hezbollah is intimidating. Gene Sperling … is not intimidating.
Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith said: "This is the threat?! Please.