Bob Woodward’s hissy fit over being “threatened” by the Obama administration makes me think it’s time for the septuagenarian journalist (he turns 70 in March) to hang up his quill and retire to Martha’s Vinyard or wherever he summers. If he’s serious, he’s lost his taste for blood. If he’s not serious (and I’m pretty sure he’s not), he’s lost his moves and the game has passed him by.
First, let’s deal with the “threat.” It’s an e-mail from Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic advisor, to Woodward from February 22nd:
From: Gene Sperling
To: Bob Woodward
Feb. 22, 2013
I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. 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. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus 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. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain 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. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios — but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)
I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is diffferent. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.
My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.
Are you shaking in your boots from the menacing tone? The clear intent to do harm? The violent and strident tone?
Oh, wait, there’s none of that. What there is instead is a civil, fact-based note that begins and ends with an apology and in the middle continues a calm delineation of why the administration feels Woodward is off base on the “moved the goal post”comment. Yes, indeed the words “you will regret” are used, but in the context of the entire e-mail, those words could mean any number of things, the least likely to me is “we’re gonna fuck you up.”
Bob apparently missed the threat on first read, too. Here’s his response:
From: Bob Woodward
To: Gene Sperling
Feb. 23, 2013
You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today.
Now, I get that when it’s the White House you have to be more sensitive to the possibility of a threat. There’s history there, after all, in terms of previous occupants of the Oval Office (see Nixon and Johnson for example) using the powers of the executive branch to mess with their political enemies. And, of course, the Obama Administration has not been willing to give a straight answer to the question of whether it believes it has the legal authority to use a drone to take out a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil. In other words, you only have to have a slight tendency to bat-shit crazy conspiracy theories to at least pause for a moment when an administration official says, “You’ll regret it.” In this case, however, give me a break. Rahm Emmanuel comes off more threatening saying “Hello, darling” to his wife than this exchange does.
Gene Sperling’s typo-ridden, softball note of apology was not a threat. This is a threat:
As an aside, if you haven’t watched Tropic Thunder, stream it tonight if only for the scenes featuring Tom Cruise as studio head Les Grossman. Definitely on my list of movies I’ll watch over and over and laugh at every time.
Now, let’s deal with the blatant hypocrisy of Mr. Woodward’s position on this. For better than 30 years, Mr. Woodward has made an incredibly lucrative living not as a reporter or editor at The Washington Post (he’s still listed as an associate editor) but by writing a series of tell-all Washington insider books, the kind of book where the first thing everyone in Washington does with it is scan the index to see if they’re in it. They are most noteworthy, in my opinion, for the access Mr. Woodward gets in terms of interviews. Sitting presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members and scores of lesser luminaries give him hours of time – on and off the record – to describe in intimate – and often excruciating – detail conversations in the Oval Office, phone calls between heads of state, confidential and occasionally classified materials and more.
How, you might wonder, does Mr. Woodward get such remarkable access across multiple administrations and across the political spectrum?
The answer is clear if you’ve ever read one of his books: if you talk to Bob, he’ll take care of you. If you don’t…well, in the words of Les Grossman, he’ll fuck you up…at least as far of your reputation goes. In terms of a Venn diagram, the overlap between the set of “people who don’t leak to Bob Woodward” and the set of “people who are portrayed badly in Bob Woodward books” is almost complete.
Now, I’ve never been interviewed for one of Mr. Woodward’s books, of course, so I don’t have firsthand knowledge of how the approach goes, but I’m sure there’s never anything as crass as a “you’ll regret it” uttered. After 17 books, Mr. Woodward’s methods are well-known in DC; if he calls, you know the choices. Just because it’s unsaid doesn’t make it any less real.
As an aside, I have been told any number of times by less prominent journalists (including twice in the last month) that they think “it would be in my client’s best interests” if they submitted themselves to an interview. If Bob was threatened by Gene’s e-mail, are those threats as well?
Which, having dealt with the question of whether or not Bob was threatened (he wasn’t), brings us to the really interesting (to me) notion implicit in this whole contretemps: some journalists seem to believe that they should be able to write or broadcast any silly thing that comes into their heads and do so with impunity. In doing this stuff for 20+ years I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard something like:
- “Why did you pull your ads just because our reporter wrote a critical article about you?”
- “It’s not fair that you excluded my reporter from your press conference.”
- “I don’t understand why our competitor got an exclusive and we didn’t.”
I’ve done all of those things and more in response to coverage I’ve felt was persistently unbalanced or biased. I’ve also done research on reporters’ backgrounds (don’t get paranoid, I haven’t had you followed or pulled your credit reports or gone through your trash but I have read what you’ve written, looked at where you’ve worked before and accessed other freely available public sources about your background), tracked down and fired sources who’ve leaked materials to reporters, complained to editors, managing editors and publishers, run ads criticizing coverage. I’ve pre-empted upcoming negative coverage with press releases or by arranging counter-themed coverage in advance of the story. Back when it existed, I’ve taken news organizations to the Minnesota News Council. In many of these instances, the news organization in question has been shocked – “Shocked!” – that I’d respond in such a manner.
In my worldview of the special relationship between journalists and their subjects, none of these actions should be off the table when it comes to fighting back against bad coverage. Having said that, in the very next few breaths I will also say that such tactics should only be used in the most extenuating of circumstances, should not left lying around where the kids and amateurs can misuse them and that they are rarely themselves cost-free; the old adage about never picking a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel still applies in the era when the media buys digital storage by the petabyte. Some fights, however, have to be fought.
What say you?