Oh Please…

woodward-1Bob 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

Bob:

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.

Gene

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

Gene:

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.

Best, Bob

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?

– Austin

28 thoughts on “Oh Please…

  1. Jeremy Powers says:

    I think you’re missing what Bob Woodward is adept at doing: selling books to journalists, politicians and the general public. Wikipedia says he’s had 13 Number 1 best sellers. However, with the exception of All The President’s Men, The Brethren and, to a lesser degree, Wired, I think he gets that ranking by selling them only to people Washington.

    Besides those three, I’ve tried to get through some of the later ones – even ones about W that were critical and I run into two problems. One is his arrogant writing style. Two is his arrogant attitude

    To me, Bob Woodward is proof that great people tend to do their best work in their 30s.

  2. It’s all part of the game. Every interaction with a reporter and a source has a little bit of a threat hanging over it. As someone who tries to be fair – I welcome Austin’s retribution tactics against people who are not.

  3. Minnesotan says:

    Well, since you deleted the post where I threatened never to comment again, I guess I can weigh in on this one. Man it feels good to be back!

    Your post about Woodward’s comments brings up an issue that’s been gnawing at me for a while. Having maneuvered my way through the U of M’s SJMC, I’ve always held the profession in high regard. I understand the value journalism brings to a free and educated society. Even though I never intended to become a journalist, I understand how difficult it is to write or report a mostly balanced story on a tight deadline. I’ve bit my tongue and ground my teeth when I hear people speak of how biased the “main stream media” is, when most often what they mean is the story didn’t agree with their opinion on the issue.

    It used to be much easier to write-off cries of “biased reporting” to people on the extremes. But over the past half-dozen years or so it’s getting harder and harder to defend the profession. It does seem many media outlets and journalists, and not just the Fox News/MSNBCs of the world – are sacrificing their principles in exchange to higher TV ratings or, more web traffic, or more Twitter activity. Reading the emails you posted, it’s inconceivable a Woodward could claim he was “threatened.” But what has been the result? More TV interviews for him, his name being discussed more, most exposure of his “brand.” What’s the downside to saying something outlandish if your credibility takes a small hit while your wallet potentially gets a lot fatter?

    I think this is particularly prevalent in the online vehicles of media establishments. The ability to harness visitor data in nearly real-time is arguably one of worst things to happen to their credibility. Now many headlines are written so sensationally they often share little resemblance to the story – but they get more clicks – to hell with accuracy. For example, many outlets reported one of the fathers at the Newtown hearings was “heckled” during hearings, when at best he was interrupted. If you’re an editor, and that is where the readers go – that’s what you serve up – right? And if you’re a reporter – you’re job performance is likely tied to click/comments/and Twitter trends – so go for what gets people talking.

    That’s just a long rant. To Jon’s point – if someone feels they were intentionally misrepresented in the media, I think all of the things he listed are on the table. In today’s online world, people/companies have more avenues than ever to state their case of how or why they were misrepresented in the media. Of course, sometimes it’s just because the interview subject put his/her foot in their mouth or didn’t do a good job or telling their side of the story in a way that was succinct or useful to the media. That is either a failure on their part or their media relations counselor – not the reporters.

    1. You couldn’t see those posts either, could you? I TOLD everybody they were missing and they just assumed it was drug flashback (in fairness, they have reason). Then I fixed some HTML code in this post and – huzzah! – they were back.

      It wasn’t a hallucination!

      – Austin

  4. Joe Loveland says:

    Woodward isn’t dealing with a threat. He’s dealing with a desperate need for attention.

    Redford played a more admirable journalist than Woodward does these days.

  5. First, I just want to thank Austin for depleting the world’s known supply of keystrokes with this screed … as great and wonderful and overdue as it is.

    A completely shocking assertion, based on my days writing about local media, is this: Journalists, especially those of a higher public profile, were IMHO far more thin-skinned about coverage and comment than politicians and business types. It was rare to find one who wasn’t God’s gift to the trade and an under-appreciated expert on the First Amendment.

    Worse, they had no patience for “the game” when it doubled back on them.

    Regarding Woodward, as much as we owe him for his Watergate work, (albeit with some of the details — the meeting(s) in the garage, etc. — sounding funkier as years go by), I’ve filed him off as a prevailing-wind hagiographer through most of his later career. True courage from a guy of his stature and sources would have been to write a book about the rush to war in Iraq simultaneous to the invasion (10 years ago this month). Or, if not a book, at least lend his reputation to public skepticism about the stated rationale.

    Quite obviously the guy has discovered the ore vein on his beat, and it is putting his stamp (and the Post’s, by association) on versio’s of contemporary history that never truly discomfits those whose power arc is on the rise. (To do so, as every reporter knows, means getting blackballed by that guy and all his buddies expecting the same deferential treatment).

    Then … there’s the unbelievably spot-on accurate dialogue from conversations he’s getting at best second hand.

    Even the great Seymour Hersh, who makes no apologies for anonymous sources, spares his readers the need to suspend disbelief over knowing what went on in private conversations. Plus … Hersh has shown far, far more courage in terms of genuine professional skepticism and speaking truth to power than the latter day Woodward.

    1. Don’t worry, there’s more keystrokes in the bin. As Lambert knows, there’s a post of mine in draft form that’s so long and unwieldy that all I can think to do is to nail 2x4s over the door to keep it from getting out and taking over the world.

      – Austin

  6. The State Capitol Corps reporters are all housed in a crowded moldy basement “suite” below the Capitol. They’re stacked on top of each other, so there is a lot of cross-pollinating, and often groupthink.

    Back in the days when I used to spend a lot of time down there, you would often observe Capitol Corps reporters strutting around bragging to each other about which muckety-muck just chewed them out. You never saw a reporter more buoyant and animated than when they had been chewed out or allegedly “threatened.”

    My conclusion from that is that what PR flacks often think is dire punishment is actually the coin of the realm for journalists. At least some journalists live to be able to show to their colleagues and competitors that they are causing The Man to squirm, a quality I admire, except when I am viewed to be The Man. For the chewed out reporter, the punishment is worn like it’s a red badge of courage.

    Therefore, any attempt at punishment by sources is interpreted as sign of squirming, which is welcomed, not feared. That looks to be the impression that Woodward is trying to create here.

    Especially younger flacks lacking the requisite lash marks don’t always understand this, and rush to the tough guy/gal tactics. Every situation and every relationship is different, but I think the tough guy/gal stuff is usually ineffective to destructive. It may feel good to the flack, and gain them back slaps from their employer, but it often backfires with reporters and their bosses.

    1. Joe is absolutely right in his observations of reporter behavior. Getting “cut off” by a subject, complained about to an editor, etc. is generally what gets them kudos and high-fives from their colleagues.

      And, remember my closing cautionary words: “…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 they are rarely 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.” Really, if you do stuff like this more than a couple times a year, you’re abusing your tools. When I worked at the old airline, I probably worked on 2,000 stories, columns, editorials, etc. with Star-Tribune staff. I went down to complain to an editor once. I had a similar ratio with the Pioneer Press, very slightly higher ratios with local TV stations.

      Almost every time I’ve been told by a boss or client to “cut off” a reporter’s access to the company, I’ve either argued them out of it or have carried out their instructions in the most limited way possible. My experience is that almost all of what amateurs think is bad journalism is in fact tough, but legitimate, journalism. Punishing a reporter or a news organization for doing its job well is a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing IMHO.

      – Austin

      1. Agree, about “use in moderation,” and didn’t mean to infer you didn’t.

        Jon actually was once my client in the Pre-Cambian era, so I can attest to the fact that he directed most of his cathartic punishments at his agency sycophants rather than reporters.

        1. And I didn’t mean to infer that I was thinking you were inferring that I wasn’t aware of the distinctions.

          Gee, we’re so polite under the new moderating regime!

          – Austin

    2. Jeremy Powers says:

      Getting “tough” with a reporter is generally not good. But what I am reading here in Sperling’s letter sounds more like what I call journalism bird-dogging. A journalist with such a extreme focus that they’re impervious to the idea that maybe, just maybe, they’re barking up the wrong tree.

      Anyone who has worked in journalism know there are times when you start with a premise and go find the sources to back it up. It is my usual one complaint against public radio. Like the news story was decided in an editorial meeting and the reporter has to come back with that story. And as any good editor/reporter knows, you can start with a premise, but you’re there to get the reality/truth/facts.

      I remember an editor telling me I was to go out to nursing homes during a terrible heat wave and find misery. I did as I was asked, but the oldsters weren’t buying it. Yes, it was bloody miserable, but they were wearing shorts and t-shirts, drinking iced tea, with fans. When you asked them how they were, they immediately went into stories about how bad it was in the old days living on farm with no electricity. The truly ill either had air conditioners or were transported elsewhere.

      So I wrote the story that I found, essentially saying, yes it’s hot, but senior citizens weren’t melting. My editor was pissed as hell. He wanted sagging old people and nothing short of that would do. This whole thing, based on the content of the letter, reminds of of the same kind of attitude. (OK, hardly a hard-hitting national financial story.)

      It’s one thing not to be misdirected from the real story by some bullshit and talking points. It’s another when you can’t see the story or refuse to acknowledge it.

  7. Rob, I so disagree with you on “never” about Woodward. During Watergate he was a consummate reporter, risking his reputation (and, who knew with the crazy Nixon gang, maybe his physical safety), spending long boring hours tracking down documents, following a story day after day and refusing to let it go.Legwork and iron-butt patience. Later, yes, he’s become a Washington insider, but he was a classic reporter (or “rah-por-ter” as he pronounces it) and he is still a journalist in the sense that he tells stories about public issues. Bernstein has stayed closer to his roots, and has written far better books, IMHO.

    1. rob levine says:

      I guess it depends on what we mean by journalist. In my mind, the journalist is an agent of the reader; Woodward seems to be hidden agent of the military.

    2. rob levine says:

      BTW – Even Ben Bradlee had doubts about the intrigue that Woodward said surrounded him – even doubting the existence of Deep Throat.

  8. john sherman says:

    It’s a pity Woodward never had to deal with LBJ, in which case a threat that his private parts would have been found decorating a fence post would have amounted to a real threat.
    Many of us old enough remember fondly I.F. Stone, who proudly had no inside contacts and who got his stories by plodding through the endless pages released by executive or congressional sources on Friday afternoons in August in hopes, usually justified, that the press corps would be out at the beach.

  9. Bruce benidt says:

    I. F. Stone was the model. Documentary of his Weekly exploits best look at journalism and government. Film opens w Stone’s voice: “All governments lie.”

  10. Jeremy Powers says:

    If nothing else, Bob Woodward was a role model. And whereas I think he’s now on some sort of insider ego trip, I believe that at one point he was among a handful of the best journalists working at the highest level of government. Although boring at times, The Brethren was ground breaking.

    At least he was for me. I a world full of dead-end manufacturing jobs, accounting majors and low-level management positions, the idea that you could get paid – although not much – to go make a difference was exciting, even if I knew I would be bringing a president to his knees. And Woodward did it dashingly – getting inside interviews of powerful people. That’s what made him a role model. I.F. Stone pouring over reams of government documents was not going to inspire 1970s and 80s would-be journalists, even if it was more important in many cases.

    But this episode makes me question whether I was inspired by the real Bob Woodward or a Bob Woodward I crafted myself from his books, Robert Redford’s portrayal of him and the media in general. Was all the intrigue in All the President’s Men just a weird paranoia? I mean with the likes of G. Gordon Liddy, John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman it was easy to believe they were after him physically. But I look at “I think you will regret” and Woodward’s reaction to it, I’m starting to wonder if the threats were more of a “tit in the wringer” kind of comment.

  11. Newt says:

    Because you all are part of the subterfuge that is the media side circus (l’affaire Woodward), let me remind you why Obama hates him. It’s because Woodward dared to report that it was Obama who gave birth to Sequestration.

    In other words, Woodward strayed too far from the plantation. And now he’s gonna pay Masa.

  12. rob levine says:

    Bob Woodward: He’s most wrong when it matters the most:

    http://gregmitchellwriter.blogspot.com/2013/03/woodward-was-certain-of-iraq-wmd.html

    The day after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech before the U.N. Security Council Wednesday, TV commentators and newspaper editorials, and even many liberal pundits, declared their support for the Bush administration’s hard-line stance on Iraq. CNN’s Bill Schneider said that “no one” disputed Powell’s findings. Bob Woodward, asked by Larry King on CNN what happens if we go to war and don’t find any WMD, answered: “I think the chance of that happening is about zero. There’s just too much there.”

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