In 24 hours the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has become the focus of a major media and political story. He charged that a senior White House official threatened him. GO here for details.
This then became a major story on weblogs and on ideological talk shows — with often predictable reactions depending on the writer or talker’s political party. GO here for details and to look at weblog reaction for yourself.
The bottom line: the White House official who talked to Woodward helped confirm a growing impression that this is a thin-skinned White House. Are Obama officials surprised surprised that Woodward is writing or asserting things with which they don’t agree? How many White Houses have read books or articles by Woodward and found information in them that they wished was not there, or an analysis with which they did not agree? Have they followed Woodward’s career and the credibility of his fly-on-the-wall reporting over the years?
The Republican Party is having trouble rebranding (if it wants to do so). But this kind of foot-in-mouth-disease error by the White House could help rebrand the Obama White House.
But then a new analysis started to emerge: the suggestion that Woodward was perhaps blowing the White House officials’ comments way out of proportion — and framing the officials’ words in a way beyond the shrug they would have elicited from many other reporters. And, indeed: how many (of us) who worked in the news media or worked in it had a source say if we ran with something we’d regret it? It’s often a hint the reporter has it wrong, or that the source is highly connected and there will some kind of consequences. Or its an attempt to intimidate, which inevitably is a stupid mistake: few editors or reporters will STOP reporting on a story if a source makes it clear they don’t want more coverage. In fact, a threat usually means they’re onto something and the story develops “legs.”
I had this kind of statement made to me in varying forms many times over the years, when I wrote for newspapers from New Delhi, Madrid, and Dacca, and when I worked as reporter on the staffs of newspapers in Wichita in San Diego.
My favorite one was from an official in Chula Vista, CA, in the early 1980s, when I worked in the bureau there. I had some tough questions to ask him during lunch, and he sweetly smiled, put down his fork and mentioned the San Diego Union’s then-publisher Helen Copley.
“I know reporters hate it when someone says they’re friends with Mrs. Copley. But (he paused for effect): I’m friends with Mrs. Copley.” He smiled again, picked up his fork and resumed eating.
And I went on with my list of questions, undeterred.
I told my editor at the time and he shrugged as I did. Oh: and Mrs. Copley never came running over to my desk to tell me not to ask that official questions he might not want to be asked. Nor did I expect her to do so.
The Week’s Marc Ambinder — one of the best reporters and columnists in the business — bluntly states what partisans using this flap as one more political football are not stating:
But both Woodward and the White House are correct. The sequester idea came from the White House.
And — everyone who worked on it knew that it was a place holder for a political decision that the American people would make in the 2012 elections. Republicans would cut more spending and Democrats would raise more taxes.
Now, to the threats.
The White House threatens reporters. A lot. It is sort of a humblebrag to say that people with titles as lofty as “Assistant to the President” and with titles as lowly as “deputy press secretary” have used the F-word in conversations with me. Both White House officials and journalists tend to be arrogant and self-referential, and there is a lot of healthy and sometimes unhealthy tension on the job. We yell at each other, and we butt heads, and we live to work another day.
Threats about cutting off access are fairly routine.
Just not if you’re Bob Woodward and used to deference.
I suppose there was a time in Woodward’s career when he would not have taken offense to being bluntly told that he would regret having written something. That time has passed.
It is rather odd that he would interpret the threat as something sinister.
But maybe, in the short time I’ve been away from Washington, the tone of discourse has changed.
Also read Ryu Spaeth’s piece titled “Bob Woodward’s ridiculous war with the White House.”
But one thing Woodward has had up till now is his credibility: he is above all a serious reporter who doesn’t descend in the journalistic ideological slime that now coats so much of reportage and high profile media reporters.
But now you have to ask if Woodward is about to commit as big a mistake as the politically dumb Obama official who used those words in talking to him and not realizing it would bite the official and the administration in the you-know-what: Woodward going to go on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show.
To be sure, over the years Woodward has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and on Fox News.
But taking this controversy to Sean Hannity’s show will move his image in an entirely new direction.
It’s like John McCain walking away from his 2000, more pristine image, to become one more politician.
For Republicans, Sean Hannnity’s show should be titled “Softball,” since it is basically a parade of GOPers who get softball questions from Hannity to bolster their arguments, themselves, and/or the Republican Party. It could also be titled “Talking Points Memo,” except that name has long been used by a solid progressive news site.
If Democrats and others are on Hannity’s show, it’s usually because the interview will make Barack Obama and the Democrats look bad.
Woodward’s interview on Hannity will — correctly or not — definitively alter his image among many because he’s going to take his story to one of the most cravenly partisan shows on cable television which clearly wants him on for ammunition to use in its ongoing partisan and ideological narratives.
Woodward would have been wiser to have next chosen to talk to 60 Minutes in a feature story or have gone to ABC or NBC.
His choice to go on Hannity to talk more about his charge that he was threatened by an Obama administration official is as smart a choice as the Obama administration official who somehow thought his words to Woodward would not become part of Woodward’s ongoing reportage.
After he talks with Hannity and clips from that interview are run on Fox, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and run as embeds on conservative websites and blogs, Woodward’s image as an investigative reporter who refused to let himself get sucked into the ever-tiresome political partisan wars but stayed above the partisan fray will never be the same — fairly or not.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.