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Media Circus: Ah, The President's Mean

<em>The Washington Post</em>'s Bob Woodward, shown in June 2012, has been in the spotlight this week because of a tussle with the White House.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, shown in June 2012, has been in the spotlight this week because of a tussle with the White House.

The week's developments include a pope emeritus for the first time in six centuries, federal budget cuts seemingly designed by Sweeney Todd, and the visit by one of the NBA's all-time rebounders (Dennis Rodman) to the son of one of the world's greatest sportsmen (that would be North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, whose late father claimed to have shot five holes-in-one on his very first golf outing).

And yet somehow, legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward thrust himself at the center of the news with his claim that he had been menaced by an unnamed White House official. That's serious stuff. Woodward has been getting under the skins of presidential administrations for four decades now.

He had written an opinion piece for The Post arguing that the Obama administration bore responsibility for the blanket budget cuts and had unfairly shifted the terms of debate by demanding more revenues from Republicans, not just budget cuts. The piece became a rallying point for the president's Republican critics.

The menace surfaced within a phrase contained in an email sent by the unnamed White House aide countering his article. Woodward shared the line with Politico: "I think you will regret staking out that claim." Woodward made clear he saw that as a "veiled threat," Politico wrote. A less experienced reporter might "tremble, tremble," the more experience reporter said.

Cable television shows and political sites recycled his claims, and he gave several interviews to reiterate the point.

And yet the email, once leaked in full (undoubtedly by the White House), instead showed a penitent senior presidential aide named Gene Sperling, who apologized repeatedly for having raised his voice during an argument by phone with Woodward over his conclusions. In this instance, the president's man was making a case, not a threat. He was arguing that Woodward would regret criticizing the Obama White House because the reporter would prove to be wrong.

So the Obama administration was pushing back against Woodward's opinion piece. Big deal. White House aides spin reporters all the time. They seek to flatter and cajole and impress them too, sometimes promising access to very important people with very imposing titles. Sometimes, they play hardball by canceling interviews.

Political reporters say this White House is particularly thin-skinned and that aides can be contentious. And there are real issues about the transparency President Obama promised on his first day in office. University of Maryland journalism dean Lucy Dalglish, until last year the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, tells me his record is mixed, at best.

But on the evidence made public, the Obama White House sure wasn't threatening in this case.

If Woodward wants to know what a threat sounds like, he can turn to page 105 of a real firecracker of a book called All the President's Men. It's a bracing read. The year was 1972. Along with his journalistic collaborator Carl Bernstein, Woodward was preparing to report that John Mitchell had directed a slush fund for operatives of President Nixon's re-election campaign to investigate leading Democrats while serving as U.S. attorney general.

Here's Mitchell reply: "All that crap, you're putting it in the paper? It's all been denied. Katie Graham's gonna get her [female body part] caught in a big fat wringer if that's published ... You fellows got a great ballgame going. As soon as you're through paying [Post lawyer] Ed Williams and the rest of those fellows, we're going to do a story on all of you."

Given that Woodward and Bernstein had revealed to the public a vast scheme of break-ins, an abortive plot to firebomb the Brookings Institution, and the harassment of political foes, that sure sounds like a threat from a powerful man who until recently had been the nation's chief law enforcement official. Sperling's remarks sounded, by contrast, like a mild comeback on C-SPAN's Book TV.

Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt emailed me that he fully supported Woodward's article, which he helped to edit, and added that the question of any threat was outside his purview. He did say, as a personal matter, that he gives great weight to Woodward's judgment based on his record as a "reporter of unquestioned skill and integrity."

On Thursday afternoon, former George W. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino joked on Fox News that it was obvious no one at the White House was intending to kill Woodward's dog. Instead, the threat could be found in shutting off the lifeblood of the reporter's livelihood: "To threaten access — access is your only weapon."

Had that threat been made, and fulfilled, it would be an inconvenience. But surely, access is not Woodward's only weapon. At least, it shouldn't be. Plenty of Washington reporters rely on access for insight and scoops, or at least scooplets. Other journalists rely on sources and resources outside official channels. There's an inside game and an outside game. The inside game is the one that Woodward has played since he was played by the Sundance Kid in the movies. The outsider's game was the one that got the kid in the picture.

Besides, by Perino's account, her White House pre-emptively sought to discredit Woodward's third book on the Bush administration that chronicled the discord over the Iraq War. There was little official access. The book was a hit with critics and the public.

"We did not participate with the book," Perino said. "When it came out we criticized it, we tried to basically put distance between us and Woodward. And it failed miserably. Everybody [in the media] defended Bob Woodward and not us."

Perino chalked that up to liberal media bias. But in this case, the facts don't support Woodward's characterization of the exchange.

Some leading conservative voices, including Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard, refused to take up Woodward's cause after reading the email exchange. Matt Lewis of The Daily Caller wrote, "We got played."

And Woodward's behavior has stirred increasing discomfort among his peers and colleagues.

In 2003, in the months after the invasion of Iraq, White House aides Lewis Libby and Karl Rove told reporters the identity of a CIA agent, who was the wife of a former diplomat who had become a vocal critic of the war. Matthew Cooper, then of Time, faced jail time until he confirmed to prosecutors that Rove was his source; the late Tim Russert of NBC had to testify in court; New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days, a free speech martyr whose behavior was tainted by her flawed reporting in the runup to the war — and also by misleading her editors about the case.

Yet Woodward withheld similar information from his paper. He held forth on the case, calling the investigation into the leak "laughable," without telling the public — or his editors — that he in fact was the first reporter to learn the agent's identity. He later apologized to editors and gave a sworn deposition to prosecutors.

"Bob ... didn't come to tell me about it because he didn't want to be caught up in the subpoena situation," Len Downie, then-executive editor of The Post, told me in 2005. "He didn't want to have his reporting derailed by being subpoenaed, and he wanted to protect his source."

Similarly, when former Deputy FBI Director Mark Felt was revealed as Deep Throat, Woodward's characterizations for his ultimate source on Watergate came under fire. Sources do not have to act from pure motives to further a reporter's chase for the truth. But Felt's were far from pure: He wanted to undermine the acting director so he could get the job for himself. And that did not mesh with the description offered in Woodward's early books.

One close Woodward observer has little tolerance for this latest episode.

"Woodward was caught out in a lie when he represented Sperling's admonition as a threat," said Max Holland, author of Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

"But that misrepresentation is only the latest in a long list of prevarications that go all the way back to Watergate and the fabled Deep Throat. No other journalist would be allowed to get away with this kind of serial behavior."

It's a self-inflicted wound. A great reporter Woodward may well still be. But his behavior has called into question his standing as a reliable narrator.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.