Thursday, February 28, 2013

Will Bob Woodward soon be sleeping with the fishes?


"I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim."
-- the "threat" issued by Gene Sperling, director of the National
Economic Council, in an e-mail to Bob Woodward

by Ken

So what do you think? Has the Obama administration taken out a hit on America's Ace Reporter, Bob Woodward? Should the Woodman be taking out a special insurance policy on his kneecaps?

For once, I thought there would be an advantage in turning to a dyed-in-the-wool Village stooge, and I looked at's Chris Cillizza's report, "Bob Woodward vs White House: Full of sound and fury, signifying (almost) nothing." After all, when it comes to a subject like relations between high-level DC sources and high-powered DC media princes, who's better-positioned to handicap the contest than the stooge's stooge?

Alas, I miscalculated totally. First off, our Chris seems to have defined the question at issue as whether the country cares about the tiff. And on this basis he dismisses the matter as "a classic Washington tempest in a teapot that elicits, at most, a shrug of the shoulders from most folks."

He backs this up with "two simple steps." First, the unwashed masses don't know, understand, or care from nuttin' about no damn sequester. And second, the "threat" is all a matter of "semantics" --
whether the word "regret" constitutes a threat or not. (Not kidding, that’s the issue. Who says Washington is out of touch?) And, for what it's worth, the emails in question between Woodward and Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling seem to be broadly inoffensive — detailing that most common-place thing in journalism: a disagreement between a reporter and his/her source.
"For what it's worth," Chris? "For what it's worth"? Doesn't it kind of matter whether National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling was actually brandishing verbal brass knuckles? A more helpful formulation than "Do people care?" might have been "Should people care?" I mean, isn't it a story if a presidential administration has has in fact taken to threatening a reporter? Well, not so much a reporter as . . . er, a Bob Woodward.

Apparently, no. What we get from Chris C is predictably Villageois they-said-the-other-ones-said sludge.
In short, the people who care about this tend to be partisans whose reactions to the “controversy” are decidedly predictable.  Republicans view it as the latest example of a White House trying to bully the media into telling a one-sided story. Democrats think Woodward is over-reacting to a non-story.
There you go, it's just these guys vs. those guys, the way it's always been in this here Village, and always will be. Except in reality the right-wing nutters in Congress who are screeching "He wuz threatened" are lying sacks of doody, people who, I truly believe (though I'd love to have the theory tested), couldn't or wouldn't tell the truth publicly if their lives depended on it.

Whereas people who say that there was no threat . . . wait, let's look, finally, at what Gene actually wrote. It's in the context, remember, of an e-mail in which the director of the National Economic Council was grovelingly apologizing to Prince Bob for having raised his voice in an exchange earlier in the day, in which he forcefully disputed a contention of the prince's in a weekend op-ed in which he purported to "explain" the sequester.

(Leaving one to wonder, one adds parenthetically, who explained the sequester to Prince Bob? On the politics of it, he might have gotten a glimmering if he had the sense to ignore his lordly contacts and seek counsel from some of his paper's younger and still less jaded political reporters. However, on the substance of the sequester, who are we kidding? Does anyone believe the prince has even a high school economics student's grounding in the subject?)

Here, in some context, is how Gene told his e-buddy Bob he would "regret" his uppitiness:
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.
Here Chris C's characterization of "the emails in question" as "broadly inoffensive" seems to me the very least a person can say. Does anyone really believe Gene is telling Bob to recant or else face a life of permanently looking over his shoulder for the deadly assailant? Isn't it fairly clear that he's speaking "as a friend," he's trying to suggest to Old Woodenhead that he's set himself up to look like a schmuck? (Actually, there might be a much subtler threat gently implied. We'll come back to this.)

As to the supposed "disagreement between a reporter and his/her source," um, huh? On the simplest level, Sperling knows what he's talking about and Prince Bob doesn't. On the next level up, in this reporter-source formulation I guess Sperling is the "source," but who would be playing the role of the "reporter"?

Which is where I thought Chris C might be helpful, poking some gentle fun at the WaPo Prince's standing in the Village. Because as we all know Prince Bob isn't a "reporter," he's a Village "as told to" power groupie. Man, was I off target. Here's what he in fact has to contribute on this subject:
There has been a long running frustration within the media world with how the White House treats reporters and how it parcels out information. (This is not unique to the Obama Administration; technology like Twitter, You Tube etc. increasingly allows presidents -- and other politicians -- to end-run the media "filter".)  But, when Woodward, who is, without question, the most famous political reporter in the country, voices these same frustrations it gets far more attention solely because of who he is.

Will Woodward’s complaints change anything in the way the White House interacts with reporters? The Fix isn’t a betting man but if we were, we would lay all our money on "no." [Boldface emphasis added.]
OMG. Does anyone, even Chris C, believe that the way the White House interacts with Prince Bob is treated has anything to do with it interacts with actual reporters? Which brings us to that possibly implied threat I alluded to earlier. If Gene is saying anything of the sort here, it's likely to be something of the nature:

We know your entire career standing depends on access, and access at the highest levels of government? If you go around micharacterizing what such people say, especially when you don't know the eff you're talking about, don't you think you may live to regret it?

In this regard, it might be useful to look at the e-mail Prince Bob sent in reply:
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 
First off, does that sound like a man shivering in his boots after being threatened by the deadly force of the U.S. executive branch?

Whether we want to think of Prince Bob as a groupie or an outright power whore, luckily what's transacted between him and his "sources" all goes on behind closed doors. I sure as heck don't want to see pictures, or have pictures painted.

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