"Woodward at war," was the headline Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei attached to their February 27 article playing up Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's claim that a senior White House official had threatened him over email regarding Woodward's reporting on the origins of the budget sequestration. The Politico report on Woodward's "major-league brushback" caught fire in the press and prompted allegations of White House intimidation. However, the email chain -- which Politico published the following morning -- shows that the claims of threats and intimidation by the White House are, at best, wildly overblown, and that Politico helped hype a bogus allegation by Woodward absent the full context.
The original February 27 Politico piece featured a short clip of Allen and VandeHei's "hourlong interview" with Woodward "around the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington's powerful have spilled their secrets." In that clip, Woodward reads from an email he received from a top White House official, later revealed to be economic advisor Gene Sperling. As Woodward puts it, Sperling did "something that I think it is important for people to understand. He says, you know, 'I think you will regret staking out that claim,'" referring to Woodward's assertion that the president was "moving the goal posts" in negotiations to avert sequestration.
Allen and VandeHei wrote:
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. " 'You'll regret.' Come on," he said. "I think if Obama himself saw the way they're dealing with some of this, he would say, 'Whoa, we don't tell any reporter 'you're going to regret challenging us.'"
"They have to be willing to live in the world where they're challenged," Woodward continued in his calm, instantly recognizable voice. "I've tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there's a young reporter who's only had a couple of years -- or 10 years' -- experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, 'You're going to regret this.' You know, tremble, tremble. I don't think it's the way to operate."
It's not clear whether Allen or VandeHei had access to Woodward's full email exchange with Woodward -- as they put it, Woodward "[dug] into one of his famous folders" to read the offending excerpts to them, meaning that at the very least they had the opportunity to demand to see more from that exchange before publishing Woodward's claims. From all appearances, though, Allen and VandeHei's initial reporting on the email exchange was based solely on what Woodward told them about it. Their "exclusive" follow-up article on the email exchange indicates as much: "POLITICO's 'Behind the Curtain' column last night quoted Bob Woodward as saying that a senior White House official has told him in an email he would 'regret' questioning White House statements on the origins of sequestration."
By the time the Washington Post's Bob Woodward appears on Sean Hannity Fox News show tonight to tell his tall tale of intimidation, is anyone even going to still care about the reporter's ominous claim that he was threatened by the White House for daring to raise questions about its ongoing sequestration battle with Republicans? Or more specifically, is anyone outside the right-wing media bubble going to care?
Woodward's hard-to-believe tale about being threatened, based on a single innocuous sounding phrase from an email sent by a senior White House aide, was cheered by Obama's conservative critics who claimed it proved their long-running theory about the administration's "thug" culture. But the shaky story of a threat quickly collapsed when the full context of Woodward's email exchange with the White House aide, Gene Sperling, was revealed. Rather than a threat, the two men had simply engaged in a vigorous, respectful debate.
Yesterday, Woodward summoned two reporters from Politico to his home and told them his tale of woe. According to the Politico article, Sperling had pushed back on Woodward's assertion that President Obama was "moving the goalposts" on the issue, telling Woodward in an email, "I think you will regret staking out that claim."
From that, Woodward insisted he'd been threatened, even though "I think you will regret staking out that claim" doesn't sound like very threatening language. Instead, it sounds like someone trying to tell Woodward he would regret publishing facts that are inaccurate. (Kind of the opposite of a threat, no?)
Indeed, when Politico published the email exchange in its entirety, the whole story fell apart. Sperling had actually written, "I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim." And Woodward's response certainly did not indicate that he felt threatened; he told Sperling, "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."
Why Woodward decided to stage a media tour based on a false premise of a non-existent threat remains to be seen. But we do know Woodward's now an honorary practitioner of the far right's Phony Outrage Machine.
Right-wing media are hyping reporter Bob Woodward's sinister interpretation of an email he received from the White House as a threat against him. But White House officials point out that the email was sent as an apology for previous tension, not a threat -- a claim reinforced by the tone of the emails.
In an interview with Politico, Woodward described a tense conversation with White House economic adviser Gene Sperling. Following the conversation, Sperling emailed Woodward to apologize for his tone, concluding "You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. ... I think you will regret staking out that claim." In the Politico interview, Woodward interpreted the line as a threat, an interpretation that was immediately picked up by the right-wing media and reported as fact.
Fox News' Sean Hannity called it an example of "intimidation" and "arrogance" by a "fearmongering, demagogue president." Similar claims were made on Fox & Friends and Fox Business' Lou Dobbs Tonight, and it was the top headline on the Drudge Report:
But the emails, released later by Politico, do not bear out Woodward's claim that he was threatened by Sperling. After apologizing for his tone in the earlier conversation, Sperling wrote that "as a friend" he was concerned with the possibility of Woodward reporting inaccurate claims about the debt ceiling deal:
Two former network news presidents offered criticism following the revelation that a Fox News contributor had urged Gen. David Petraeus to run for president at the request of Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
"That just isn't what a news guy does," said Michael Gartner, who served as NBC News president from 1988 to 1993. "Twenty years ago it wouldn't have been done. But that was a different era."
The critiques come in response to a December 4 report from The Washington Post's Bob Woodward that Fox News contributor K.T. McFarland, on instructions from Ailes, had urged Petraeus to run for president during a recorded 2011 interview in Afghanistan.
McFarland suggested that Ailes would leave Fox to work on Petraeus' campaign and that News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch might "bankroll" the effort.
During the same interview with Petraeus, McFarland said of Ailes, "he loves you, and everybody at Fox loves you. So what I'm supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?"
Media critics have nonetheless responded harshly to the McFarland-Petraeus interview, with Dylan Byers at Politico writing that no other major news outlet would tolerate such behavior from their top executive, and Erik Wemple at the Post writing that it indicated "Fox News is corrupt."
David Westin, who served as ABC News president from 1997 to 2010, also offered concern about the exchange to Media Matters.
While Westin said he did not know the details of Ailes' direct involvement, and noted Ailes had told Bob Woodward his comments to MacFarland had been "more of a joke" than a serious request, Westin did offer criticism of such communications between news person and news subject.
"The report had someone from Fox News, now it was a contributor, not on staff, but a contributor, saying things to a subject of news coverage that normally a journalist wouldn't say," Westin said late December 4. "You need to keep some distance from the people you're covering and you don't want to be partial for them or against them either way, so what I read would be something that normally a journalist wouldn't do."
Four of the five major Sunday morning political shows ignored the issue of job creation and economic growth, which economists and voters say are the most important economic issues facing the nation. Instead, the economic discussion on the November 11 editions of these shows focused almost exclusively on the debate over how to achieve deficit reduction.
Among the participants in the major Sunday shows, NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox Broacasting's Fox News Sunday, and CNN's State of the Union, only This Week guest Katrina vanden Heuvel pointed out that the exit polls found that voters say the government should focus on job creation rather than deficit reduction.
By contrast, Meet the Press guest Bob Woodward identified deficits and debt as " the big issue" the government must solve. Woodward went on to suggest that Obama should be looking for a "payoff for everyone in the community, not just his base."
WOODWARD: I think the big picture here is that President Obama has got to deliver on the big issue, which is fixing the financial house of the U.S. federal government. It is in disarray. It's not just the fiscal cliff, it's $16 trillion in IOUs out in the world. In a couple of months, in February or March, they are going to have to renegotiate an authority -- lending and borrowing authority -- for another trillion or two dollars, and if the president can fix that and put us on some sort of path of restoration for the economy, that is a payoff for everyone in the community, not just his base.
And he's got to think much more broadly. The job of the president is to find the next stage of good for a real majority and he's capable of doing it.
The Associated Press analyzed data of national exit polls following the presidential election and found that 59 percent of voters interviewed listed the economy as the biggest issue facing the country. In comparison, only 15 percent said that deficits were the most important issue. Similarly, when asked about specific economic concerns, nearly 40 percent of voters said unemployment was the "biggest economic problem facing voters like them."
Economists and other experts also say that job creation and economic growth are the most important issue facing the country.
Veteran investigative reporters are objecting to claims that a string of stories about internal national security operations are the result of a White House problem with leaks, saying such journalism is just the usual in-depth investigative reporting.
One Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist described the stories as the result of "classic investigative reporting" and said the reporters involved "don't do their work by sucking up to politicians."
Among the stories being cited are The New York Times' uncovering of a U.S. cyberattack targeting Iran's nuclear program and the Obama administration's secret "kill list" for its campaign of drone strikes.
The cyberattack story, by the Times' David Sanger, has drawn much of the attention, with information for that article coming from research Sanger did for his recent book, Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.
Despite the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder last Friday directed two federal prosecutors to open investigations into the issue, many conservatives continue to agitate for a special prosecutor to look into the potential leaks.
But longtime investigative journalists tell Media Matters the recent stories under scrutiny were just good investigative reporting and mark no major change in White House security.
"This is normal," said Walter Pincus, the veteran Washington Post investigative reporter. "The thing that is most normal about it is that look at Sanger's stuff, somebody's writing a book, Bob [Woodward] does it all the time. If you're writing a book and nothing is going to appear the next day and you keep going back and back and take a little bit here and a little bit there, that's how you put these things together."
Dana Priest, Pincus' colleague at the Post and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for her own investigative journalism, agreed.
"That is what this looks like, classic investigative reporting," Priest said in an interview. "Talk about the reporters who are on these stories, they are all veteran investigative reporters. They don't do their work by sucking up to politicians in the hopes they will leak them some things. They do the investigative work. I don't know if people outside understand that."
Like others in the ragtag alliance of bloggers, a few renegade journalists and other assorted "DFH"s back in the worst days of the Bush-era 2000s, I grew very disenchanted with journalist Bob Woodward. Whatever Woodward had been during the glory days of Watergate, the Beltway journalist seemed to have surrendered all power of critical thinking -- and fact checking -- in return for access to Washington's rich and famous. The books that resulted tended to be a form of stenography, not journalism.
My sense was that Woodward was moving back toward his roots in recent years, but nothing prepared me for the journalist's awesome takedown of the lies and deceptions of former Bush defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the Washington Post stalwart carried out in the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Woodward held onto his notes and aggressively takes down the spin in Rumsfeld's new book.
On January 9, 2002, four months after 9/11, Dan Balz of The Washington Post and I interviewed Rumsfeld for a newspaper series on the Bush administration's response to 9/11. According to notes of the NSC, on September 12, the day after 9/11, Rumsfeld again raised Iraq saying, is there a need to address Iraq as well as bin Laden?
When Balz read this to Rumsfeld, he blew up. "I didn't say that," he said, maintaining that it was his aide Larry DiRita talking over his shoulder. His reaction was comic and we agreed to treat it as off the record. But Balz persisted and asked Rumsfeld what he was thinking.
"Yeah," Rumsfeld finally told us. "I wanted to make sure that -- I always ask myself, what's missing. It's easy for people to edit and make something slightly better. But the question is, what haven't we asked ourselves? So I do it all the time. I do it here, I do it in cabinet meetings or NSC meetings. It was a fair question."
"I don't have notes," Rumsfeld insisted. "I don't have any notes." His memoir cites his personal handwritten notes dozens of time.
That's just one of several cases where Woodward chronicles Rumsfeld's ever-changing story lines. Concludes the author:
Rumsfeld is indeed a pro -- at ducking and weaving and dodging responsibility, a reflection of much of what is worst in Washington.
That is just beautiful. Your next assignment, Mr. Woodward, should you choose to accept: Taking down the Beltway BS machine....in real time.
Two years ago, Deborah Howell -- the late Washington Post ombudsman -- wrote a column responding to the reporting of Harper's Ken Silverstein which detailed how the Post's David Broder and Bob Woodward benefited from speaking fees despite a Post policy against such action and Broder having frowned on the practice in the past.
Silverstein wrote of Howell's column at the time:
Howell acknowledges that Broder and Woodward broke the Post's own rules and "did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned." She extracts an apology from Broder, and says the Post "needs an unambiguous, transparent well-known policy on speaking fees and expenses. . . . Fees should be accepted only from educational, professional or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and politics are not a major focus–with no exceptions."
But Howell goes very easy on Broder—who has been flagrantly dishonest with his own employer and with Howell–and Woodward, who is allowed to glide away from some very embarrassing matters. Also, Howell deals with only a few speeches by Woodward and Broder, even though Woodward gave dozens and Broder gave roughly a score. I understand that she could not deal with each instance individually (nor did I), but she could have mentioned prominently the fact that the two men, and especially Woodward, are regulars on the talk circuit and that the problem is not restricted to the few speeches she discusses in her column.
Meanwhile, Woodward told Howell that he turns down "lots" of speech requests and gives "many" for free. That's nice, but irrelevant, he's still broken Post policy by receiving payment for a number of the speeches he did accept. He also called Post policy "fuzzy and ambiguous." So why didn't he ask anyone at the paper to clear things up for him before accepting so many speaking appearances for fees that apparently top (easily) $1 million?
Finally, Woodward told Howell "all his speaking fees — which range from $15,000 to $60,000 — go to a foundation he started in the 1990s." He added, "It's a straight shot into the foundation that gives money to legitimate charities. I think that's doing good work."
St. Woodward can don his halo and gaze in the mirror all he likes, but he really shouldn't treat Post readers with such contempt. The facts are clear. He reaps significant tax savings by giving the fees to a "charity" that gives away a small fraction of its assets, and by far the biggest beneficiary of his foundation is Sidwell Friends, the elite private school sitting atop a reported $30 million endowment and attended by his own children.
According to a new report it looks like nothing much has changed. Silverstein writes this week that Broder and Woodward continue to take speaking fees despite the dust-up and eventual contrition from two years ago. Silverstein writes that Broder keynoted a conference last May sponsored by GenSpring Family Offices at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida:
Broder spoke at a dinner on the conference's first night, immediately after attendees had returned from a visit to the International Polo Club. The following day the conference offered a panel called "Uncle Sam Comes to Dinner: Washington's Increased Presence in the Ultra High Net Worth Family," during which the speakers analyzed "proposed and pending legislative agendas to assess how healthcare and tax reform might affect your family enterprise."
Among the panelists was Patricia Soldano, a lobbyist who heads up GenSpring's office in southern California and who is president of the Policy and Taxation Group, "an organization that educates on the destructive effects of the estate tax to families and their businesses." In other words, the conference Broder spoke at was not only hosted by a business with significant interests in Washington, but the group's lobbying agenda was a notable component of the event.
Broder writes about financial reform and tax policy with some regularity. Last July, two months after the GenSpring affair, he wrote a column in which he cited a poll by a group called Third Way, which asked whether voters would prefer job creation programs that relied on new government investments or cutting taxes on business. "Cutting taxes on business won 54 percent to 32 percent," Broder wrote. "This sounds to me like Ronald Reagan returning to whomp Barack Obama. Maybe all the Republicans have to do is to reject the Bush label and bring Reagan back for an encore."
According to Silverstein's report, Woodward to continues to speak at groups with "big interests" in Washington:
A review of tax records shows that [Woodward's] foundation continues to give about half of its donations -- about $230,000 during the past three years -- to Sidwell Friends.
In November of 2009, he spoke to the Semiconductor Industry Association Award Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. Last month, he spoke to the Grocery Manufacturers of America at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. (Jenna Bush was another keynoter.)
Silverstein did reach out to Broder and Woodward for comment over email but neither have yet replied.
From the September 22 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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From the September 22 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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In an interview posted on PBS' Need To Know Voices blog and flagged by Politico's Patrick Gavin, former Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter turned novelist Lorraine Adams is highly critical of the evolution of reporting since the days of Watergate.
Responding to a question about a character in her new novel -- The Room and the Chair (Knopf, 2010) -- that resembles legendary Post reporter Bob Woodward, Adams offers up the following critique of "limousine reporting" that she says led to the Iraq War (emphasis added):
I think if you're a student of American journalism, Bob Woodward is an undeniably potent figure. I felt that if I was going to write about [Beltway] journalism, to not have him in it would be ridiculous… I thought adding a wife that was so obviously not his real wife added a little lightness, and Mabel helps us get at Woodward's practice. Most people in Washington don't talk about it. Joan Didion talked about it in the New York Review of Books, but it's obvious she didn't know him. I worked with him in passing at the newsroom, actually I worked with him on a few stories so I knew him better than that. I think he practices access journalism, which is different from what I did at the Post. [I] would talk to the people who have no power and who are affected by the people in power, and that gives a much more useful picture of the way policy affects the human soul. Woodward, who started as a reporter who did that, who knocked on doors and talked to people on the ground, became a celebrity. In becoming a celebrity, he invariably saw it as a much better deal for him, in terms of making money, to talk to other celebrities inside Washington: presidents, their chiefs of staff, vice presidents, their chiefs of staff. We have learned that Deep Throat was an FBI official, not an agent, an official. He was on, what we call, the 7th Floor. I think Woodward's capitulation to interviewing people in limousines, as opposed to people on the subway, is something I feel is partly responsible for the fact that we ended up in Iraq. Because so many reporters, Judith Miller is the most egregious of them, spoke to Scooter Libby and some other higher officials, and never spoke to intelligence people on the ground. They swallowed wholesale Colin Powell at the U.N., and [ultimately] their limousine reporting meant that 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives. I don't think anything can be so neatly drawn, but I think in this case it can be neatly drawn.
When The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks stated in a Time "roundtable conversation" that prior to the start of the Iraq war, "the chairman of the Joint Chiefs" told him that they didn't know where Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction were located, Bob Woodward responded by saying that he "was not aware of" the claim at the time. But three days before the start of the war, a Post article to which Woodward "contributed" noted the lack of "specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden."