Veteran White House correspondents and political scribes dispute claims that a White House aide threatened Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in a recent email exchange, calling that characterization "overblown."
A media firestorm has followed last night's Politico report that Woodward had received a "veiled threat" from White House economic adviser Gene Sperling for the journalist's reporting on the pending spending cuts known as the sequester, based on a snippet of a Sperling email Woodward provided the paper. The full context of Sperling's comment, released by Politico the next day, made it clear to even conservative observers that no threat had been intended.
"It doesn't seem threatening to me at all, it seems to me based on the email exchange that I read, that it was not threatening, it came at the tail end of a very friendly message, it seemed like it was saying 'you are making a mistake,'" said Bill Plante, CBS News White House correspondent and former president of the White House Correspondents Association. "It does not seem to me to be a threat of any kind in the sense that retaliation is promised."
In the email exchange about the sequestration issue, which followed an angry phone exchange for which Sperling apologized, the aide indicated to Woodward that if he reported the president had been "moving the goal post" related to revenue in the negotiations, Woodward would "regret staking out that claim."
In an interview posted Wednesday night, Woodward characterized the exchange as a threat, according to Politico:
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.'"
But the full context of the emails, released by Politico the next day, casts doubt on the claim that Woodward had been threatened. In the email, Sperling had stated, "I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that [President Obama] 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." Woodward replied to that email in part, "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."
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.
Chuck Hagel's anticlimactic Senate confirmation to become the nation's next Secretary of Defense, passed by a vote of 58 to 41, stood in sharp contrast to the frenzied weeks of partisan fighting, and the often breathless media coverage that surrounded the unprecedented battle over President Obama's pick.
The Washington Post this week tallied up a scorecard to determine whether the furious Republican effort had been worth it. Republicans used up valuable political capital fighting a lost cause, but the Post claimed the party wouldn't suffer politically for its obstructionist ways. Indeed, for Republicans there wasn't "a whole lot of downside " in trying to derail Hagel.
Unfortunately, that's probably true. The Beltway press has made sure Republicans have routinely paid no price for their radical behavior, which means ugly stalling tactics will likely continue under Obama, as Republicans now try to grind the government to a halt on numerous fronts.
During the months-long Hagel debacle, in which the traditionally routine, bipartisan confirmation process was upended by Republicans, we learned some uncomfortable truths about the mainstream press and the right-wing media.
For instance we learned that, thanks to the Friends of Hamas debacle, conservative media sites continue to have much more in common with propaganda than they do journalism. We learned that even the piercing right-wing echo chamber, with conservative outlets working in concert with Republicans in Congress to amplify falsehoods, wasn't enough to sway the Hagel debate.
We learned that the hermetically sealed information bubble is still firmly intact. Reminiscent of the bubble that hyped the Mitt Romney "landslide" that never materialized last November, conservatives in the press assured followers for weeks that Hagel's nomination was doomed, that he'd soon be withdrawing his name, or he'd be rejected outright by angry Democrats.
We learned that non-starter crusades like the Hagel one are perfectly suited for the increasingly obsessive, phony outrage formula that so many right-wing outlets have adopted. (As blogger Charles Johnson noted on Twitter, the day Hagel was easily confirmed by the Senate, Breitbart.com's homepage featured no less than fourteen anti-Hagel headlines.)
A group named Donors Trust has been funneling far more money than ExxonMobil ever did to climate denial groups, but because the source of the funds remains largely hidden, the public has been unable to pressure the donations to stop as they did with Exxon. A small portion of Donors Trust's funding was recently revealed by the Center for Public Integrity, yet even that small portion has significant ties to the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests.
Between 2008 and 2011, Donors Trust doled out over $300 million in grants to what it describes as "conservative and libertarian causes," serving as "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement." Donors Trust enables donors to give anonymously, noting on its website that if you "wish to keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues," you can use it to direct your money.
One of the "controversial issues" that Donors Trust and its sister organization Donors Capital Fund have bankrolled is the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and delay any government action to reduce emissions.* The following chart created by The Guardian based on data from Greenpeace shows that as ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations have reduced traceable funding for these groups, donations from Donors Trust have surged:
Several of these organizations have sown confusion about the science demonstrating climate change. The Heartland Institute, which The Economist called the "world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change," received over $14 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, making up over a quarter of Heartland's budget. in 2010. In 2012, Heartland launched a billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate science to The Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro. Several corporate donors distanced themselves from the organization, but Donors Trust made no comment. Heartland removed the billboard soon afterward but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Meanwhile, The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) received over $4 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, accounting for over 45 percent of CFACT's budget in 2010. The highest-paid member of CFACT's staff is Marc Morano, who runs a website that pushes misleading attacks on climate science. Morano defended Heartland's billboard and said that climate scientists "deserve to be publicly flogged." Despite Morano's sordid background, CNN twice hosted him to "debate climate change and if it is really real" without disclosing that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization. CFACT lists the Forbes columns of Larry Bell, who calls global warming a "hoax," as "CFACT research and commentary." The organization is advised by several prominent climate misinformers, including Lord Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has revealed the sources of approximately $18.8 million of Donors Trust's funding from 2008 to 2011, culled from Internal Revenue Service filings. That leaves over $281 million in anonymous funds during that period, assuming that the organization gives out approximately as much as it takes in each year.
While the individuals and corporations funding Donors Trust remain largely hidden, we know that at least five separate foundations connected to Koch Industries have given over $3.8 million to Donors Trust in recent years. Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, is the largest privately owned company in the U.S. and controls several oil refineries and pipelines.
Reporting on the contentious, drawn-out political battle surrounding President Obama's decision to pick Republican Chuck Hagel to be his next Secretary of Defense, Politico recently noted the extraordinary partisan acrimony the confirmation process has produced.
With Republicans adopting an unprecedented obstructionist strategy to block a premier cabinet post by lodging all kinds of threats to "hold" the confirmation or even to try to deny Hagel a senate vote, Politico concluded the controversy meant problems for party leaders, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI).
"Levin faces a conundrum," Politico reported. "He can force a party-line vote on Hagel, but that could damage the committee's longtime bipartisan spirit."
This makes no sense.
By launching a drawn out campaign against Hagel, Republicans have torn up decades worth of tradition on the Senate Armed Services Committee in terms of working across party lines to confirm secretaries of defense. But according to Politico it's the Democratic chairman who faces a "conundrum" over the lack of "bipartisan spirit" in the senate. It's the Democrat who has to deal with the "damage" done by Republican maneuvers.
Sometimes it seems the Beltway press will do anything to avoid blaming Republicans for their wildly obstructionist ways. It's a pattern of timidity that has marked Obama's time in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the press for years now has insisted on providing no framework with regards to the radical ways that now define the GOP.
By refusing to hold Obama's opponents accountable, and by actually making media stars out of the ones who actively obstruct, the press simply encourages the corrosive behavior. (By the way, this is the same Beltway press corps that has routinely blamed Obama for not successfully changing the tone in Washington.)
Both in terms of Republican obstructionist behavior and the press' unwillingness to call it what it is, the trend has reached its pinnacle with the current confirmation mess. And it's getting worse. Fox News this week reported Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was threatening to block a confirmation vote on Jack Lew, selected by the president to be the next Secretary of Treasury.
Discarding centuries worth of advise-and-consent tradition (i.e. the winning president picks his cabinet), Republicans have radically rewritten the cabinet confirmation rulebook while journalists have stood quietly by, not bothering to inform news consumers about the dramatic shift taking place. Instead, the press treats it all as being commonplace; as just more partisan bickering.
And when not downplaying the ramifications or erroneously suggesting Obama's "picking fights" with "controversial" cabinet picks like Hagel, journalists have bungled the story altogether, giving Republicans political cover in the process.
An analysis by the Checks & Balances Project finds that 60 major newspapers frequently quote fossil fuel-funded think tanks on energy and environmental issues without disclosing their industry ties. Further research by Media Matters finds that the Wall Street Journal's lack of disclosure has been especially glaring.
The Checks & Balances Project found that between 2007-2011, industry-funded organizations like the Heartland Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation were cited or quoted over 1000 times in 60 publications, often to attack environmental regulations or renewable energy technology. Their ties to fossil fuel interests were disclosed only 6 percent of the time, despite the fact that 17 percent of mentions promoted fossil fuels. The analysis concluded that "a transactional relationship of contributions in exchange for national media traction is playing out" between these groups and their corporate benefactors.
Expanding on these results, Media Matters found that the Wall Street Journal cited, quoted or featured these think tanks on energy issues more than 100 times between 2007-2011 -- more than any of the other other major papers evaluated by Checks & Balances. But the Journal -- which has a history of failing to disclose fossil fuel ties - mentioned the funding sources for these groups just under 4 percent of the time, slightly worse than the average disclosure rate for the other 60 publications.
The latest blow to the media myth that the National Rifle Association has the ability to determine election results is a Politico article reporting the result of a bipartisan poll that showed voters trusted Obama more than Romney on the issue of guns in North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado.
The NRA spent nearly $12 million dollars on an "All In" campaign to remove Obama from office, but was unable to deliver. Voters in Virginia trusted President Obama more than Mitt Romney on guns by a 9 point margin, and in Colorado and North Carolina by four and one point margins. Despite massive ad buys, less than 27 percent of voters in the three states polled recalled seeing the NRA's campaign material.
Politico quoted Mayors Against Illegal Guns director Mark Glaze reacting to the poll, which his organization paid for, as evidence that "the NRA has built a mythology around their ability to swing elections that has little basis in fact."
Politico adopted the falsehood pushed by Mitt Romney that President Obama had said he would bring the unemployment rate down to near 5 percent during his first term.
Independent fact-checkers have rated the charge that Obama promised an unemployment rate of around 5 percent as false and misleading. While economists working with Obama projected in 2009 that one version of a stimulus bill would lower the unemployment to that level, the severity of the recession wasn't fully understood at that time, and Obama himself never promised that level of unemployment would be achieved.
Nevertheless Politico claimed that the Obama administration never achieved "its own projections to bring unemployment to 5.4 percent, " which echoes Romney's claim that Obama promised an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent. From Politico's article:
Four years ago, both Obama and Republican John McCain tried to reach voters with a certain type of appeal: The idea that leadership has an almost mystical quality, created by a rare combination of extraordinary character and biography.
This time, neither Obama nor Romney is making an appeal on such romantic notions of leadership and for good reason--there is no evidence the public would buy it.
In Obama's case, the obstacle is his own mixed record. The power of his rhetoric and biography did nothing to tame Washington's bitter partisan wars, as he had suggested in 2008. Nor did the administration achieve its own projections to bring unemployment down to 5.4 percent by now.
The 5.4 percent projection is a reference to a projection Obama's economic advisers made in 2008 that unemployment would be near 5 percent in 2012 if the stimulus was passed. But the report was produced before the release of data showing that the recession was much worse than was thought at the time.
In August 2011, the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated that real gross domestic product had declined by 8.9 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008 -- over twice as much as BEA's initial estimate of 3.8 percent. These revised estimates showed that the contraction included "the worst single-quarter decline" in gross domestic product (GDP) since 1958.
In focusing on the January 2009 unemployment prediction, Politico also hides the actual effect of Obama's economic policies on jobs. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, the economy has created about 4 million private sector jobs and the unemployment rate has dropped nearly 2 percent.
As the presidential campaign heads into the frantic final months, more and more Beltway reporters and pundits appear united in their complaint that the Obama vs. Romney contest has been a "joyless" affair. It's been so joyless -- so lacking in entertainment value -- that journalists can't wait for the campaign to be over. In the meantime, they hate their jobs.
Even for the political press corps, which tends to complain ever four years that covering campaigns is an awful, dreary task, the volume of woeful laments this year is noteworthy. ("How am I ever going to get through it?")
The complaints are also a bit baffling, though.
The idea that presidential referendums, which decide the political direction of the country every four years, are supposed to entertain journalists seems like a misguided take on the democratic process. And the fact that reporters and pundits openly complain that a White House race isn't interesting enough for them seems to highlight the outsized importance they place on their role in the electoral process. (What happened to just reporting the news?)
Note that a key complaint that runs through the media laments has been that the press, aside from being unable to detect any "joy" from the candidates, can't find any substance to cover; that they're forced to focus on the trivial pursuits of allegedly shallow, nasty campaigns. After Paul Ryan was selected as the Republican vice presidential pick, the press insisted it was desperate to cover substance and that Ryan was the vehicle to finally elevate the campaign. (He did not.)
Weeks later, pundits are still complaining about the lack of substance and insisting there's nothing they can do about it.
In fact, there is.
Have we ever seen two aligned camps within the conservative movement view the same event so differently? The far-right press is convinced the selection of Paul Ryan as VP is the boost Mitt Romney desperately needs, while GOP operatives, who try to win campaigns for a living, fret Ryan just doomed any chance Romney had of capturing the White House and will hurt Republican candidates nationwide.
Fox News got the vice presidential pick it wanted; the one Rupert Murdoch all but demanded Romney make. But the cheers of exultation that were heard within the right-wing media in the wake of the Ryan pick, as pundits toasted him as a true movement believer, have been met with equally emotional groans from Republican operatives who see Ryan as an unnecessary electoral anchor around the neck of GOP candidates who must now talk about Ryan's unpopular budget blue print, including his plans to radically alter Medicare.
The internal strife over Ryan is telling not only because it highlights a conservative movement that, three months before Election Day, still hasn't coalesced. But it also spotlights the fact that Romney's presidential campaign is the first one on record being run by the media, instead of political pros. No longer content to cheer on Republicans, the right-wing media complex now sees itself first and foremost as the power behind the party and has decided it's running the GOP's crusade to oust Obama, complete with opposition research and on-air fundraising.
And now VP picks.
In other words, Republican strategists are watching Fox News steer its first-ever national campaign, complete with its Paul Ryan cheering section, and the strategists aren't sure it's working.
Not once in the past twelve months has President Obama logged a seven-day stretch where his positive press coverage outweighed the negative, according to Pew Research analysis. And based on recent media trends, that streak is in no danger of being broken as the Beltway press continues to pile on the Democratic president with routinely negative and increasingly misleading coverage, while at the same time giving his Republican rival a pass.
Whether it's in response to the right wing's incessant whining about unfair campaign coverage, or the product of the media's innate desire to create a close, competitive (and marketable) presidential contest to market, the resulting storyline is clear: Obama's faltering!
From a late-May Politico campaign analysis piece ("Obama Stumbles Out of the Gate") that read like it had been cribbed from a Karl Rove column the previous week ("Obama's Campaign Is Off to a Rocky Start"), to the recent congestion of sound-alike refrains, the "liberal media's" narrative has become set in stone and conservatives must be pleased since it echoes their own anti-Obama message.
There's nothing wrong with chronicling the ups and downs of campaigns. And nobody's suggesting the Obama re-election run hasn't had stumbles. All of them do. (Although note, Obama's Gallup approval rating has remained constant in the high-40s for a few months now, and even climbed to 50 percent last week.) But the feverish, one-sided coverage in recent weeks signals that a clear, GOP-leaning script has been adopted by the Beltway media. And yes, it makes a mockery out of the tired chant of a left-wing newsroom bias.
No surprisingly, the current wave of coverage is cresting on some shoddy journalism. (See fabricated oral sex jokes and botched Bill Clinton reporting.) Just look at the remarkably lazy and dishonest handling of Obama's comment about private sector job growth being "fine." The coverage represents a sterling example of how the press has had its thumb on the scale this spring.
For the past few years, much of the conservative echo chamber has thrived on exploring what they see as Barack Obama's mysterious, ominous past. The most prominent examples of this fixation have been the durable birth-certificate conspiracy and the increasingly exotic allegations that Barack Obama Sr. is not Obama's father (suggested "real" fathers have included Malcolm X and, as recently as last week, Frank Marshall Davis).
In a newly-released Vanity Fair piece adapted from his upcoming Obama biography, journalist David Maraniss details two of Obama's romantic relationships during his early 20s, complete with interviews of his ex-girlfriends. The article seemingly puts to rest conspiracies promoted by conservative big wigs about why none of Obama's exes have ever come forward. Rush Limbaugh asked this very question last year, citing "one of these email things" he had been sent.
In Dreams From My Father, Obama wrote about a romantic relationship he had with a woman in New York. The lack of a name (and the fact that no one had come forward to claim the mantle) led some creative conspiracy theorists to doubt her existence. Her presence in the book was one of the main pieces of "evidence" in WND columnist Jack Cashill's much-mocked theory that Bill Ayers is the true author of Dreams.
Yesterday, ABC News released excerpts from Barbara Walters' interview with President Obama and the First Lady, scheduled to air on tonight's 20/20. Several news outlets have focused on President Obama's comments about the "laziness in me," featuring headlines that lack needed context.
Politico headlined their story "Obama: I have some Hawaii laziness," while the Daily Caller went with "Obama: "There's a laziness in me," and National Journal selected "Obama Blames Hawaii For His 'Deep Down' Laziness."
All of these headlines would likely give readers the impression that Obama was saying that he tends to avoid doing work, which would fit neatly into a common conservative attack on Obama. But the full context of the interview shows that Obama was actually saying just the opposite. Obama told Walters: "It's interesting, there is a -- deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there's a laziness in me." [Emphasis added.] He later added: "when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs."
While some reports on the Walters interview have included parts of this key context, the headlines generally have not.
From the full transcript of the interview, obtained from the White House [emphasis added]:
Q Okay. What's the trait you most deplore in yourself and the trait you most deplore in others?
THE PRESIDENT: Laziness.
Q You've lazy?
THE PRESIDENT: It's interesting, there is a -- deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there's a laziness in me. I mean, probably --
MRS. OBAMA: If you had your choice --
THE PRESIDENT: It's probably from growing up in Hawaii, and it's sunny outside, and sitting on the beach --
Q Sounds good to me.
PRESIDENT: Right. But when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs. Although -- sorry, I shouldn't provide two answers. The thing actually that I most dislike is cruelty. I can't stand cruel people. And if I see people doing something mean to somebody else just to make themselves feel important, it really gets me mad. But in myself, since I tend not to be a mean person, if I get lazy, then I get mad at myself.
The portion of the interview released by ABC News does not include this part of Obama's statement: "But when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs."
Politico's Ben Smith is calling this the "next anti-Obama talking point," while Mediaite's Jon Bershad says, "If you're a fan of right wing media ... you're probably going to be seeing that clip about 5,000,000 times in the next week." Which is all the more reason why responsible journalists should be emphasizing what Obama actually said rather than writing sensationalist, misleading headlines.
Politico reported Friday that more than a week prior, the wife of conservative Washington Post columnist George Will took a messaging position with the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Politico noted that Will had since discussed the GOP primary and disparaged Perry's primary opponents in two Post columns and on ABC's This Week, all without disclosing his wife's position. The article also indicated that while Will had told his Post editors that his wife's role was unpaid, it is in fact a paid position.
This morning, Will finally disclosed his wife's position during ABC's This Week. When given the opportunity by host Christiane Amanpour to do some "personal housekeeping," Will did not apologize for his failure to reveal this information, nor did he pledge to continue to make such disclosures in the future. In fact, Will's only "housekeeping" was mentioning that "some of the more excitable and perhaps less mature members of the Romney campaign have tried to make this personal."
Fox News contributor James Pinkerton confirmed that he was paid to "partner" with Michele Bachmann on her new book, but said he did not disclose his role in the project at the request of Bachmann and her publisher.
Pinkerton also revealed that Fox News knew of his arrangement from the start and approved of his keeping it from viewers.
"I was bound by a confidentiality agreement. They said, 'Don't tell anybody,' I said, 'Okay.' I told my superiors at Fox and they knew," Pinkerton said Monday. "I helped on the book from June, July and August, I helped, in a collaborator sense. ... I helped as a collaborator to her. She was busy on the road, so she would have thoughts and tell me things and I would try and help put them together."
Pinkerton is a regular panelist on Fox News' media criticism show and has frequently discussed Bachmann and the other presidential candidates.
Fox News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Michele Bachmann hired former speechwriter and domestic policy adviser to the first President Bush and to President Reagan, Jim Pinkerton, to help write her forthcoming memoir, "Core of Conviction," POLITICO has learned.
Contacted by Media Matters Monday evening, Pinkerton confirmed he had collaborated on the book, saying he is mentioned in acknowledgements as "research and writing partner."
Pinkerton said he had "zero regrets" about keeping his part in the book secret from Fox viewers, saying he always disclosed that his wife, a former Bachmann campaign chief of staff, was working for Bachmann.
"I chose not to [disclose his part in the book] because I wanted to protect the confidentiality of the book, although I told my [Fox] superiors," he said. "Every time Bachmann came up, I said that my wife was working for the campaign, and I was making it clear that I had an interest, as it were, in the Bachmann campaign, through my wife's work."
Asked why he did not disclose his book connection, Pinkerton said: "I felt that, I felt the need to keep the book confidential at the request of all parties involved."