Bob Woodward’s charge that he was threatened by a high-ranking Obama administration official after publishing a column critical of the White House was, it turns out, at least somewhat exaggerated. But it’s no accident that the media has chosen to focus on Woodward’s characterization of his exchange with White House economic director Gene Sperling, while all but ignoring the essence of the column that touched off the brouhaha in the first place: that Obama’s claims about Republican responsibility for the looming sequester were false, and that it was “months of White House dissembling” that had “eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans.”
Indeed, the media treatment of the episode provides an all-too-telling glimpse into the administration’s relationship with the press. It hardly bears repeating that from the start of Barack Obama’s career on the national stage, he has enjoyed an unprecedented kinship with the media—one that, as frustrated opponents rightly observe, often seems indistinguishable from outright alliance. On contentious issues like those involving the budget, especially, the administration has been hugely dependent on a compliant press—not only to shore up public support for its ongoing campaign of class warfare, but also to marginalize competing arguments.
So overt has the media cheerleading been on the president’s behalf that few have noted the potential pitfalls that the arrangement holds for both sides. By now, the media are so all-in with Obama that they cannot call his credibility into question, even when the facts demand it. By the same token, so reliant is Obama on the lapdog media that he is uniquely vulnerable to what might be called Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome: any meaningful breach in the code of silence and the whole damn thing could come crashing down.
Enter Bob Woodward. For weeks, coverage of the looming sequester had been going precisely the way the administration intended. Indeed, the media’s handling of this difficult and complicated story is a reminder of why, notwithstanding four-plus years of bungling, the president has paid no political price for the stalled economy. Though frustrated Republicans believed that they had both math and logic on their side—the mandated cuts amounted to less than 2 percent of a $4 trillion budget, and federal spending would remain massively higher than when Obama took office—the White House–generated scare stories appeared day after day. In short order, we heard, there would be four-hour waits at airports; draconian cuts to special education; a gutting of mental-health services; a military unable to react to the Iranian mullahs’ saber-rattling. Here in southern Arizona, where I live, local news reports have been rife with tales of released illegals running amok.
Then out of nowhere came Woodward—the iconic co-hero of Watergate, a man who convinced many of today’s media stars to enter the biz in the first place—declaring in his February 22 column that it was all a crock. Not only was the sequester legislation Obama’s own creation, and not Congress’s, as he’d had been everywhere proclaiming; the president also had great discretionary power to determine which cuts would be made. Moreover, in insisting on new taxes not required in the legislation, the president, whom the media portray as fair-minded and reasonable, was “moving the goal posts.”
Unsurprisingly, the White House was incensed, but its reaction revealed how much it had at stake. Woodward soon reported that a senior administration official, later identified as Sperling, had warned him that he would “regret staking out that claim” about moving the goalposts. Undeterred, Woodward was at it again a few days later, saying that Obama’s citing the looming sequester as an excuse for failing to send a second aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf was “a kind of madness.”
Woodward’s observations about Obama and the sequester were not just true but obvious. The president’s critics had long since gone much further. “Mr. Obama is not only out to scare everybody about a tiny cut in the growth of our out-of-control spending,” wrote Bernard Goldberg; “I think he wants the most hardship to the most people so he can secure the most political points.” Michael Walsh added: “By now, it should be clear to even the dumbest Republican that Obama has no intention of negotiating in good faith. His goal isn’t the nation’s financial stability of the country. . . . Having gotten one round of tax hikes in the year-end ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations, the president is back for another bite of the apple.”
The administration’s problem is that the legendary Woodward is clearly no conservative, which makes it harder for his media colleagues to dismiss him. This is why the coverage of the Obama-Woodward brawl constituted a major test for the media, one that most have failed. The leader of the pack, the New York Times, has led from behind, underreporting the story into virtual nonexistence. Others have done what would once have been unthinkable: they’ve gone after Woodward outright. While some merely mocked him for characterizing his exchange with Sperling as threatening, others have been more personal, even vicious—especially as they’ve realized that they have sufficient numbers for safety. Reason’s Matt Welch calls them “pack-attack critics.”
A small sample, courtesy of Welch, will suffice. Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo: “Who goes birther first, Scalia or Woodward?” Jason Linkins, Huffington Post: “I think Woodward will find people will stop yelling at him the very minute he decides to stop sucking so much at his job.” Matthew Yglesias, Slate: “Woodward’s managed to make me suspect Nixon got a raw deal.” These are young journalists, much esteemed on the left.
Bob Woodward can take it; his place in history is secure. But journalism’s future, to say nothing of its present, is worrisome. “Now that the truth is inconvenient to the WH, Woodward is being attacked and vilified,” Jonah Goldberg reports that a friend e-mailed him. “‘Truth’ is no longer determined by what is factually accurate, but by what is politically necessary. Woodward shouldn’t be a ‘hero to conservatives’ suddenly . . . he should be a hero to Americans who want their office holders held accountable regardless of partisan affiliation.”