Bob Woodwards 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 its no accident that the media has chosen to focus on Woodwards 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 Obamas 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 administrations relationship with the press. It hardly bears repeating that from the start of Barack Obamas 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 presidents 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 Emperors 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 medias 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 Housegenerated 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 todays 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 Obamas own creation, and not Congresss, as hed 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 Obamas citing the looming sequester as an excuse for failing to send a second aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf was a kind of madness.
Woodwards observations about Obama and the sequester were not just true but obvious. The presidents 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 isnt the nations 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 administrations 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: theyve 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 theyve realized that they have sufficient numbers for safety. Reasons 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: Woodwards 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 journalisms 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 shouldnt be a hero to conservatives suddenly . . . he should be a hero to Americans who want their office holders held accountable regardless of partisan affiliation.