Earlier I posted that I didn’t read a threat in the e-mail between Sperling and Woodward, but this piece by Ron Fournier of the National Journal has changed my mind. His opener:
The fight between the White House and journalistic legend Bob Woodward is a silly distraction to a major problem: The failure of President Obama and House Republicans to lead the country under a budget deadline.
Woodward-gate is a distraction the White House welcomed, even encouraged, as part of a public-relations strategy to emasculate the GOP and anybody else who challenges Obama. It is a distraction that briefly enveloped my reporting last weekend, when I essentially broke ties with a senior White House official.
Yes, I iced a source– and my only regret is I didn’t do it sooner. I decided to share this encounter because it might shed light on the increasingly toxic relationship between media and government, which is why the Woodward flap matters outside the Beltway.
On Saturday, White House press secretary Jay Carney accused Woodward of being “willfully wrong” on a story holding the White House accountable for its part in a legislative gimmick called sequestration. (Months ago, the GOP-controlled House passed, and Obama signed, legislation imposing $1.2 trillion in cuts unless an alternative is found by Friday.)
Carney isn’t the first press secretary to criticize a reporter. Presidential aides do it all the time to set the record straight or — often, more cynically — to dodge accountability. I was struck by the fact that Carney’s target has a particular history with White House attacks. I tweeted: “Obama White House: Woodward is ‘willfully wrong.’ Huh-what did Nixon White House have to say about Woodward?”
Reporting by Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered Watergate misdeeds and led to the resignation of President Nixon. My tweet was not intended to compare Nixon to Obama (there is no reason to doubt Obama’s integrity — period) but rather to compare the attack to the press strategies of all the presidents’ men.
I had angered the White House, particularly a senior White House official who I am unable to identify because I promised the person anonymity. Going back to my first political beat, covering Bill Clinton’s administration in Arkansas and later in Washington, I’ve had a practice that is fairly common in journalism: A handful of sources I deal with regularly are granted blanket anonymity. Any time we communicate, they know I am prepared to report the information at will (matters of fact, not spin or opinion) and that I will not attribute it to them.
This is an important way to build a transparent and productive relationship between reporters and the people they cover. Nothing chills a conversation faster than saying, “I’m quoting you on this.”
The official angered by my Woodward tweet sent me an indignant e-mail. “What’s next, a Nazi analogy?” the official wrote, chastising me for spreading “bull**** like that” I was not offended by the note, mild in comparison to past exchanges with this official. But it was the last straw in a relationship that had deteriorated.
As editor-in-chief of National Journal, I received several e-mails and telephone calls from this White House official filled with vulgarity, abusive language, and virtually the same phrase that Woodward called a veiled threat. “You will regret staking out that claim,” The Washington Post reporter was told.