In the aftermath of the increasing strange story about Bob Woodward being threatened by the White House, there seem to be a few competing entries in the, “what does it all mean” sweepstakes. There is clearly some debate over precisely how much of a “threat” it really was or was intended to be, but does that mean that it was a big nothingburger? Matt Lewis seems to be leaning that way, opining that we’ve all been played.
Sperling’s email eventually does say, “I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.” But this is clearly not a veiled threat of retaliation, but rather a warning that the reporter was about to get the story wrong.
When Woodward tells of being warned he would “regret” challenging Obama, it sounds ominous. But if Politico’s reporting today is correct, it seems much more innocuous than that.
Looks like we were played.
Matt makes a couple of points which I won’t argue with. Woodward, even in this late stage of his career, is still in the business of selling books. And controversy is good for sales. This isn’t to say he lit this particular fire intentionally to gin up some action, but it’s also not terribly difficult to imagine how he wouldn’t rush to douse the flames, either. And the relationship between the author and Sperling may indeed be a cordial, long standing one, leading the aide to feel comfortable tossing around some phrases he might have chosen more carefully in a public forum.
But does that mean this should all be tosses aside? Kathleen Parker has a different take on the subject this weekend, with a look through a longer lens at some trends in how the White House manages the lines of communications.
Understandably, everyday Americans may find this discussion too inside baseball to pay much mind. Why can’t the president play a little golf without a press gaggle watching? As for Woodward, it’s not as though the White House was threatening to bust his kneecaps.
Add to these likely sentiments the fact that Americans increasingly dislike the so-called mainstream media, sometimes for good reason. Distrust of media, encouraged by alternative media seeking to enhance their own standing, has become a tool useful to the very powers the Fourth Estate was constitutionally endowed to monitor. When the president can bypass reporters to reach the public, it is not far-fetched to imagine a time — perhaps now? — when the state controls the message.
Her method of bringing blogging and other new media outlets into the mix is what makes this more of a valid discussion. The government is supposed to face the media as an opponent of sorts, trying to keep secrets while the media tries to expose them. When the media fell from grace and became distrusted by the public to do this important job, bloggers and other non-establishment entities stepped in to watch the watchers so to speak. But we need to remember that there are still key differences between social media and the mainstream.
Bloggers – at least the lion’s share of them – don’t have any direct access to the White House. (And the few exceptions who do are so far in the pockets of the administration that it’s not worth mentioning.) So they still rely on the mainstream White House press corps for all of the inside data. And rather than having the tools to challenge the administration directly, blogging quickly devolved into competing camps who almost exclusively challenged the media on the other side of the fence rather than scoring any points for transparency in government. Conservative bloggers take on MSBNC, liberals take on Fox. Does this somehow damage White House control of the message? Parker gets this part right.
This is no tempest in a teapot but rather the leak in the dike. Drip by drip, the Obama administration has demonstrated its intolerance for dissent and its contempt for any who stray from the White House script. Yes, all administrations are sensitive to criticism, and all push back when such criticism is deemed unfair or inaccurate. But no president since Richard Nixon has demonstrated such overt contempt for the messenger. And, thanks to technological advances in social media, Obama has been able to bypass traditional watchdogs as no other president has.
I still don’t know why it’s important that reporters get to watch Barack Obama play golf with Tiger Woods. And Bob Woodward is still able to write anything he wants. But if that’s the standard we set, how much else goes on that we’re actually missing? And how much spin gets passed off as news? In the end, the Woodward story was about a lot more than just Bob selling a few more books. It serves as a reminder that state influence over the media remains a danger, just as the Founders knew it could be when they drafted the Bill of Rights.