With the publication of Bob Woodward’s correspondence with Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling, Politico has achieved a total victory — members of the U.S. news media can spend the day debating the meaning of one word in emails between two hyperconnected Washington insiders.
Just as Bob Woodward’s “extensive reporting” on the machinations that lead to the budget sequester glosses over the content of the bill, Politico’s focus on Sperling’s alleged threat toward the famous reporter reflects its editorial fascination with narratives that are perhaps of limited interest to those on the receiving end of unresolved policy debates, debates that give the people who should be solving problems a license to grab popcorn and gawk. Did Sperling mitigate his “threat” by preceding it with the phrase “as a friend”? Is this all a “power hissy“? Will I be able to take my kids camping at a federal park this spring? (No links on that last one, sorry, aggregating Woodward stories.)
How did we get to this point?
• Last Friday The Washington Post published a column by Woodward in which he said President Obama was “wrong” to blame the budget sequester on Republicans:
My extensive reporting for my book “The Price of Politics” shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors — probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government.
Obama, he said, was “moving the goal posts” by insisting a deal on the sequester include new revenue.
• The next day, the Post’s Ezra Klein wrote that “The whole point of the policy was to buy time until someone, somehow, moved the goalposts such that the sequester could be replaced” and that the 2012 election was a referendum on how the United States should address its budget — “The American people voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.”
• This is where things may have ended; the biggest lesson I drew before Wednesday was that the Post does not have a consistent style on the term “goal post” (two words, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition).
• But then: Woodward told Wolf Blitzer Wednesday night a “very senior” White House official tried to muscle him, telling him he’d “regret” this talk of goal-post-moving: “It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters, ‘You’re going to regret doing something that you believe in,’ ” Woodward said.
• Woodward repeated this story to Politico, which used it in Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei’s new “Behind the Curtain” feature. “The feud also feeds a larger narrative,” they write, a narrative identified by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei in their previous “Behind the Curtain” feature, about the Obama White House’s stinginess regarding press access.
• BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith identified the administration official as Sperling and wrote that “Officials often threaten reporters that they will “regret” printing something that is untrue, but Woodward took the remark as a threat.”
• The White House denied anyone threatened Woodward.
• And now, the commentary: Bob Woodward’s ridiculous war with the White House (The Week) | Bob Woodward Has Now Picked the Most and Least Important Fights with a POTUS (The Atlantic) | Oh, Please, The White House Didn’t ‘Threaten’ Bob Woodward (Business Insider) | Woodward Claims ‘A Very Senior Person’ at White House Emailed ‘You Will Regret Doing This’; Did Politico Pair Sit on the News? (NewsBusters) | Bob Woodward Trolls The World (Slate)
Disclosure: I used to work for Allbritton Communications, which owns Politico.