Not Much of a "Threat"  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2013

Not Much of a "Threat"   

Bob Woodward’s peculiar reaction to a pretty innocuous White House e-mail. Thurs., February 28, 2013.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Who knew Bob Woodward was so sensitive?

The Watergate legend and bestselling author says he was threatened by the Obama administration over his Washington Post article alleging that Team Obama had "moved the goalposts" by insisting that new revenue be part of any package to prevent the dreaded sequester from going into effect.

But it doesn't look like much of a threat. Instead, the purportedly threatening e-mail, published by Politico, contains a lot more groveling than threatening.

The e-mail was part of an exchange between Woodward and Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling before Woodward's piece appeared. In the passage that Woodward says he regarded as a threat, Sperling says Woodward will "regret" making the goalpost claim. But in context it sure doesn't sound very scary:

"But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim."

And other passages in the e-mail do nothing to suggest Sperling has a bright future with the Mafia. He begins, "I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad." He ends, "My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize."

Hardly the kind of stuff to make strong men tremble.

As for the "regret" remark, it sounds to me like Sperling was simply saying Woodward was wrong and that, once the dust settled, he would be sorry he had gone with an inaccurate story. That's hardly a threat. That's a basic part of doing business.

And, in fact, there are many who think Woodward is off base in the goalpost debate. A case can certainly be made that the sequester was designed to force Congress to find a better way to reduce the deficit, not simply to replace the sequester's indiscriminate spending cuts with more intelligent cuts. And so insisting on new revenue would leave the goalposts just where they were.

Woodward's response to Sperling doesn't read like the words of a threatened man. Woodward writes, "You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this."

While there are those who criticize his heavy reliance on anonymous sources in his detailed reconstructions of momentous events, Woodward has a distinguished reputation as a journalist. But he's hardly covering himself with glory in the current kerfuffle.

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