The Obama White House and the media

In the flap over the Bob Woodward-White House exchange, three things have become evident. First, the White House does try to bully the media. Second, there are a number of left-leaning pundits whose instant reaction in any controversy is to defend the White House. Third, we are reminded how dishonest the White House has been on sequester cuts.

Bob Woodward (Alex Wong/Associated Press)

Let’s take the first. Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University, says: “This is a warning shot over the bow of the White House press corps. ‘Don’t screw with us. Look what we are doing to your God, Woodward. Imagine what we’ll do to you.’ ” That view is corroborated by the furious pushback from the White House, including David Plouffe’s personal insult on Twitter, and two other sources.

National Journal’s Ron Fournier describes his experience with White House bullying after an offhand Tweet:

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. …

 

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.

 

Once I moved back to daily reporting this year, the badgering intensified.

Fournier was reduced to telling the aide that any future calls or e-mails would have to be on the record.

Then there is Lanny Davis. “He described how something he had written in the Washington Times about the President’s policies had displeased the Obama Administration. John Solomon, the editor at the Washington Times, received a phone call threatening to remove the newspaper’s White House credentials unless Lanny Davis’ column was discontinued.” Can you imagine threatening a newspaper because an opinion writer angered the White House?

I don’t know whether other White Houses have behaved in this fashion. But this sort of thing is not only thuggish — it’s relevant. One or more journalists should have been explaining to the public how this White House operates. You can’t say that is not a newsworthy story in and of itself.

On the second subject, the flap brought out the same lefty defenders that rise to the White House’s defense, whatever the subject matter. Attack journalists uncovering Chuck Hagel material? Check. Pump up the sequestration calamity? Check. Attack Woodward (before the entire e-mail exchange surfaced)? Check. Take the White House’s side in the origin of the sequester? Check. Argue that Benghazi is a non-issue? Check. White House remarks don’t betray Israel animus? Check. When you see the same figures checking all these boxes and taking positions they wouldn’t take with a different president, you have to wonder — I will put this gently — whether they have lost their way.

There is no ideological consistency as a matter of left-right politics. This is simply taking whatever position the White House wants to advance. Whether labeled reporter or columnist, that is not what journalists are supposed to do; it is what the White House press operation is doing. By jumping reflexively to the White House’s defense over and over and over again, these media figures reveal how closely a segment of the media identifies with the Obama administration and how they see themselves. This is why mainstream media credibility with conservatives is so low. They believe that what these journalists do goes way beyond a point of view or bias.

Finally, the incident highlights how badly the White House misled the public on the extent, impact and severity of the sequester cuts. In dribs and drabs, we now learn that the parade of horribles is at worst made up and at best premature and speculative. The White House got a free ride for a week or so, but contentious reporters are bringing the actual facts to light.

We’ve seen how fast a White House can lose its grip and how this White House’s sense of entitlement tilts into nastiness and bullying. And we’ve seen that the press has for far too long done its bidding. I would hope both would change, but I am not holding my breath.

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