The White House versus Bob Woodward

February 28th, 2013

bayles_fredA controversy has erupted between the White House and veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Woodward is claiming he was “threatened” by a senior White House advisor if he continued to write stories criticizing President Obama’s handling of the budget cuts, or commonly referred to as “the sequester.”

The following opinion piece was written by journalism professor Fred Bayles, a former USA Today and AP reporter. He is also the director of BU’s State House Program.

The latest “controversy” involving Bob Woodward and the White House serves as another sad example of the kind of hyperventilation blowing out of Washington these days.

Fortunately it also offers a happier example of clarification by context.

The headlines are about an administration official “threatening” Woodward. The heavy breathing that follows centers on one word in an email exchange between Woodward and Obama economic advisor Gene Sperling. The word is “regret,” which, taken out of context is interpreted as a threat. And that is all we need for another media Nantucket sleigh ride, with the White Whale of sensationalism dragging us along for a news cycle or two.

The background: Sperling writes an email to Woodward taking issue with a column that accuses the president of changing his position on requiring new revenues (read taxes) as part of a deal to prevent sequester.

The quote taken from the email: “I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”

Sound like a threat? Maybe. But if you read the entire email, and Woodward’s reply (all published on Politico),  you see there are more layers to the communication than a “threat.” Sperling contends Woodward is wrong in his interpretation of the president’s position and might be embarrassed by his error. Reading the entire email gives you the context of the above sentence as part of a longer conversation that starts out with Sperling apologizing to Woodward for a heated phone exchange. Sperling then offers his version of the facts to back his contention that Woodward’s column is wrong.  That doesn’t sound like a threat to me, although I’m betting Sperling probably “regrets” using that word.

But don’t take my word for it, or Woodward’s or any of the other bloviaters on cable news. Read the emails yourself and form your own conclusions.

There are bad and good sides to the larger issue behind this latest “story.” The bad is simply this: The hungry beast of the 24/7 news cycle demands a constant stream of yacking that makes things seem bigger and more important than they are. The good? The Internet gives news consumers the ability to go to the original source and form their own opinions based on all the facts – not just the sound bite that feeds the false flames.

As the political discussion and coverage continues to degenerate in this country it becomes the responsibility of good citizens to be better news consumers. Fortunately the tools are there to help them.

Contact Bayles at 617-353-7736 or fbayles@bu.edu.

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