The resulting wreckage is often a tangle of fictional facts and twisted truths.
Recently, onlookers witnessed Obama administration officials making claims of doomsday results from sequester cuts — which reporters soon discovered were hyped or flat-out false.
Moments later, the same onlookers witnessed journalists fretting about what they perceived as threats by the White House against The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward. But upon further review, those concerns seemed as overblown and unverifiable, in their own way, as some of those sequester wailings.
The closer we look at what is happening at this famous intersection, the more unnecessary and unprofessional it all seems.
Consider the mess that resulted when perhaps the most outstanding member of Obama’s cabinet, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, set out to be a good soldier and spread the message the White House wanted to communicate about just how awful those then-pending cuts — mandated by the joint White House-Congress budget sequester agreement — would be.
On Sunday, Feb. 24, Duncan declared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that teachers were “getting pink slips” even before the sequester began. But then the Education Department couldn’t show reporters even one example. Finally, Duncan told a White House briefing of one instance in West Virginia where teachers received “layoff notices.” Alas, those turned out to be transfer notices, not layoffs.
There’s no doubt sequester cuts will hurt America’s defense readiness and some vital domestic programs. But in their zeal to spread a worst-case scenario, Obama officials damaged the one thing a president needs most in a crisis: his credibility.
On the same Sunday Duncan was misspeaking on television, my friend and former Washington Post colleague, Bob Woodward, wrote an opinion piece detailing how the sequester began as an Obama White House idea. He ended the piece by saying that the sequester was originally only about spending, but that Obama was changing his deal by seeking new tax increases.
Obama’s White House understandably sought to discredit Woodward’s version. Meanwhile, Woodward, in an interview with Politico, read part of an email from someone he identified only as a senior White House official. It said: “I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
Journalists began widely interpreting that as a White House threat against Woodward.
But wait. In its full context, it seemed rather unthreatening. The official, whom we learned later was Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling, wrote his email in a conciliatory tone after having earlier shouted at Woodward on the phone about his upcoming article. Sperling’s full sentence was: “I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
Quite different. Journalists who covered past White Houses understood this episode never reached the level of threats presidential advisers made and carried out against journalists.
The Post’s legendary Watergate duo of Woodward and Carl Bernstein know best of all that Richard Nixon’s White House retired the cup for threats and retaliation against journalists. (Actually, I also know a bit about Nixon’s threats and retaliation. In an incident well reported at the time, Nixon ordered his aides to ban me, as Newsday’s White House correspondent, from his historic China trip, after I’d helped write a Newsday series about his financial dealings with his best friend, Florida banker Charles “Bebe” Rebozo.)
The Obama White House, having inherited a press corps that was thrilled at the prospect of covering America’s first black president, has had an amazingly troubled relationship with journalists covering the beat. Obama holds fewer news conferences than his predecessors and when he does, he only calls on correspondents whose names are on a list from his staff. Most reporters attend knowing they aren’t really there as full-fledged journalists, just decorative scenery.
One of the surprising shortcomings of Obama’s team has been its difficulty in communicating its messages.
Obama and his strategists have not skillfully massaged, let alone mastered, the symbiotic relationship all presidents have with their chroniclers.
Meanwhile, journalists covering the presidency and politics still cannot resist fanning the flames as they cover Washington’s fires.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.