Right-wing media are hyping reporter Bob Woodward's sinister interpretation of an email he received from the White House as a threat against him. But White House officials point out that the email was sent as an apology for previous tension, not a threat -- a claim reinforced by the tone of the emails.
In an interview with Politico, Woodward described a tense conversation with White House economic adviser Gene Sperling. Following the conversation, Sperling emailed Woodward to apologize for his tone, concluding "You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. ... I think you will regret staking out that claim." In the Politico interview, Woodward interpreted the line as a threat, an interpretation that was immediately picked up by the right-wing media and reported as fact.
Fox News' Sean Hannity called it an example of "intimidation" and "arrogance" by a "fearmongering, demagogue president." Similar claims were made on Fox & Friends and Fox Business' Lou Dobbs Tonight, and it was the top headline on the Drudge Report:
But the emails, released later by Politico, do not bear out Woodward's claim that he was threatened by Sperling. After apologizing for his tone in the earlier conversation, Sperling wrote that "as a friend" he was concerned with the possibility of Woodward reporting inaccurate claims about the debt ceiling deal:
I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall -- but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying 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.
Sperling concluded by explaining his reasoning and giving his "sincere advice" before saying the decision was "Your call obviously." Woodward responded to this email -- which he later portrayed as a threat -- by writing:
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. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved.
CNN's Soledad O'Brien pointed out that Sperling's focus on possible inaccurate reporting weakened Woodward's claim of intimidation:
The emails not only contradict Woodward and the right-wing media's claim of intimidation, they confirm the interpretation given by White House staff after they were asked about the exchange. One official told Talking Points Memo that the email was intended to warn Woodward against reporting inaccurate material:
"Of course no threat was intended. As Mr. Woodward noted, the email from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more. And Mr. Woodward responded to this aide's email in a friendly manner."
Woodward has been widely criticized for some of his reporting on the debt ceiling and sequestration. In a Washington Post column, Woodward claimed President Obama "moved the goalposts" by proposing additional revenue as part of a deficit plan to replace sequestration. Following the column's publication, several media outlets pointed out that revenue was always a part of Obama's balanced deficit reduction plan.