The Free Press, Mankato, MN


March 6, 2013

Our View: News gatherer vs. newsmaker

— The subject of newsmaker-news gatherer relationships became a national debate when eminent journalist Bob Woodward took body blows from the White House and others when he had the audacity to write that it was President Obama who first put forward the idea of sequesterization.

Woodward said nothing that others hadn't said, but Obama's top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, sent him a now-famous email that warned, "I think you will regret staking out that claim."

Whether or not the email qualifies as a threat (another point of contention), the whole episode has thrown some very interesting light onto the high-stakes journalism played in the rarefied air that Woodward -- who became a household name with his Watergate reporting -- breathes.

Most reporters and columnists -- like those employed at The Free Press -- are only rarely "abused," and only then in comparably extreme cases. But in Washington, we are told, entire divisions of pit bulls are employed to pounce whenever a report surfaces that goes against the desired spin.

The Obama White House received a brushback from the Woodward incident, perhaps justified. Reporters have charged that the Obama administration is particularly aggressive at picking on the messengers of contrary reporting. Then again, insiders also say attacks come with the territory and with every presidential administration.

And, certainly, those of us in the media would be wise not to protest too much at push-back from those we report on. We can take a lesson directly from Woodward, who -- though he was never in the class of an Edward R. Murrow, a Tim Russert or a Seymour Hersh -- was once admired enough to have inspired many a journalistic career.

But since the White House flap materialized, he has been roundly ridiculed. Some have called him a has-been who's lost touch with reality. Other remarks have been worse.

There is an important lesson here for all journalists. Public officials are fair game and so, too, are the people who report about them. Just as there are the Woodwards who think they've been unjustly attacked for pointing out flaws in the people in power, there are plenty of others who ought to be criticized for not pointing out enough flaws.

The public is not about to take the media's side. In a recent Rasmussen poll, only 6 percent of likely U.S. voters said they regard the news reported by the media as "very trustworthy." Forty-two percent say they don't trust the media, and 12 percent say the media is "not at all trustworthy.

So all of us in media -- including Bob Woodward, one of the media "darlings" -- still know we have our work cut out.

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