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“Flawed And Oversimplified Opinions”: Bob Woodward Shows His Anti-Obama Bias

Robert Gates’s memoir is all set to be released and The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward got himself a copy. Unfortunately, Woodward’s account of the book is as flawed and overly simplified as, er, Woodward’s own books about the Obama administration. Here is Woodward:

Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”

Read that again. According to Woodward, it is a serious charge against a president to say that he had doubts about the “course he had charted.” Since the same author wrote three increasingly critical books about a certain former president who never expressed the slightest doubts about disastrous policy choices, you would think Woodward might know better. Apparently not.

In contrast, here is how The New York Times‘s Thom Shanker, who also managed to get a copy of the book, writes about the same subject:

In a new memoir, Mr. Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Mr. Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Mr. Gates says that by 2011, Mr. Obama began expressing his own criticism of the way his strategy in Afghanistan was playing out.

This makes the same point, but in a less judgemental way. And here is Gates himself:

“As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Mr. Gates writes. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”

I don’t have a copy of Gates book, but as far as I can tell, Gates is not saying whether the president is right or wrong to feel these things, i.e. whether he was motivated by the realities of the situation. But there is a clue—one that Woodward reports lower in the article:

Gates’s severe criticism is even more surprising — some might say contradictory — because toward the end of “Duty,” he says of Obama’s chief Afghanistan policies, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”

Huh? This acknowledgment leaves Woodward’s opening paragraphs looking nearly incomprehensible.

Woodward does go on to mention a few areas where Gates really does seem mad: “I felt he had breached faith with me…on the budget numbers,” Gates writes of Obama.

On Afghanistan, though—where there is plenty to criticize in the White House’s approach—the judgement feels more like Woodward’s than Gates’s. It wouldn’t be the first time that Woodward showed a strong dislike for the president, and allowed his opinions to get ahead of the facts.

 

By: Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, January 9, 2014

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Politics | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Privacy? We Gave That Away Already”: You Might Want To Rethink Your Relationship With Technology

All the President’s Men, the movie made from the book that inspired my career in journalism, was on (very) late night TV the other night. What’s strikingly anachronistic about the film is not the sideburns and bug-eye glasses, but the rudimentary journalistic tactics of the reporters who broke the Watergate story.

They weren’t on Google, searching for information that may or may not be accurate, and using a research technique that is so easily tracked that pop-up ads related to the search will begin appearing almost immediately. They didn’t drive through toll booths with a convenient electronic device on the windshield that can (and do) track their movements and the specific time of the movements. They didn’t do email interviews, cell phone interviews or even many hardline phone interviews that could leave an electronic trail.

The movie shows the real, unglamorous shoe-leather work of being a reporter. It’s one scene after another of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein driving to a neighborhood, parking blocks away to avoid detection and then knocking on people’s doors, sweet-talking their way into living rooms for interviews. It’s Woodward finding ways to meet his source, “Deep Throat” – not by thumb-typing a text, but by signals that involved the moving of a plant on a balcony. This was how the duo managed to get people to talk to them – sometimes at great personal risk – and how Woodward managed to keep Mark Felt’s identity a secret until Felt’s family disclosed his role in 2005.

Journalists are concerned at the surveillance of their phone records. And many are also jarred by the disclosure that federal authorities have been monitoring certain activity on the web and collecting phone call data. But where would anyone get the idea that any communication attached to technology and electronic’s is really private?

We have a new Facebook generation which is remarkably willing to give up its collective privacy by posting their embarrassing photos and travel plans and insignificant “status” updates on what is the biggest billboard in the cyber-sky. And yet the same people live in the delusion that no one is monitoring it? That a potential burglar isn’t tipped off by someone’s Pinterest photos of the family currently on vacation, a sign that the house is unattended? That a potential employer might see a photo of an applicant with someone doing shots off his chest and think, “maybe this isn’t someone we want working here?”

True, the idea government surveillance has a different quality to it, from both sides. We expect our government to respect our privacy. The government, meanwhile, knows it is also expected to track the bad guys. The balance of those two goals will surely be debated yet again after the recent disclosure of surveillance techniques. But in the meantime, Americans might want to rethink our relationship with technology and the privacy we lose by using it.

This applies exponentially to journalists, who might want to get back to basics – especially when reporting sensitive stories. When I was reporting in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, almost no one would be interviewed on the phone. They had just ousted a communist regime, and they were convinced, still, that their phones were being tapped. They didn’t even talk openly on the subway, so well-trained they were to be discreet. It made it harder to report, but it also promoted some better work tactics. I had to actually go meet someone somewhere and do interviews in person. I was less likely to misinterpret, and came back with more information than I would have gotten in a quick phone conversation. Woodward and Bernstein did it. So should the rest of us.

 

By: Susan Milligan, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, June 10. 2013

June 11, 2013 Posted by | Privacy, Technology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bob Woodward’s Credibility Is In Tatters”: From Impartial Reporter To Conservative Pundit

On Fox News Monday night, famed Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and host Bill O’Reilly zeroed in on the latest twist in Washington scandalmania — why the White House is refusing to answer questions about the 157 times former IRS commission Doug Schulman allegedly visited the White House, a closeness that raises questions about presidential involvement in the agency’s controversial targeting of Tea Party tax-exempt groups.

“This fiction that somehow [the IRS is] totally an independent agency is absurd,” Woodward, who broke the Watergate scandal, said. “You say they aren’t answering this question about the 157 visits by the IRS commissioner. They should.”

“President Obama could easily come out through his spokesperson and say this is where Mr. Schulman was. And here are the dates. Here is who he met with,” O’Reilly said. “The fact that the President doesn’t do it, should raise the curiosity of every reporter, Mr. Woodward, every reporter. Yet, as I said, the major network news on television ignored the story last week in its totality. It’s amazing.”

This forces us to ask the uncomfortable question of whether O’Reilly and Woodward have access to Google. Because if they did, they would have the answers to all of these questions, and they may even find a statement from the president’s spokesperson that he is supposedly refusing to give.

“The IRS commissioner, in carrying out his duties, would of course have many reasons to have an appointment to visit the White House,” White House spokesperson Eric Schultz said.

That’s a bit vaguer than what O’Reilly and Woodward are looking for, but the White House doesn’t really have to say any more, considering that all the specifics are already online, available to anyone who looks for them.

The story of the 157 visits originated with the Daily Caller, based on a (sloppy) inspection of White House visitor logs. But as the Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta reported, parsing those very same visitor logs a bit more closely, it turns out that while Schulman — a Bush appointee — was cleared to visit the White House 157 times, he appears to have actually visited only 11 times.

The vast majority of the cleared visits were related to the implementation of Obamacare, in which the IRS plays a key role, and include regularly scheduled weekly meetings with administration officials on the ongoing work. Meanwhile, many people seem to be conflating the presidential mansion itself with other executive office buildings that are organizationally under the “Executive Office of the President ” — all colloquially referred to as “The White House.” They’re all included in the Secret Services’ visitors logs, but it turns out Schulman was rarely cleared to visit the actual White House, more often having permission to go to the Executive Office Building.

Some Googling might also reveal a Politico story, which also cast doubt on the Daily Caller’s scoop, or plenty of others.

You can see where Schulman went, whom he met with and when — all of these mysterious questions the White House refuses to answer — here.

We expect it from O’Reilly, but it’s a bit disappointing from Woodward, who should know better. Still, he’s seemingly been making a subtle drift from impartial reporter to conservative pundit in recent years.

 

By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, June 4, 2013

June 5, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dictatorship Vs Democracy”: Republicans Are Trying To Exercise Powers That Do Not Rightly Belong To Them

Readers familiar with my work know that one of my favorite quotes about the nature of politics, and democracies in particular, comes from Walter Lippmann’s Essays in the Public Philosophy, where the preeminent American journalist of the 20th century tried in 1955 to diagnose why fascism and other forms of dictatorship took root in democratic Europe in the early decades of the last century.

It is possible to govern a great state without giving the masses of people full representation, writes Lippmann. “But it is not possible to go on for long without a government which can and does in fact govern.”

If, because of gridlock, stalemate, partisanship and implacable polarization people find “they must choose whether they will be represented in an assembly which is incompetent to govern, or whether they will be governed without being represented, there is no doubt at all as to how the issue will be decided,” writes Lippmann. “They will choose authority, which promises to be paternal, in preference to freedom which threatens to be fratricidal.”

Because the truth is, says Lippmann, large communities cannot do without being governed. “No ideal of freedom and of democracy will long be allowed to stand in the way of their being governed.”

The standoff between President Obama and the Republican hardliners over the sequester is not, at the end of the day, about taxes and spending.

It is, rather, about whether America can remain a viable democracy in which the country is able to move forward with a program once that program has been put to a vote — as President Obama’s plan of a balance between spending cuts and tax hikes was in the last election — or whether a determined minority supported by little more than 20% of the public will still be able to leverage tools that were crafted two centuries before to arm the minority against majority “tyranny” in order to dictate surrender terms to that majority by holding the nation’s government and economy hostage.

Republicans who insist that President Obama show “leadership” in this crisis by “capitulating” to their political demands are engaging in the same cynical wordplay for which the GOP has become famous. For like those who said the only way to save the village was to destroy it, Republicans say the President must save the nation from the “devastating” consequences of $85 billion in budget cuts by cutting another $85 billion from the budget — only not from defense and without new taxes, which are “off the table.”

But the darker side of these calls for executive action to overcome legislative gridlock is the one that Walter Lippmann understood so well decades ago. It’s one the President referred to obliquely in his press conference when he reminded reporters who wanted to know why he did not just “do something” to end the standoff that presidents under our Constitution are not “dictators” (Obama used that word) who can dispatch the Secret Service like a Praetorian Guard to prevent legislators from catching their planes or forcing these duly-elected, if recalcitrant, democratic leaders to do a thing once they’ve made up their minds not to.

It does not take a genius — or unhinged conspiracy theorist – to imagine that one strategy a right wing authoritarian movement might employ to concentrate political power in the hands of a few would be to: First, allow the wealthy to make unlimited, untraceable political contributions; Second, strike down the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional as part of a broader strategy to disenfranchise the right wing’s opposition; and finally, make democracy so unworkable that a frustrated public chooses “authority to freedom” just as Lippmann predicted.

The rise of Hitler, as Lippmann points out, was fueled and facilitated by the German public’s frustration with a dysfunctional German parliament unable to govern because it had become a battleground between parties of the extreme left and right.

What’s been extraordinary in the recent stalemate over the sequester, however, is that the flight from democracy to dictatorship which Lippmann foretold if popular government proved incompetent to govern, has not been evident among the American people, who are standing solidly with the President.

Instead, it’s Washington’s political class who’ve blinked first, unnerved perhaps by the dysfunction of a political system they no longer understand nor control.

A good example is Ron Fournier, writer for the National Journal and former Washington Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, who says Obama makes a credible case that he has reached farther toward compromise than House Republicans. But, paraphrasing Bill Joel, Fournier nevertheless insists: “You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy.”

Even though the public sides with Obama and gives Republicans “pathetic approval ratings,” Fournier still blames Obama for the GOP’s stonewalling because “in any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure.”

Even if Congress is factually to blame, Fournier says “there is only one president” and even “if he’s right on the merits, Obama may be on the wrong side of history. Fair or not, the president owns this mess.”

The impulse to let the bullies have their way also helps explain, I think, why Bob Woodward has made a fool of himself empowering Republican obstructionists as he, wrongly, accuses the President of “moving the goal posts” when Obama insists on the very same balanced package of deficit-cutting tax hikes and spending cuts the President has been pushing all along, ever since Republicans first pushed the nation to the brink of insolvency two years ago in an effort to win concessions on spending through extortion they could not win democratically at the ballot box.

As John Harwood writes in the New York Times, Republicans don’t seek to grind government to a halt so much as they aim “to shrink its size by an amount currently beyond their institutional power in Washington, or popular support in the country, to achieve.”

President Obama acknowledges that some entitlement cuts are needed to keep the programs solvent, says Harwood. He also based his reelection on the choice he gave voters for his smaller cuts combined with tax increases on affluent Americans versus the Republicans’ bigger ones without tax increases.

Americans chose Obama’s approach. Even surveys today show 50 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s job performance while only 29 percent expressed a positive view of the Republican Party, said Harwood. Among demographic groups, the only group that views Republicans more positively than negatively are white Southerners, and even then it was by just 39 percent to 35 percent.

“More than twice as many Americans credited Mr. Obama, as compared with Republicans, with emphasizing themes of bipartisan unity,” said Harwood.

Republicans today are trying to exercise powers that do not rightly belong to them, at least not democratically. So why are so many Beltway elites willing to let them?

It’s the nation’s political elites who seem to be abandoning democracy, not the masses, as they urge Obama to flex executive muscles he does not possess or surrender unconditionally to the non-negotiable demands of an ideological minority that knows it can’t win elections outright but also that the country can’t move forward without it just so long as its capacity for manufacturing crisis after crisis remains undiminished.

 

By: Ted Frier, Salon, Open Salon Blog, March 10, 2013

March 11, 2013 Posted by | Republicans, Sequester | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Washington Political Reporting”: Ignoring The Sequester’s Inconvenient Truths

Republican strategy during the sequestration fight depends upon two political givens: widespread public ignorance, and the extreme reluctance of the traditional Washington news media to exhibit “liberal bias” by stressing inconvenient facts. After all, aren’t “both sides” equally responsible for the current budgetary impasse? And shouldn’t President Obama lead by making the GOP the proverbial offer it can’t refuse?

Exactly what such an offer might consist of remains vague. Mostly, it’s coulda, shoulda, woulda stuff from celebrity pundits like Bob Woodward, the Washington Post editor who spent much of last week on national TV demonstrating that he can’t distinguish a warning from an apology.

“You do not ever have to apologize to me,” Woodward had responded to an allegedly intimidating email from longtime White House source, Gene Sperling. “I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening.”

Wow, that must have been scary! Faced with incredulity after the inoffensive email became public, Woodward alibied that he’d never exactly called it threatening.

Which begs the question of why he was talking about it on TV. Look, people frequently wander into newspaper offices describing government plots against them—often spelled out in all caps, with lots of red-ink underlining and rows of exclamation points. Most often they’re gently shown the door.

But I digress. Sperling’s point was that Woodward was completely off base in saying President Obama had “moved the goalposts” by seeking to close tax loopholes enabling guys like Mitt Romney to pay lower income tax rates than his wife’s horse trainers.

Could there be anybody in America who didn’t know that?

Certainly not Bill Keller. To the former New York Times editor, Obama’s big sin was building “a re-election campaign that was long on making the wealthiest pay more in taxes, short on spending discipline, and firmly hands-off on the problem of entitlements.”

Keller thinks that had President Obama campaigned on Simpson-Bowles-style austerity so beloved of “centrist” pundits whose own finances are secure, “he could now claim a mandate from voters to do something big and bold.” Instead, a weakened president now sounds “helpless, if not acquiescent.”

True, Keller does concede that “much of the responsibility for our perpetual crisis can be laid at the feet of a pigheaded Republican Party, cowed by its angry, antispending, antitaxing, anti-Obama base.”

But nowhere in all this sonorous muck will you find a factual account of exactly what the White House proposes to resolve the sequester that congressional Republicans find so abhorrent.

To do so would endanger the whole centrist enterprise enabling Washington wise men like Woodward and Keller to masquerade as non-partisan and above the battle.

Which brings us back to Ezra Klein, boy pundit.

When last we encountered the 28 year-old Washington Post blogger, he’d done the unthinkable: phoned David Brooks and informed him that his column lampooning the Obama White House for proposing no plan was bollocks. He directed Brooks to the White House website, where a detailed deficit reduction proposal based upon spending cuts, entitlement reforms and revenue increases has been posted for months.

Also unthinkable, and much to his credit, Brooks admitted the error in the lede of his next column. Evidently, he’d been taken in by Speaker John Boehner, who’s been doing TV interviews for weeks now urging Obama and the Democrats to get off their collective asses.

So was it really possible, Klein wondered, that Republicans didn’t actually know about President Obama’s offer? He got himself invited to a GOP background briefing “with one of the most respected Republicans in Congress.” As a policy wonk, Klein was astonished to learn that Republicans in attendance had no idea that the Obama administration had put “chained CPI,” for example, on the table.

That’s a way of restraining the growth in Social Security payments by reconfiguring inflation. Most liberals bitterly oppose it.

Indeed, Klein found that on a whole range of issues, “top Republicans simply don’t know the compromises the White House is willing to make on Medicare and Social Security.”

So it’s all a big misunderstanding? Or was Klein simply being naïve?

The latter, chided friendly rival Jonathan Chait at New York magazine. “If Obama could get hold of Klein’s mystery legislator and inform him of his budget offer,” he predicted, “it almost certainly wouldn’t make a difference. He would come up with something—the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful, or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out, or something.”

That’s precisely what happened. Klein posted a series of Twitter posts from influential GOP consultant Mike Murphy, downgrading “chained CPI” from an essential reform to a meaningless “gimmick” within hours of learning that the White House proposed it.

It’s all quite funny, from a cynical perspective, but perfectly illustrative of today’s GOP.

Meanwhile, Klein and Chait’s brand of irreverent, fact-driven journalism is a refreshing change in the clubby world of Washington political reporting.

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, March 6, 2013

March 7, 2013 Posted by | Journalism, Media | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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