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Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Woodward-Sperling flap may turn tide

There is a rule in Politics 2013 that's evident in the flap about a White House aide's maybe threatening or not threatening Washington Post veteran reporter Bob Woodward. The rule: The more superficial the brouhaha the bigger its impact.
What public figures say is more important than what they do, because cable TV and political blogs can cover a mud fight more cheaply and more easily than they can a real story.
Quick synopsis: Woodward has reported doggedly on the White House's role in putting "sequester" cuts -- $85 billion this year -- in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Last week, as Woodward was writing that President Barack Obama was moving the goal post in negotiations on those cuts, a White House aide yelled at him on the phone for a half-hour, Woodward says. Economic adviser Gene Sperling later sent him an email to apologize for raising his voice. Sperling also wrote, "I think you will regret staking out that claim."
The White House says no threat was intended. I believe that. I also see why Woodward might perceive the exchanges as a threat -- not to harm him physically but to deny him access. Without access, Woodward cannot write best-selling books.
Why am I writing about what Ron Fournier, National Journal editor-in-chief, described as "a silly distraction to a major problem" -- Washington's failure to lead under a budget deadline? Because this could be a turning point -- the moment when the White House press corps starts pushing back.
As Fournier wrote, the Woodward flap is indicative of the "increasingly toxic relationship between media and government." Things have gotten so ugly that in the midst of the Woodward flap, Fournier put an anonymous White House source on notice that if he continued to send him emails filled with "vulgarity, abusive language" and you'll-regret-it talk, Fournier would feel free to print said missives with attribution.
It would be nice if a more substantive dispute than the White House's treatment of Woodward sparked this mild rebellion. Think Benghazi. Yet there is a substantive dispute behind the fluffy fight.
As Politico reported, the White House "has, with great success, fudged the facts. The administration has convinced a majority of the country that Republicans are more to blame by emphasizing that Republicans voted for the plan. Which they did -- after Obama conceived it."
In an October presidential debate, Obama claimed that "the sequester is not something that I've proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen." PolitiFact rated that claim "mostly false." Obamaland's misinformation cookie is crumbling.
By Thursday's White House news briefing, the mutual disdain between the press corps and spokesman Jay Carney bubbled over. Reporters questioned dubious administration claims about layoffs attributed to sequester cuts. Ed Henry of Fox News asked why the White House had held a closed-to-the-press swearing in for Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Henry also is president of the White House Correspondents' Association, so Carney used the question to crack a joke about the group's complaint about reporters' lack of access to the president during a recent golfing vacation. Keep it up, White House, and the press corps will wear your scorn as a badge of honor.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

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