December 13, 2005
John Harris and Jim Brady Get Into It About "White House Briefing." Dan Froomkin Replies.
PressThink interviews two key players in a dispute at the Washington Post over Dan Froomkin's Web column, White House Briefing. National politics editor John Harris, and washingtonpost.com's executive editor Jim Brady explain what's going on. Then Froomkin talks back.
(New Froomkin Fallout post, Dec. 17: Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One.)
Background is here and here and here. Deborah Howell’s ombudsman column started it. Then Froomkin replied, and readers responded (673 comments as of post time). Harris replied to Froomkin’s readers and got hundreds more comments.
Now (updating to Dec. 14) the Post’s Joel Achenbach, with a devoted read/write following, weighs in via his Achenblog. Achenbach describes some of what lies behind the seemingly “small” events in The Froomkin Foofaraw (his term.)
I promised one of the participants that I would start with some words of caution. All were aware that there’s high interest in the story among online readers and writers. They said there may be a dispute, but there isn’t any crisis over Froomkin’s White House Briefing. His column is popular; it isn’t going away. (Users do have some power in the equation.) John Harris knows that. He told me he is not on any campaign to sink the column. He’s concerned about truth-in-labeling, but not in a state of alarm about it. “On the list of things I worry about in my job as political editor at the Post, Froomkin is not at the top.”
I asked Harris and Brady similar questions, then gave Froomkin a chance to reply. I confirmed with Brady that Froomkin’s column is typically among the top ten content pages at washingtonpost.com. I tried to get better numbers, but they’re trade secrets.
- Q & A with John Harris, national politics editor, Washington Post, and Jay Rosen, PressThink.
Q: What sort of complaints or reactions have the political writers received (and from whom) that would lead them to think that White House Briefing is harming their credibility?
John Harris: I don’t keep a running log, but I regularly run across people who think Dan is one of our White House reporters. One of them was a very news-saavy source of mine who actually runs campaigns. That tells me there is a large chunk of readers—I’m not saying most but a lot—who are not clear who he is and that he is writing as a commentator and not a White House reporter.
The ombudsman says she regularly gets comments on the theme of how can you pretend to objectivity when your White House reporter writes “insert Froomkin quote here.”
The question is has the website done enough to address such confusion? They are doing better. Most of the time (but with some slips) he is presented as an “opinion columnist.” But I think the title “White House Briefing” (which, as Dan acknowledges, is really a pretty minor issue) invites confusion.
Q: Have officials from the White House complained to you or to Post political reporters about Froomkin’s column?
John Harris: They have never complained in a formal way to me, but I have heard from Republicans in informal ways making clear they think his work is tendentious and unfair. I do not have to agree with them in every instance that it is tendentious and unfair for me to be concerned about making clear who Dan is and who he is not regarding his relationship with the newsroom.
Q: You say, “The confusion about Dan’s column unintentionally creates about the reporter’s role has itself become an obstacle to our work.” What kind of obstacle do you mean?
John Harris: As you surely can appreciate in your position, there are many people—especially conservatives but increasingly many liberals as well—who have no regard for the tradition of objective journalism and view much of our work as an ideological weapon in the guise of neutral reporting. I profoundly disagree with this view, but this view is a reality and I believe we have to push back against it and do our work as best we can.
To the extent that some people believe Dan represents the voice and values of the Washington Post newsroom, that seems to me to be leading with our chin. Again, since many people seem to lose this point: I’m not trying to shut Dan down, just make sure we are presenting his work in a way that does not invite confusion. To the extent he presents a distinct ideological orientation in his column, we should make sure we offer other voices.
This issue is really the heart of it. I would agree with Dan that his words in response to the ombudsman—about demanding answers, crying foul on “disingenous talking points,” and so on—do not represent ideological values. They would seem to me to represent basic journalistic values, and democratic values. This is probably why my comments caused such a stir: People bridled at what they interpreted as my view that challenging the White House on evasions, misstatements, or contradictions is evidence of “liberalism.” By no means is that my view.
So my reservations about “White House Briefing” are not in theory but in practice. It seems to me that if you read his column over time he is presenting a pretty standard liberal critique of Bush. That is fine for a columnist or blogger but in my view would not be appropriate at all for a news reporter.
Dan has not yet responded to my question of whether it would be okay with him if his column appeared exactly as he writes it under the byline of Jim VandeHei, Peter Baker, or Mike Fletcher, our three White House reporters. You are a press critic: Would you be comfortable with that?
Again, I know most readers are not idiots and get the idea that we are sponsoring a blogger. But we know there is confusion on the point. And even a lot of conservatives who get the idea of what Dan is would say, “Yes, of course it figures that the Washington Post would sponsor a liberal blogger.”
Q: You also said, “I perceive a good bit of his commentary on the news as coming through a liberal prism—or at least not trying very hard to avoid such perceptions.” But you don’t give any examples or links to past columns, and Deborah Howell, who also made this point, doesn’t give any examples, so it’s hard for readers to judge what these observations are based on. Could you help me out here? What issues does WHB tend to view through a liberal prism? Can you point to columns that you had in mind? You also say that it may be true that Froomkin would do the column the same way if Kerry had won the ‘04 election; but if that’s so, doesn’t that undercut the notion of a liberal prism?
John Harris: How Dan would be writing about a Kerry administration is obviously an imponderable. Does Dan present a liberal worldview? Not always, but cumulatively I think a great many people would say yes—enough that I don’t want them thinking he works for the news side of the Post.
Without agreeing with the views of this conservative blogger who took on Froomkin, I would say his argument does not seem far-fetched to me.
Q: What else do you think it’s important for me and PressThink readers to understand about this episode?
John Harris: What irked me about Froomkin’s reply to the ombudsman was his pompous suggestion that he is a lonely truth-teller at the Washington Post and the way he held himself up as a high priest and arbiter of good journalism:
“The journalists who cover Washington and the White House should be holding the president accountable. When they do, I bear witness to their work. And the answer is for more of them to do so — not for me to be dismissed as highly opinionated and liberal because I do.”
Many readers responding to his blog—the ones that prompted my response—hailed what Dan does as courageous reporting and denounced other reporters as stenographers. To be blunt: that is total bullshit. First, Dan is not principally a reporter. He is a commentator on what other people report. I took his comment to be by implication a smear on Washington Post reporters who work hard every damn day to do precisely the kind of tough-minded, accountability reporting he says he admires.
I’m not trying to make this a bigger matter than it is. What we are really discussing is the title and presentation of “White House Briefing” and whether he should be complemented by another voice. I responded to your questions at some length because they touch on issues about the web and traditional news organizations that go beyond this episode.
Thanks, John Harris. We want to make sure we understand, so… Some excerpts from an e-mail he sent to Jim Brady explaining the discomfort with Froomkin’s column.
- John Harris to Jim Brady Re: White House Briefing
Even so, the responses rallying to Dan’s defense and denouncing the Washington Post newspaper were troubling to me. A great many of them showed little understanding of how we do our work as reporters and editors, and of the distinctions we make between news and commentary. Many of them displayed a common attitude these days—that every article must be either a weapon or a shield in the great ideological arguments of the moment.
The very idea of independent reporting, in which a reporter is trying to cover news and institutions without an agenda—in other words, our professional code—is under widespread assault. That is why I have been up on a horse about Froomkin in ways that probably seem disproportionate to you.
It’s not an overstatement to say that our generation of reporters and editors is trying to vindicate the entire tradition of ideologically neutral news in a web-driven age in which most information is presented through argument. Certainly the Bush White House would be happy to have this tradition die—it makes it easier for them to dismiss all reporting they don’t like as the work of liberal critics.
He’s entitled to his opinion, and he’s entitled to be proud of what is obviously a devoted audience. But you know how I feel—his column, under its current title and display, does dilute the Washington Post’s reputation, and more serious care should be given to its editing and presentation. — JH
- Q & A with Jim Brady, executive editor, WashingtonPost.com, and Jay Rosen, PressThink
Q: How did you first become aware of the political reporters’ concerns, and what did you understand them to be about?
Jim Brady: I became aware of their concerns right after I began this job in January. The Post’s political staff has always been up front about their concerns over Dan’s column. I have been equally up front in saying that White House Briefing is an integral part of the site and that we have no intention of killing it. It’s built a tremendous audience, it serves as an informative roundup on what news organizations are saying about the White House and it’s written with a strong voice and a wry sense of humor. Dan’s column, to me, takes advantage of the Internet’s ability to link and the Web’s appetite for voice. This isn’t anti-Post; it’s one of many ways The Post organization is adapting to a new medium with enthusiasm and vigor.
One concern the newspaper raised early on was that Dan’s column was treated as a news column, when they felt it was an opinion column. I happen to agree with that assessment — though I know Dan does not — so we have been labeling it as an opinion column since the summer. Beyond that, The Post’s main concern is the name “White House Briefing,” which they feel implies that Dan is a White House reporter for The Washington Post, which he is not. I felt labeling WHB as an opinion column, and continuing to use the tagline “special to washingtonpost.com” under Dan’s byline did enough to separate it from the paper’s news content. But there’s obviously a disagreement there, and I’m certainly willing to keep talking to John to get to the heart of the matter.
Q: Which arguments of John Harris and his staff did you find most persuasive, and which did you not share, or see differently?
Jim Brady: I agree with John that where Dan’s column resides philosophically on the site has not always been clear. It was promoted as a news column/analysis for more than a year, until I decided to put it under an Opinion label over the summer. I also think John’s comments in Deborah’s column on Sunday and his response to Dan on washingtonpost.com on Monday have been misconstrued by many of those who have commented publicly. They’re accusing John of saying that no Washington Post reporter would dare criticize the White House; that’s not at all what he said. His point is that The Post has a very clear line of demarcation between news content and editorial page content, and that he believes Dan’s column creates confusion in that area.
I’m not as sold on the second point, but again, I’m certainly willing to hear him out. But he’s right to say that Jim VandeHei would not be able to write — in the news pages — what Dan writes daily for the Web site, since Jim’s not an opinion writer. But E.J. Dionne could write what Dan writes, as could Richard Cohen or anyone else on The Post’s editorial page. So John’s not saying The Post can’t criticize the White House, but that when it does, that criticism needs to live in the editorial pages, not in its the news pages.
Q: Howell and Harris both seem to charge Froomkin with writing from an ideological and left-leaning point of view. They do not give readers any examples. Froomkin denies it entirely. He says he is engaged in accountability journalism, and he was prepared to do exactly the same thing had John Kerry been elected. Harris says this may be true: “It might be the case that he would be writing similarly about John Kerry if he were president.” If so, then the charge of being liberal falls apart, and Froomkin’s description makes more sense. Do you think of Froomkin’s White House Briefing as somehow “liberal” or left-leaning? Or do you think he would be doing the same kind of column, asking the same kind of questions, highlighting the same kind of work, if a Democrat were in office?
Jim Brady: Having read Dan’s columns for the past year, I do believe that it’s left-leaning. Other don’t agree, including Dan. I know he says that he’d have been just as tough on John Kerry, but since we have no way of knowing that, I have to rely on what’s in front of me to decide how to classify the column. I chose the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dan writes a terrific column. It’s a great read, it’s built a huge following and Dan’s done a tremendous job interacting with his audience. But I do believe it’s an opinion column. Honestly, I don’t want to start pulling “examples,” since I don’t want it to seem like I’m bashing Dan. But having read it every day for the past year, I feel comfortable with the decision to move in into Opinion.
Q: Howell says Brady is “considering changing the column title and supplementing it with a conservative blogger.” What do you want the title to reflect that it is not refecting now?
Jim Brady: We have not really discussed the name in any depth, either internally or with the paper. As I said before, I’m willing to have a discussion about it with the newspaper. But I don’t know where we’ll come out. The issue is not what the title doesn’t reflect, it’s more the confusion that’s caused by use of the words “White House.” But it’s too early to tell where we’ll come out.
Q: Could you elaborate on your thinking about possibly adding a conservative blogger? Does that mean you have accepted the view of Howell and Harris that White House Briefing is tough on Bush because Froomkin is a liberal?
Jim Brady: Actually, the desire to bring on a conservative blogger has never been related to Dan. Ever since we launched our new Opinions area back in August, we’ve been trying to recruit someone from the right to help anchor that page. We do have a fair amount of online-only opinion columnists, but we don’t have one who clearly brings a conservative perspective on the issues of the day. For the sake of civic debate and assuring that the entire political spectrum is represented on post.com’s opinion page, we feel like adding someone from the right makes sense. But we’re not trying to find someone to rebut Dan; we’re looking for a different voice altogether.
Q: What else do you think it’s important for PressThink readers to understand about this episode?
Jim Brady: What worries me is when I see headlines that suggest there’s a huge battle between the newspaper and the Web site. It’s just not the case. Even with the national political staff—despite the obvious tension surrounding Dan’s column—we’ve made huge progress in the past six months. We recently hired Chris Cillizza to write a political blog for us, and to make sure he was able to be as effective as possible, we put him in The Post newsroom to interact with the national political staff. And “The Fix” is a huge hit. We recently started a Post political live discussion that runs every weekday at 11am ET. Last week, we launched a congressional voting database going back to 1991, the first in a series of political databases we’re looking to create. So I do worry that one issue like this is being used to suggest there’s a war going on between the two newsrooms. There isn’t.
- Dan Froomkin responds: “My job is to watch the White House like a hawk.”
Jay: First of all, let me say that I don’t like the fact that my readers are using me as cudgel to smack around The Post’s political staff. I think The Post’s political coverage is the best in the business. I’m proud to be ever-so-remotely associated with them. My column is largely a blog, and like my fellow bloggers, I would be at a loss without the news stories arduously pieced together by political reporters who, let’s remember, unlike me or bloggers, actually need to maintain their White House sources as they go. Talk about a highwire act.
Noting my support for holding the president accountable, John Harris wrote on washingtonpost.com: “The reporters on the Post’s White House and political teams every day push through many obstacles and frustrations to do precisely this kind of accountability reporting—as I’m sure Dan would agree.” I certainly do. The Post political staff’s beef with my column, as reported by the ombudsman, is primarily a labeling issue. They just want it to be clear that I’m not one of their White House reporters. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I just happen to think it’s already clear to most readers that I’m a columnist, not a reporter.
I’m Not Taking a Political Stand
I am a bit frustrated that because my job is to hold the White House accountable, I’m accused of being biased. Being a columnist allows me to inject a lot more voice and personal observations into my work than I could if I were a reporter, but it doesn’t mean I’m taking a political stand. Should I also be critiquing the Democrats? There aren’t any in the White House. And my job is to watch the White House like a hawk. It’s also a job that the American public has counted on The Washington Post for during these past 30 years and that it appears a large number of readers from around the country and the world now come to washingtonpost.com for as well.
This current tempest isn’t a clash of cultures, Jay, it’s just growing pains. Please remember that I was the editor of washingtonpost.com for three years before I started this column. In fact, I started working at the Web site in 1997, as a senior producer for politics, after 10 years as a daily newspaper reporter. The Washington Post newsroom has come a long way since 1997 towards embracing the Web and what it means to journalism — it just still has a long way to go.
The Appetite for Voice
To the extent that something good can come of all this, I hope it’s that the increased visibility for my column will call attention to its success as a new journalistic form, taking advantage of the Internet’s ability to link and the Web’s appetite for voice. The links, for instance, allow readers to assess my credibility on their own. My voice has helped create a large community of devoted, regular readers. This isn’t anti-Post; this is neo-Post; it’s one of many ways The Post organization is adapting to a new medium with enthusiasm and vigor.
And despite some of the fears of my wonderful readers, the column is not in danger. I could not ask for more support than I have received from the highest levels of The Post and post.com — including Don Graham, Len Downie, Web site publisher Caroline Little and executive editor Jim Brady.
Finally, I have been absolutely blown away by the expressions of support from readers, in their online comments and by e-mail, and from the blogging community. I am deeply moved and deeply appreciative and I wish I could thank everyone individually. If I ever had any doubts that this was worth the effort, they are gone.
After Matter: Notes, reactions and links
Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Post, states his concerns (from E & P):
“We want to make sure people in the [Bush] administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin’s column because it contains opinion,” Downie told E&P. “And that readers of the Web site understand that, too.”
Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady said he does not plan to change the name, claiming it has not caused the misinterpretations that some believe it has. “The column has been on the site for two years and that is not something we have heard,” Brady said about concerns. “The column is extremely popular and it is not going anywhere.”
I like it. A stand-off. “They decide what the column ought to be called,” Downie said about the Web editors. “We have discussed it and they will decide what to do. It is their decision, not mine.”
This would not happen at the New York Times, where NYtimes.com was recently placed under the command of executive editor Bill Keller. He would have ordered the change and that would be it. The existence of Washington Post and Newsweek Interactive, a separate company headquartered in Arlington, VA, (it runs washingtonpost.com, and employs Froomkin) prevents that.
Uh oh. Long-form blogger, academic economist and pissed-off press critic Brad DeLong phoned John Harris and interviewed him about one moment in my Q and A, where I was trying to get some specifics…(Dec. 14) Read the results. Not pretty. DeLong thinks Harris fell for an RNC ploy, or worse, by using “conservative blogger” Pat Ruffini for illustration. Brad’s post about it at TPM Cafe is actually clearer. Here’s a lot more about Ruffini from Tapped.
Dec. 15: John Harris did a live chat with Post.com readers and got “tons” of questions about Froomkin but took only two to answer (here and here.) He did say:
For those who are actually interested in the details, Jay Rosen’s site “pressthink” did a full and responsible airing of this relatively minor issue, and I said everything I need to say (and a little more) on that.
Thanks, John— and for answering my questions. I dissent on “this relatively minor issue,” though. The events are small. The rummblings that led to them: not.
If you dare follow Delong into The Future of the Washington Post? It’s all about the Froomkin episode and DeLong has plenty on his mind.
Political reporter Peter Baker handles Froomkin questions in a live chat with washingtonpost.com readers (Dec. 13.) (“… Threatened by Dan Froomkin’s column? Hardly.”)
Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten in another online chat with readers: “The Post reporters are wrong. Deborah is wrong. Froomkin is right. His column is really good, and I don’t much CARE if people get confused about whether he works for the Post or dotcom. Fact is, he works for both, and he is a columnist, and columnists have opinions, and people understand that.”
Jeff Jarvis thinks Deborah Howell’s column about White House Briefing “illustrates, in its quotes from editors at the paper, the kind of clueless, destructive, and snobbish territoriality between print and online that is killing newspapers.” That sets off Dan Kennedy: see why.
About the “atmospherics” at this post, Jarvis later writes: “The online folks are bending over backwards to be deferential to the print people. The print person is spitting lines like ‘pompous’ and ‘total bullshit.’”
That’s because the online people know how strong their position is. More Jarvis, Dec. 15:
A wise editor I know said it better in an email: “The elbows are getting very very sharp right now.” And the reason is that the business is shrinking and the print guys and online guys — forced together in newsroom meetings and mergers — are like dogs growling and snapping over that last scrap of meat. When the going gets tough the tough get snarky.
“Watch the dodge,” says Ezra Klein at Tapped. “The question isn’t whether Froomkin pays secret homage to Karl Marx, but whether an undefined but nevertheless ‘great many’ people think he does.”
CJR Daily goes sensible on us (Felix Gillette, Dec. 15):
We prefer “White House Watch,” ourselves. That’s what Froomkin does on his blog — keeps a close eye on the White House and links right, left, hither and yon whenever he finds a kindred soul doing the same and doing it with panache. But hey, what do we know? We’re not the geniuses at Washingtonpost.com; neither are we the jealous Post reporters and editors lobbing the occasional grenade across the Potomac and into Froomkin’s tent.
Responses on the Right to this post and the Froomkin flap: Stephen Spruiell at National Review; Bill Quick at Daily Pundit; Christopher Fotos at PostWatch. Fotos did several posts in fact. Also see Mark Kilmer at redstate.org. Then there’s Josh Trevino: “The flap over Dan Froomkin’s White House Briefing in the Washington Post is an instructive little incident that ought to alert the journalism community to an unpleasant reality: having been regarded as the enemy for so long by the American right, it is now equally detested by the American left.” See Franklin Foer on the same theme, but without the Froomkin.
Panning left… Jane Hamsher on Post reporters: White House Pool Boys Get Crabby.
What the WaPo writers are viewing through their Technorati tags is only a tiny crumb of a rage that threatens to sweep them into irrelevance. If they care about the preservation of superstar journalists and the politics of access above all else they blind themselves to the sea change that is taking place in how information is exchanged.
Dan Froomkin is the future.
In my last post I incorrectly termed Jane a “lawyer and writer.” She is not a lawyer, but is a writer. Her blogging partner ReddHedd, equally sharp, is a lawyer. My apologies to both.
From the bio of the blogger John Harris linked to in support of his view that White House Briefing is left-leaning. (“His argument does not seem far-fetched to me.”)
Patrick Ruffini is never far from the place where politics meets technology. Until recently, Ruffini was webmaster for the Bush-Cheney ‘04 presidential campaign, proudly serving as part of the team that executed the most sophisticated online strategy in political history.
Oliver Willis weighs in on Froomkin, the press, and inequality.
More Post-Centric PressThink: Grokking Woodward (Dec. 9)
PressThink, Oct. 4:
The New York Times is not any longer—in my mind—the greatest newspaper in the land. Nor is it the base line for the public narrative that it once was. Some time in the last year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position. The Post, I believe, is our great national newspaper now; the Times is number two.
Still think that. Favorite quote from a Post reader defending Froomkin: “The fact that Froomkin is associated with the Post is what gives some plausible legitimacy to Harris, not the other way about.” (John Sundman, Dec 13, 2005 10:43:04 PM, found here.)
Dan Froomkin’s brother, Michael, is an academic and blogger at Discourse.net (“on the fringes of the public sphere…”) He says he is watching all this with “great interest and not a little glee.”
Marty Kaplan at the Huffington Post:
We have reached the point where instead of assessing the objectivity and accuracy of statements in public discourse, we are told by journalistic traffic cops to treat them merely as theological observations that flow from one’s political religion. It’s a symptom of the same disease that already causes spineless editors to force apparently defenseless reporters to pair every truthful “he said” in an article with a bogus “she said” in service of some nihilistic postmodern notion of balance.
Kevin Drum, agreeing with Atrios on it, says: “If you don’t want people to think that reporters have opinions, keep them away from shows that traffic primarily in opinion. That’s surely a much bigger deal than the ‘title and display’ of Froomkin’s column.”
Here’s a full list of Washingtonpost.com blogs, which for some odd reason leaves out WHB.
For a broad sampling of all the bloggers commenting on the Froomkin and the complaints about him see memeorandum.
In May 2004, Dan Froomkin wrote one the best pieces ever about what the new platform offers print journalists— if they awaken to it.
Posted by Jay Rosen at December 13, 2005 2:57 PM
"Dan has not yet responded to my question of whether it would be okay with him if his column appeared exactly as he writes it under the byline of Jim VandeHei, Peter Baker, or Mike Fletcher, our three White House reporters. You are a press critic: Would you be comfortable with that?"
Mr. Harris, you know, YOU'RE the one who has trouble distinguishing commentary from news stories. No, Dan's COLUMN would not appear under the byline of Jim VandeHei, etc, because it is not a NEWS STORY. (Of course, I notice Jim VandeHei has no problem editorializing when he's on TV... so I suspect that his TV talk wouldn't fit under his byline either... what say you, oh Editor?)
What makes no sense is that you have columnists right there in the Washington Post print edition, and editorialists too, who are far more opinionated than Froomkin. (Charles Krauthammer seems to spend his worklife in an apoplectic rage, for example.) Why aren't you insisting that they're too opinionated, adversarial, partisan, political, all that stuff?
And you don't even seem to feel the cold breath on the back of your neck. You blithely report that your friend who runs campaigns-- that is, a pol-- and Republicans have complained. Instead of saying, "Wow! That means Froomkin is having an effect! Go, Dan!", you act as if politicians taking issue with a columnist is sufficient reason to take off after him. Doesn't that bother you, that the opinions of politicians matter more to you than the opinions of readers?
And then you link approvingly to some blogger who headlines his much more opinionated and adversarial-than-Froomkin rant: "Dan Froomkin, Second-Rate Hack." You should be ashamed of yourself. This is your colleague. You of course say blah-blah-blah things about Froomkin being good, but then you link with approval to a headline like that.
That's it, fella. Between you and Len Downie, the one who admits this is about White House complaints, I have no use for the "legitimate Washington Post". You're spending the day slamming Froomkin when your fair-haired boy Jim Vandehei is backtracking on an idiotic and very likely slanderous mistake he made about (surprise!) the CIA leak. Excuse me, don't you have a reporter to chastise? You know, the one who -reported- that Hadley was Rove's source? Erroneously?
There's a story here, and you're not telling it-- why suddenly you decided to make this an issue, why you took it public rather than handling it inside the Post (to distract us all from Woodward, maybe?), who is this complaining friend of yours who runs campaigns and why do you think his opinion is so important, why the ombudsman dismisses the Web side as being useful for archiving big documents that would use too much newsprint, what the White House had to do with the complaints, who of your reporters has complained (they seem all to have checked in and said, "Twasn't me!"), why you assume that your readers are so stupid and partisan that they'd hate Froomkin if he was taking on a Kerry administration, why Mr. Downie joined in and added his little bit about Republicans complaining, and why other columnists including Howard Kurtz manage to remain under your radar.
I await the real story. I hear you have some good reporters. Maybe you should assign them to this!
To show how bad it is for the Post, I didn't even know Froomkin EXISTED.
And, the only time I read a Post story in when it is linked through another website, like antiwar.com, cursor.org or some other portal with themed content.
In other words, I figured out that the Post was a joke a long time ago, and got my international news from a variety of sources contained within these portals, as well as visiting the sites of the Guardian and the Independent, papers with an aggressiveness, vibrance and exuberance sorely lacking in the gray, subdued stenographers for Bush over at the Post and the NYT.
Discovering the people like Harris and Downie believe that the Post should be more attentive to the concerns of the White House and the Republican Party than it is to its readers is no great surprise to me, but, I must concede, I am amazed that they would openly display such arrogance to its readers and publicly admit it.
For those with long memories, I recommend Carl Bernstein's 1977 Rolling Stone article in which he described the CIA's role in shaping the message of the American mainstream media. Or, here's a similar summary, as provided by Alexander Cockburn last weekend:
[Press manipulation was always a paramount concern of the CIA, as with the Pentagon. In his Secret History of the CIA, published in 2001, Joe Trento described how in 1948 CIA man Frank Wisner was appointed director of the Office of Special Projects, soon renamed the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC). This became the espionage and counter-intelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency, the very first in its list of designated functions was "propaganda".
Later that year Wisner set an operation codenamed "Mockingbird", to influence the domestic American press. He recruited Philip Graham of the Washington Post to run the project within the industry.
Trento writes that
"One of the most important journalists under the control of Operation Mockingbird was Joseph Alsop, whose articles appeared in over 300 different newspapers." Other journalists willing to promote the views of the CIA, included Stewart Alsop (New York Herald Tribune), Ben Bradlee (Newsweek), James Reston (New York Times), Charles Douglas Jackson (Time Magazine), Walter Pincus (Washington Post), William C. Baggs (Miami News), Herb Gold (Miami News) and Charles Bartlett (Chattanooga Times).
By 1953 Operation Mockingbird had a major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies, including the New York Times, Time, CBS, Time. Wisner's operations were funded by siphoning of funds intended for the Marshall Plan. Some of this money was used to bribe journalists and publishers."
In his book Mockingbird: The Subversion Of The Free Press By The CIA, Alex Constantine writes that in the 1950s, "some 3,000 salaried and contract CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts".]
Harris and Downie are probably just descendents in a proud Post tradition of facilitating the propaganda of US intelligence. Except that they seem playing for the Pentagon and/or the Office of the Vice President. They certainly did a very good job of it, along with the NYT, by promoting the existence of WMDs in Iraq. Now, the goal seems to be undermining the Fitzgerald investigation, as Bob Woodward and other "journalists" like Miller and Novak are doing.
[President Bush is barnstorming through five states to try to drum up support for remaking Social Security, but instead of fleshing things out and confronting his critics, he is surrounding himself with hand-picked flatterers and adoring crowds...]
actually, the statement, despite using more colorful language that the snooze inducing reporters on the print side of the paper, is factually accurate
Bush does, with few exceptions: (1) appear before invitation only, pre-selected crowds; (2) refuses to make any appearances in which the general public is free to attend and raise any challenging questions; and (3) if TV is a true indication, receives uncritical praise from those who appear on the platform with him, and enthusiastic praise from those who attend.
Meanwhile, anyone who tries to attend such an event, even events held in outdoor, otherwise public forums, and display any negative signs or protest in any way, even along the route of the motorcade, find themselves driven away by the Secret Secret and local law enforcement, and periodically arrested.
So, I ask, where is the inaccuracy in Froomkin's comment?
And, along the same lines, do Post reporters who cover these events always note that the events are invitation only, even those in forums designed to create an impression to the contrary?
Or, do they sometimes, or even often, neglect to do so, as they do when covering Iraq, and conveniently fail to mention that their reports have been subjected to military censorship, so as to create a misleading impression?
[So you wish for reporters to describe supporters as flatterers.
And who decides when the insult is used? You understand that's an insult, yes?]
Well, I'll take this as a non-denial denial, a reflection that, in fact, everything that Froomkin said was truthful, despite your insinuation to the contrary.
I'll also take it as a non-denial denial that you aren't especially concerned about the fact that Post reporters periodically, if not frequently, deceive readers about the nature of these events by making them appear as public ones, when they are pre-selected, pro-Bush, invitation only crowds.
As for the use of the term "flatterers", it doesn't really affect me one way or the other. I'm an adult, with pretty good reading comprehension skills, able to separate fact from subjective opinion.
And, aren't they actually "flatterers" as the term is described in the dictionairy? Clinton had plenty of them as well, as do most promiment politicians, like Governors, Senators and Vice Presidents.
And, more to the point, Froomkin has always had his column described as opinion, something that both you and Harris understand, yet persist in taking cheap shots at Froomkin by suggesting that he would write this way as a journalist based upon what he writes as columnist, without any factual basis that he would do so.
Or, do you have the same concern about Krauthammer, Will, Kurtz, et al.? Well, of course not. Because the name of the game is to smear the columnist for the benefit of the White House.
You are certainly entitled to do it, but when a Post editor does it to another Post employee, that's pretty contemptible, and there should be some disciplinary action against Harris for it.
Precisely: self-evident. So why make an argument? Why try to persuade? If the people you are supposed to persuade don't see what is already self-evident, what are the chances they will even grasp what you are saying? Zippo. Your posts reflect this. The way you use it, self-evident means: why would I try to demonstrate it to those already in manifest denial of the obvious?
Meanwhile, there is a worthy discussion of the Froomkin episode going on at Joel Achenbach's Achenblog (first true blog at the Post site.) I am porting over from there a longish comment I left:
There is a lot of thought in these comments. It's impressive. I hope you do post about it tomorrow, Joel, because your people done good.
I would single out Bryce Pashler's very able summary just now, some of Andy's observations ("It's the Post's blatant confusing of criticism with partisanship that so many readers oppose"), and Paul Vincent, the "rube from the suburbs (Portland, Oregon) who has read the Post religiously for the last 20 years." The Rube's remark, "Balanced reporting is not synonymous with objective reporting," captures something essential about this dispute.
Why all the passion over something Joel calls "at core a mundane spat," and which he is tempted to call "trivial?" He thinks the partisan-ized state of the country explains it. That's there for sure. But I think this is one where the events themselves may be small (nothing is going to change in Froomkin's column, no icons fell, there is no huge conflict in the Post newsroom) but the currents that produced those events go deep-- for reporters, columnists like Froomkin and Achenbach, Post readers, bloggers, and press critics like myself.
I've read most of the instant literature this episode created and a few things stand out:
It's unfortunate, but neither Deborah Howell nor John Harris tried to make an argument for why the Froomkin column should be called "liberal," possibily to be balanced off by a conservative blogger. They didn't say what they meant by a term that has a history of being used irresponsibly; they didn't try to give examples; and Harris's one attempt to provide something we could examine went seriously awry, because in fact he did link to a Republican operative calling his colleague, Dan, a "second-rate hack."
This failure to argue--while simultaneously pasting a label on Froomkin that he rejects--is especially striking for two reasons:
First, Froomkin has an argument. His (in my paraphrase) is: You actually don't think I'm liberal; what you mean is that I am anti-Bush. But you're wrong. I am not anti-Bush, but I do have a kind of agenda as a writer and observer, and it often places me in conflict with this White House. I am for "discourse accountability" in presidents. I try to insist that the president engage in real dialogue, and refrain from demagoguery. I think speeches should be fact-checked, and statements intensely scrutinized. When presidents refuse to answer their critics they do democracy a disservice. When they refuse even to be questioned they pretend they're kings and this we cannot allow.
Froomkin further says: I have an agenda, but not an ideology in the conventional sense. I stand up for these things but I do not take political stands the way a Richard Cohen or George Will might. You can argue with my agenda, but why are you calling me a liberal when I would apply the same standards to a president named Kerry, Clinton, Biden or Obama? (I believe he would, too.)
Howell showed no awarenss of this argument. I'm not sure she understands it.
Harris, amazingly enough, said he agreed with it. In my interview with him he says: "I would agree with Dan that... demanding answers, crying foul on “disingenous talking points,” and so on do not represent ideological values. They would seem to me to represent basic journalistic values, and democratic values."
In other words, it's okay to have that kind of agenda. But then he calls Froomkin a liberal anyway-- again without an argument of his own, without evidence he was willing to share, without engaging at all with White House Briefing.
The second thing striking to me is that Howell and Harris were willing to wade into this territory without realizing that the standards for persuading the people reading you have gone way up because of the Net, the blogs, the ease of comparison, the power of the link, the transparency that has come to journalism, the ability of the readership to talk back, and the 8 million readers of washingtonpost.com, compared to 1 million at best for the paper.
When you are at the top (and political editor of the Washington Post is pretty near it) it is hard to believe that the standards that got you there now have to be raised. But this is exactly what's happened to journalists like Howell and Harris. (Look how your readers push you to be clearer, smarter, fairer Joel.)
When Paul Vincent says "Balanced reporting is not synonymous with objective reporting," he's ahead of John Harris in thinking the matter through. When Bruce Pashler talks of "accountability being traded for access," he presents a more sophisticated view than Bob Woodward has offered on that issue. That is why Dan Gillmor, formerly of the San Jose News, developed his mantra: "my readers know more than I do."
My own sense is that Froomkin has caught on to these changes; Harris has not, Howell has not. They thought they were defending traditional newsroom values ("straight reporting" must be protected from opinion) but they flunked the currency test. It's a lot harder to claim the journalistic high ground than they think, and this thread is, I think, a beautiful demonstration of that.
Comment at Achenblog
Now, I'm going to analyze why Mr. Achenbach stepped into this and why I think it was both an honest, even admirable, thing to do and a serious mistake. In order to do it, I take the liberty of assuming his state of mind.
Flash back a couple of weeks ago to David Corn's defense of Viveca Novak from her many detractors. His was a completely and understandably human response to seeing a friend under attack. It did not matter that with each new revelation, her role as an actual participant in, rather than witness to, the Plame affair became increasingly manifest. Even while adding a bit more to his "okay, she made some mistakes" disclaimers, he continued to spring to her defense, much as you would do at a party if a friend, not present, came in for what you felt was unfair criticism.
I think Mr. Achenbach's motivations were similar--I can't say whether it is an issue of personal friendship--in fact, I think the "friend" that Mr. Achenbach is most keen to defend, again admirably if wrongheaded in this particular instance, is the WaPo. Nevertheless, he inserted himself voluntarily into the equation, seeking to smooth the waters and minimize discussion/damage by treating the issue as entirely trivial.
It is significant that he not only cannot respond to the question that Mr. Harris ducked (Can you explain why we shouldn't conclude that officials in the Bush Administration are able to direct the type of coverage they receive from the WaPo?), but he resorted to attacking ("intellectual dishonesty") the "attackers." And in walking that back in an apology, he doesn't acknowledge that there are many documented reasons, not just one, to conclude that we were being told that the Bush Administration was able to direct the coverage they receive from the WaPo.
Where Mr. Achenbach in this case (and Mr. Corn, in his own) made a serious error was in not being able to see that because they had become witnesses to alleged "journalistic crimes," anything they said would be forever on the record, quotable and open to cross-examination by the opposing side and final decision by the jury. What seemed a low-importance personal issue to them was anything but to most everyone else.
I think he stepped in it. I can understand why.
Here endeth the outrageous projection.
People--not you people, but others I know--keep asking me if I am "sticking with" my statement that the Washington Post is the flagship paper, and the New York Times second.
My answer is yes, and it's precisely because it will argue things in the open sometimes. I would hate it if the Post were penalized for that, because I think it is critical for newspapers and news organizations to find all kinds of ways to be more open, and argue openly.
The problem is that being open, in the good way, also means you are more open to attack, which feels bad, and is bad. Bloggers sense this: the power of their fabled "MSM" (a term I do not use) but also its weakness, where it is lame, weakly defended.
There's a lot of truth in what Franklin Foer wrote. Here's a thought for you. I don't think conservatives know what they are doing in their attack on the press; but I don't think the left knows what it wants, either. Both sides are tempted to make their writers rise by pulling down crumbling portions of Fortress Newsroom and charging through the holes.
How do you win legitimacy when you start with none? Bring down an elite that previously had it, and you "rise" relative to where you were. Glenn Reynolds calls blogging "mostly media criticism" (not an exact quote) for this reason. Of course, there is no endless supply of Dan Rathers to discredit. After a while destruction of the city begins to seem stupid.
I tried to give John Harris, Jim Brady, and Dan Froomkin the chance to gather their thoughts, and make statements that were more expressive, and well thought out. It was supposed to be a "cooling" action that didn't stop the action. If there was any hesitance in their decision to cooperate--and there was, on all sides--it was for precisely the reasons Foer sketches. The ignornant armies that clashed by night now go at it 24 hours a day on the blogs. Who wants to get caught in that?
You know what Jim Brady excutive editor of the post.com said to me when he saw the post come to life? "I love full text. You can say what you mean."
One thing I said to them: look at the action on your post.blog and Achenbach. Amazing stuff from passionated readers. I would be linking, and adding value to washingtonpost.com right now if you guys had unique urls for each comment-- as PressThink does. This was sent by e-mail Dec. 14, they had permalinks up at Achenblog Dec. 15, with a short,"thanks for the suggestion."
So, yeah: still think they're the flagship.
I don't think conservatives know what they are doing in their attack on the press; but I don't think the left knows what it wants, either. Both sides are tempted to make their writers rise by pulling down crumbling portions of Fortress Newsroom and charging through the holes.
Jay, "conservatives" have know what they've wanted from their press criticism since the days of Spiro Agnew and the "nattering nabobs of negatism" -- to work the refs, and discredit factual reporting that is critical of conservative causes and leaders.
"The left" also knows what it wants -- the truth. The general "left" critique of the "MSM" is not that it is ideologically biased, but that the race for "profits" and the need for "access" have resulted in the press no longer fulfilling its function properly. The left craves the truth because we are the reality-based community, and are confident that when all the facts are on the table, the left wins every argument based on the truths that can be derived from those facts.
What I think the left would like to see is for the Washington Post and the rest of the MSM to admit the obvious -- that the constant need for "access" results in reporting that distorts stories in favor of the sources that are used, and when the vast majority of the power is held by one party with a consistent, ideologically based message, the result in a significant "bias" in favor of the party in power. The problem isn't that the Post and others don't include facts that make Bush look bad -- the problem is that in order to maintain access while publishing these "bad facts" the Post must also publish "White House spin" as facts.
In other words, we get it. We understand the challenges faced by the press, and we accept them -- but that doesn't mean we think its "okay", just that its practically inevitable.
The Harris dust-up, however, is on a different level entirely. Its not just about making sure that there is a Steno Sue Schmidt on the Post, and that her "reporting" gets prominent display at the Post. Its not just about employing Jim "Pool Boy" VandeHei to channel Karl Rove's spin. Its about Harris taking someone who is describing the nature of the White House press and how it is manipulated, and insisting that he be assigned to the "ghetto" of "liberal opinion" rather than "clear-headed analyst."
In other words, its about Harris interfering with the truth, and turning truth into "opinion."
....and its now about Harris not just being a whore for access as part of his job, but with the Ruffini revelations and the examination of his record as a reporter and editor, its becoming apparent that Harris is, in fact, an ideologue, and is skewing the paper's coverage not just to maintain access, but to promote the GOP agenda. (According to Harris, "adversarial" reporting is appropriate when you are digging into Clinton's sex life because he "lies" about it, but not when thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis are being slaughtered because Bush "lies" about the need for such slaughter).
That doesn't mean, of course, that "the left" understands the full implications and potential consequences of its actions --- nobody does, because nobody can accurately predict the future. But I'm all in favor of "the left" continuing to criticism the "MSM", because one of "the left's" biggest problems has been its tendency to delay taking necessary action until "all the facts are in, and all possibilities and potential consequences have been examined."
"The left" also knows what it wants -- the truth. The general "left" critique of the "MSM" is not that it is ideologically biased, but that the race for "profits" and the need for "access" have resulted in the press no longer fulfilling its function properly. The left craves the truth because we are the reality-based community, and are confident that when all the facts are on the table, the left wins every argument based on the truths that can be derived from those facts.
Wow. I describe myself as personally liberal these days, and I sure don't believe this to be literally true, at least not in such a sweeping sense. Besides, one thing you learn from dealing with facts for a living is that there are more facts than anyone has time to consider, and that selecting which facts are relevant to the subject isn't as simple as it sounds.
Take global warming: I'm convinced by the weight of the evidence that civilization is affecting global climate. But so what? I can collect those facts and put them on the table, but let's face it -- you really don't have the time to review them all. Unless you're a specialized climate scientist, you won't speak the language that will allow you to understand what's being said, and even once you get that part down, there's still the daunting task of thinking critically about such technical material. You could study and become conversant, but by the time you've caught up on your reading, the science has moved on. Expertise waits for no man.
Critics of global warming typically dismiss the overall case in favor of the proposition as "junk science," then call for (the politically derived term) "sound science." They throw up a number of critiques, caveats and objections to published papers, cite some credentialled climate skeptics and reach one of several conclusions.
Each side is speaking in facts -- dry, mind-boggling facts.
I'm not a climate scientist, and I'm not an expert capable of reaching meaningful, independent conclusions about the competing claims on my own. I spent months studying the subject earlier this year, but for all my immersion in it, the best that I can say for myself is that I read quite a bit and struggled to separate the meaningful from the misleading. My personal conclusion: The right generally is wrong on global warming, and its position is based on oil industry lobbying, not a fair-minded reading of existing evidence.
But this is the problem: It took me months to be able to say that with any degree of confidence, and even then the majority of my reasoning is based on mediated information -- not source material, but source material that was interpreted to me by people I came to trust.
We have a variety of breakdowns in our understanding of media, not the least of which is that better journalism is as simple as "presenting all the facts" in neutral language. In general terms, media critics give themselves too much credit for being able to decipher specialized knowledge -- the truth is, almost all of us need other people to mediate for us on topics for which we have little expertise. Very few people are capable of dealing with raw facts in a broad range of subjects.
This is also true of reporters. And reporters who develop expertise in a subject tend to be hired by industries that value specialized knowledge.
Anyway, the point is that even if people on the left happen to be better aligned with reality at the moment, they're not necessarily getting there by examining all the facts independently. For all our talk about intellectual independence, practicality demands that we decide who and what we're going to trust and then proceed from there. I think this original choice has much more to do with our opinions that whatever facts we encounter
along the way.
The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is this: People want to be comforted by the news. I find this to be generally true for all political and cultural points of view, and it's certainly true of me, personally. The question each of us have to answer is: What am I prepared to do about it?
Actually, I think there's an interesting question in there -- maybe. I might say that the statement is true of all political groups, but then examine it more closely to look for differences in how the resistance is experienced and expressed. Because I think there must be differences at this level, and that understanding those patterns could be helpful.
Bottom line.... you will never see a conservative group that adopts the decision-making process of groups like ACT-UP (which was basically that everyone got to say whatever they wanted to and no decisions were made until everyone was satisfied --- and no, of course it didn't work once the group expanded beyond its core constiuency.) Or visit just about any college campus, and look at the "official" decision-making process --- everyone is consulted, everyone is included, and things take forever to change. This is the result of "liberal" thinking --- "inclusion" and "diversity" aren't just "feel good" values, they are prized because they "inform the debate".
Yes, I know that liberals are human, and resist facts contrary to their biases. And yes, I know that its virtually impossible for the press to "present" all relevant facts on all important issues (let alone expect that people will actually be willing or able to incorporate "all the facts" into the decision-making process.
That wasn't my point. My point was the difference between liberals and conservatives, and what they want from the media. What the liberals want is an ideal that will never be close to being realized -- but their critique of the media is based on that goal.
Conservative media critics think the problem is entirely "liberal media bias" -- that the failure of Bush's plan to privatize Social Security wasn't because privatizing actually exacerbates the "Social Security crisis" that Bush promoted to get his privatization scheme passed, its because the media told people that privatization didn't solve the "crisis" that Bush was promoting, and only made things worse.
Liberals were upset with the media because for the first couple of weeks, the reporting on Social Security didn't include the relevant facts on the impact of privatization -- conservatives got upset when the media finally figured out what the facts were, and started telling its audience things like "But the Presidents's plan for private accounts won't help solve the Social Security crisis." Telling the truth was "liberal bias".