Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/12/13/frm_qa.html


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: 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.

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: 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.

Jay: First of all, let me say that I donít like the fact that my readers are using me as cudgel to smack around The Postís political staff. I think The Postís political coverage is the best in the business. Iím 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, letís 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: ďThe 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.Ē I certainly do. The Post political staffís beef with my column, as reported by the ombudsman, is primarily a labeling issue. They just want it to be clear that Iím not one of their White House reporters. I donít have a problem with that at all. I just happen to think itís already clear to most readers that Iím 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, Iím 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 doesnít mean Iím taking a political stand. Should I also be critiquing the Democrats? There arenít any in the White House. And my job is to watch the White House like a hawk. Itís 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 itís 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.”

The reply…

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: ďThe elbows are getting very very sharp right now.Ē And the reason is that the business is shrinking and the print guys and online guys ó forced together in newsroom meetings and mergers ó 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 Froomkinís 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 oneís political religion. Itís a symptom of the same disease that already causes spineless editors to force apparently defenseless reporters to pair every truthful ďhe saidĒ in an article with a bogus ďshe saidĒ 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