December 17, 2005
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One
"They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the user’s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension."
New post alert: Froomkin writes in. See Dan Froomkin on Attitude in White House Briefing (Dec. 19).
For me the most interesting moment in the Dan Froomkin dust up came during an exchange between bosses in Editor and Publisher. Leonard Downie, big boss at the Washington Post, stated his concerns about Froomkin’s White House Briefing, a Web column. “We want to make sure people in the 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.” A change in title would help, he believed.
Now you would think that if Len Downie wanted it done, people would do it. He is the executive editor of the Washington Post. Except there’s another executive editor: Jim Brady, who oversees washingtonpost.com, a separate but related domain. This situation gave rise to the ombudsman column that started the whole Froomkin tussle this week. Deborah Howell’s original was called The Two Washington Posts. As she explained: “The Post Web site is owned by the Washington Post Co., but it is not run by the newspaper. It is a separate company called Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive, or WPNI, with offices in Arlington.”
Brady Says No
Across the Potomac, the other boss, Jim Brady, said he had no plans to change the name of Froomkin’s column. He didn’t buy the charge that confused readers thought Froomkin was a White House beat reporter. “The column has been on the site for two years and that is not something we have heard,” Brady told E & P. White House Briefing is extremely popular with users, he said, “and it is not going anywhere.”
Len Downie understood. “They decide what the column ought to be called,” he said. (They being Brady’s crew.) “We have discussed it and they will decide what to do.” Or as Editor and Publisher put it: “‘Wash Post’ Editor and Others Want Froomkin Column Renamed — But Online Chief Says No.” Political editor John Harris agreed that changing the name is Brady’s call, but: “I think it would be an error not to.” (See my last post, where I interviewed Brady and Harris and tracked the discussion of the episode. Also see Brad DeLong’s follow-up phone call with Harris.)
Brady told me that he would continue to talk to the Post newsroom about it. But with Dan Froomkin, Columnist, at the top of the page next to his picture, and “Special to washingtonost.com” under his name (instead of “Washington Post Staff Writer,” which is what it says for reporters) plus a subdomain called washingtonpost.com> Columns it’s pretty clear that he’s a columnist.
The problem comes—if there is any problem—from the words White House and “briefing.” Do they mislead us by suggesting that Froomkin is actually stationed at the White House? Post White House reporter Peter Baker says so: “I have heard concerns that people might think he is a reporter in the White House briefing room.”
Leading with the chin
Yeah, but what people? In the E & P article, Downie seemed most worried about Bush supporters and their perceptions of the Post. Listen again: “We want to make sure people in the Administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin’s column because it contains opinion.” John Harris told me: “I have heard from Republicans in informal ways making clear they think his work is tendentious and unfair.” Also: “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.”
From reading Froomkin’s column “people” might get the impression that the Washington Post newsroom is biased against Bush. That is what Harris and company are saying. They want to put as much distance as possible between the Post’s White House reporting, and Froomkin’s White House Briefing. A title change (recommended also by the ombudsman) is supposed to accomplish that.
But… “Online Chief Says No.” Under the surface this was the Web side of the Post saying “NO” to political pressure from the Republicans, which took the form of griping about an effective Bush critic, Dan Froomkin—“his work is tendentious and unfair”—by sources in, and friends of, the White House. The beat reporters felt they couldn’t ignore it. Brady, I believe, felt they should ignore it. (Though he didn’t say that directly.) And if they wouldn’t, he would.
Dual centers of power
Some sharp words were exchanged this week, but there’s no sign of any big or chronic conflicts between the two Posts; and that is ultimately the more telling thing. Washingtonpost.com is succeeding journalistically, and the Post newsroom is succeeding on the Web. And responsible for this success are two different centers of power.
They’re not equals (780 in one newsroom vs. 65 in the other; fewer than one million subscribers vs. eight million users), but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the user’s experience no one has total control. There’s tension because there’s supposed to be tension. It makes for a more dynamic site.
What the brief struggle over White House Briefing showed me is the hidden advantages of a divided house. For if you have two newsrooms, with two bosses, and two staffs, then you can double your pressthink, and expand signficantly the range of ideas considered acceptable at the Washington Post. This is exactly what newspaper journalism needs in the age of the Web. More range. More than one ruling doctine in charge. More than one sensibility in place.
For example, among John Harris, Peter Baker, Len Downie and others who think as they do, the strict separation between “news” and “opinion” is clear, compelling, necessary, and wise. Only good can flow from it. Credibility itself rides on it. Common sense coheres in it. There is validity to their system, and over the long run it has served the newspaper well, but it is not universally valid. Nor does it have an answer for everything— especially in times of platform change and politicized attacks on the press.
The big tent
Why do people become loyal readers of Dan Froomkin’s White House Briefing? Is it for the news they find in it, or the opinion? After reading the column three of four times you learn it’s both, plus Froomkin’s voice and passion, his facts, his best-of links, his criticism of the White House press. As Jeff Jarvis says: “it all fits in the big tent of journalism, if those who think they own that tent will allow it.”
A lot of times they won’t allow it. This was one. They tried to put their foot down, but to do that they had to make arguments and engage the ideas of others online. The newspaper’s mental sectioning (news vs. opinion) might help the beat reporters explain to Republican sources that “Hey, Froomkin isn’t us,” but it’s not helpful for understanding how his column works (pattern recognition), what it’s really about (matching words to deeds), and why even the suggestion of clipping his wings brought out such passions in users. (Witness 900+ comments at this post.)
Observe: During the Froomkin flap this week USA Today announced that it would go the opposite route and merge its two newsrooms—newspaper and Web—into one.
The New York Times did the same thing earlier this year. The Times said that in the years ahead it would have to “invent a digital journalism” and devise new services for readers that can earn revenues. “We have concluded that our best chance of meeting that challenge is to integrate the two newsrooms into one,” wrote Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, in August.
Different puzzles to solve
It is clear that Donald Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Company, has a different idea. And so this is another case—the most famous is Times Select—where the New York Times and Washington Post are choosing different routes as they try to make it across the digital divide. In Graham’s view, Arlington and Washington have different puzzles to solve. “Putting out the newspaper is a demanding, more-than-full-time job,” he told Howell. “The Web site has an equally demanding challenge, having to make its way against brilliant competitors who are constantly unrolling new products. The Post and WPNI must cooperate but must also find a way to do quite different jobs.”
One of Brad DeLong’s readers, Robert Waldman, made a shrewd observation:
The problem here which created the need for a public confrontation is that Downie can not rename a column in www.washingtonpost.com. He needs to publicly argue with Brady…
Which is true. Another reader said:
I think Waldmann’s theory is correct. It is the separation of editorial power between the print section of WaPo and the on-line section that made the problem of remaining in the good graces of the WH propaganda machine difficult to manage.
A shorter to way to say it: Bill Keller could have simply ordered the name change, and White House reporters at the New York Times would not have had to engage in any public wrangling about it (or explain their thinking.) The separation of powers allows Graham’s company to develop a pluralism in its own pressthink and political sense-making. This is way easier than making Webbies of newsroom curmudgeons. There can be a looser and more open environment, and a more traditional “strict separations” newsroom; talented people will vote with their feet.
Donald Graham does not have to decide whose ideas shall be the ruling wisdom in the news and commentary world to come. This is good because no one’s that smart. I think John Harris learned as much this week. My advice: Keep the separation of powers, Washington Post. It’s helping you get your act together.
: Notes, reactions & links
New PressThink, Dec. 19: Dan Froomkin on Attitude in White House Briefing: “There’s been much speculation over whether my column would take the same approach with a Democrat…”
All the details, background and reactions you could want are at my first post, John Harris and Jim Brady Get Into It About “White House Briefing.” Dan Froomkin Replies.
Anecdote about innovation at WPNI: I participated in the comment threads at Joel Achenbach’s blog on the Post site because he wrote about Froomkin (here and here.) I suggested in a “heads up” way to Brady, Achenbach and WPNI’s Hal Straus that the Froomkin squall showed how vital it was to have permalinks to each comment at Post blogs. (Like this post.) I would have linked to some of the things readers said, and added value to the Post’s site, said I. But I couldn’t because the Post doesn’t have that feature turned on. This was in an e-mail Dec. 14. The next day they added permalinks to comments in Post blogs.
For those less Webbie, “add permalinks” means each comment gets its own address (url) and thus becomes a page on the WWW. Matters because a blogger can now send you to that comment with a link— like this.
Greensboro’s John Robinson—what Newspaper Editor 2.0 might be like—reports (at his blog) on a year of tentative progress at the News-Record in crossing the digital divide. “So we blogged. We solicited citizen journalism. We started podcasts. We added audio. We dipped a toe in video. We did slide shows and multi-media.” The surprise?
Unlike the presumption that ink-stained wretches rebel at the idea that they “have” to do anything other than write for the print publication, most of our staff understands where the business is headed, and they want to play. During a staff meeting last week, reporters asked for more training with online tools and equipment. We have a waiting list for those who want to blog.
A waiting list: exactly. Robinson says they’re not stopping. One year ago at PressThink: Action in Greensboro on Open Source Journalism. (Dec. 18, 2004)
New at Buzzmachine (Dec. 19). Jeff Jarvis begins a series of “how-to” posts on ways to re-make the newsroom for the Web era. This one argues: “The first job is to instill fear in the newsroom.”
The endlessly provocative Brad DeLong asks: Is the Washington Post Newsroom Insane?
Tim Schmoyer at Sisyphean Musings is curious about what Froomkin means by “accountability journalism” and how it differs from the “watchdog” variety. He also fact-checks some White House Briefing columns.
DC Media Girl: “Editors and reporters at the paper have always had a sniffy, ‘not in our class, dear’ attitude towards their Web counterparts, whom they see as a bunch of ruffians.”
Jeff Jarvis replies to this post and says he disagrees about the divided house: One newsrooms, two newsrooms, or none?
If newspapers themselves do not change radically to embrace the future, they will become things of the past. So I have argued that newspapers have a choice: Either totally upend newsroom culture and get people to face the strategic imperative of gathering and sharing news in new ways across all platforms … or move most of the staff to online — where the audience is now and revenue growth, if not equivalent revenue, will be — and leave the dinosaurs behind.
Keeping the Post separate from the online operation allows the “newsroom princes” to remain blind, says Jeff.
That is why Post political editor John Harris thought he could be so haughty as to publicly scold his online colleagues for not following his rules and for embarrassing him with his White House, even snaring the — what shall I say, unsuspecting? — ombudsman in his crusade.
No, Harris and company do not need to confront the online people. They need to confront the future. They need to confront the fact that more readers read the online product. They need to confront the fact that the economics of news are changing, whether they approve or not.
I say the Post is making more progress this way. I also believe that talented young people with Net sensibilities and contributions to make to journalism’s future won’t join the old newsrooms, and they won’t floursh in the “merged” environments, either. But they might be drawn to an outfit like WPNI. The six-column kings and deadline princes Jeff refers to cannot be forced to learn. No one can drag them into the future— or even make them dwell in the present. Curmudgeons are proud of their ignorance, and they will retire that way.
Jarvis replies in the comments and I answer him back. Also see the comments at Buzzmachine, including this one on why the Wall Street Journal’s newsroom has adapted so well to the 24-hour Web.
The One True b!X, a talented blogger who followed local politics in Portland, Oregon—also a PressThink reader—explains in a piece published in the Oregonian why he quit the beat: “My work as a full-time blogger exposed me to more demagoguery (… from officials, candidates, columnists, readers, and bloggers alike) than I could handle.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at December 17, 2005 1:23 AM
"Under the surface this was the web side of the Post saying “NO” to political pressure from the Republicans— the griping about an effective Bush critic, Dan Froomkin, by sources in (and friends of) the White House." - Jay, above.
It seems too cute by half to dismiss Downie and Harris' concerns, about the effect of Froomkin's column on the Post's credibility, as simply Republican-inspired.
Froomkin clearly wants to burnish his reputation as a special, apolitical kind of op-ed columnist: "I'm not taking a political stand"; he refuses to concede the liberal ideology that suffuses his column; he drapes his opinions in the title "White House Briefing", despite the fact that he does not address readers from the White House briefing room. Message: I, Froomkin, am more credible and insightful than the mere ideologically-motivated hack columnist who opines from lesser places.
I say credible because a presumed impartial referee (i.e. apolitical, which Froomkin clearly wishes to portray himself as) has more credibility to most readers* than an ideologue, and such credibility is often a prerequisite for influence with readers.*
By doing so, Froomkin is in effect utilizing the reputation for (ostensible) objectivity earned by the Post's White House reporters to portray his column as something more than it is.
The flip side, however, is that Froomkin's obvious ideologically-driven hackery becomes associated with the Post's real White House briefing reporters. As the credibility they have earned with readers*, by their reputation for impartiality, rubs off onto Froomkin, so in turn does Froomkin's evident ideology rub off onto the Post's reporters.
So, if Brady's decsion is allowed to stand, the title of Froomkin's column won't be changed due to a standoff between two children of The Washington Post Company. Very well: The Post's White House reporters will become increasingly identified with the ideology promulgated in the "White House Briefing". So which is more important to The Washington Post Company: Froomkin's glomming onto the Post's credibility with readers*, or the credibility and reputation for impartiality of the Post's White House reporters? (Donald Graham, Len Downie is holding for you on line one...)
* By readers I don't mean the devout conservatives, who are already suspicious of the Post. Nor do I mean fervent liberals who already believe Froomkin more credible because they feel the Post's White House reporters have been co-opted by their access and proximity to the White House. I mean all the other readers who's minds are not already made up.
I'm not going to cry foul, but I was puzzled as to why Jane is in such a snit. I thought Felix's piece was quite friendly toward both her and toward Brad DeLong.
Steve, I'd say she took umbrage for the same reason that you would do so if the song you were singing at Campaign Desk was represented as just the complaints of "liberal bloggers" motivated by partisan/ideological concerns.
I do think the criticism of the Post morphed from the "corporate media" complaint that is central to the left's critique of the media to the kind of "ideological bias" stuff you hear from the right-wing, but that was only because of the whole "Ruffini" issue, and Harris's utter ineptitude in handling it.
But Gillette presented the "liberal blogger" response as if it were just a "knee-jerk" ideological reaction to the controversy. It wasn't -- and IMHO Jane's reaction was completely justified.
BTAIM, this topic is tired (CJR on-line should have been on top of this a week ago, Steve...what happened?). Hopefully, Jay will devote his next post to the controversy surround the Times decision to withhold the "domestic spying" story until the 11th hour.
My take -- Keller's hand was forced, and the only reason the Times published was because someone was going to take the whole story elsewhere. Although the left blogosphere are complaining about the potential impact on last year's election that the withholding of the story had, I don't think that's the real problem.
The problem, as I see it, is that the Times withheld a story that was CRITICAL to the debate and discussion of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act thoughout the hearings process, and even the vote in the House.
During the debate on cloture, a "compromise" was proposed by which the current version of the Patriot Act would be extended for three months while the new information was considered. The GOP response was [paraphrase] "absolutely not. No such proposal will be considered, and if you don't vote for cloture the Patriot Act will lapse, and if there is another terrorist act we will make sure those of you who vote against cloture will be blamed for it."
THIS is what Keller's decision to withhold the story has resulted in -- and if Keller hasn't figured out that this is how the GOP behaves, he has no business editing a "Weekly Shopper" giveaway, let alone the New York Times.
Are you saying that print newsrooms cannot change?
Jeff: I've been at this--trying to persuade people in print newsrooms to change their thinking--for 16 years. It can be very discouraging. And yes, I think many of the people in those newsrooms will not open themselves to any ideas about journalism but the ones they started with. I wouldn't say print newsrooms can't change, like intransigence is in their DNA or something. It's more that they probably won't.
Part of the reason I disagree with you about merging the print-era newsroom with the online operation is that we know who will have hegemony over the combined unit; it will be the craft conservatives and newsroom reactionaries. In charge will be attitudes like Deborah Howell's, with her astoundingly out-of-date statement about what the Web offers the newsroom:
My bottom line: The Web site adds to The Post's prestige, and the world is moving toward the Web. The Web is a wonderful place for The Post to put newsprint-eating texts and documents, such as presidential speeches, and other information, such as congressional votes, that readers want.
She was a Washington Bureau chief for 15 years. No, if she can write that in 2005--wonderful place to put documents--I don't think she's going to change by 2010. And you know what else? The higher they rise, the more closed the mind. There are very few exceptions to that-- John Robinson of Greensboro being one. Howard Kurtz is another. Howell's column about the two Washington Posts didn't even have a link to Froomkin!
The curmudgeons (whose answer to the Web is "does anyone remember the paperless office? ha, ha, ha") will just have to die off. Educating them is an impossibility. But they're going to take their time, and that is another reason why I think merging is a bad idea.
Your traditional newspaper newsroom feels battered and under-appreciated. That's the fault of higher-ups. It is also anti-learning, anti-invention, hostile to outside influence, and it wants to keep the people formerly known as the audience out of the damn way. Those things are the fault of journalists themselves-- and J-schools, I might add.
Finally, the typical newsroom overestimates what it knows about itself, and about news. The language it has for discussing what it does is not designed for insight; it is designed for protection. And yet it is seen as holy, as truth itself.
Here's Bill Keller, about to make exactly the same mistakes he made during the Judith Miller crises with this new issue: why did the Times hold the story of Bush authorizing the NSA to spy on us domestically? Transparency, openness, acountability, interactivity are not natural to the newsroom. "We know best" is.
Here's my bottom line, Jeff. I would be in favor of merging the web operation into the print newsroom if leadership and majority opinion in the newsroom said, "but we all have to go to school on the Web first." But it hasn't said that, and it won't, and my guess is you know that.
I'm not a journalist or would-be journalist, but I have a personal and professional interest in how organizations promote and react to innovation, and from that point of view the "two newsrooms" concept makes perfect sense. See for example Clayton Christensen's theories of disruptive innovation, particularly as discussed in his book "Innovator's Solution", in which he recommends that companies establish separate organizations in order to create businesses around disruptive innovations (e.g., the web). The problem is that existing organizations (rationally) put a higher priority on leveraging existing business models (in this case selling subscriptions to readers of the print newspaper and ads to business wanting to reach those readers), and a much lower priority on exploring new business models of uncertain promise. Splitting off a separate organization allows that organization to focus solely on making a viable business out of the disruptive innovation, adapting its business model, cost stucture, customer focus, etc., in ways not possible for the original organization.
In Christensen's terms the web is both a low-cost and new market disruptive innovation. For the Washington Post it provides the opportunity to reach a new set of readers that it could not previously attract, and to do so at relatively low cost. (As a long-time Washington Post reader I recall that Post management many years ago made a deliberate decision not to pursue national distribution of its print edition in competition with the New York Times. That appears to be a very wise decision in retrospect; now with the web the Post can credibly position itself to supplant the New York Times as the national newspaper of record, without taking on the NYT's distribution cost structure.)
As a separate organization WPNI can succeed or fail on its own terms. In particular from a business model point of view it can and should take advantage of the wave of online advertising being leveraged by Google, Yahoo!, etc., and in terms of customer focus it can and should go after a customer base that is interested in different things than the Post's traditional readers. The latter imperative in particular I think accounts for the differing positions of Len Downie and Jim Brady--Brady appears to know that his customers like the kind of journalism practiced by Froomkin and others, and also knows that the credibility of washingtonpost.com with those customers depends on resisting any "old media" pressures from the Post proper. (Otherwise why resist changing the name of Froomkin's column? It's just a name after all.)
As for what happens to the old newsroom, I agree with Jay Rosen's comment that "The curmudgeons ... will just have to die off". More specifically, if I were Post management I would wait to merge the two newsroom operations until it was clear that WPNI was solidly profitable with online revenues a major fraction of print revenues. I don't have time for an in-depth analysis, but from the Washington Post Company's 2004 annual report it appears that WPNI revenue was $47M out of total newspaper revenue of $873M, and is growing at least 30% per year. If this growth rate continues or accelerates slightly (which is quite plausible, especially with the acquisition of Slate and possible future acquisitions) WPNI revenue might roughly double every two years, and so might exceed $100M by the end of 2006 and $200M by the end of 2008. By the end of 2010 WPNI revenue might be half or more than half of print revenues, and by 2012 or 2013 might well exceed print revenues. WPNI online ad revenue is increasing even faster (59% for 2004), and may well match print ad revenue before 2010.
The exact dates and numbers are not that important. The important point is that within 5-10 years the Washington Post's business and journalistic decisions will be driven primarily by the needs of WPNI, and the newsrooms will reflect that. If certain "curmudgeons" can't adapt to that reorientation in readership and business model then over time they will be replaced with people who can.
Re Jeff Jarvis's comment about print newsrooms having all the resources and the implied need to move those resource to online operations: First, from a business point of view it is perfectly rational to keep the resources in print newsrooms for now, given that that is where the vast majority of revenue and profits still come from, and will come from for at least the next few years.
Second, at this point I believe it is actually better for that resource allocation to continue, because it helps increase the probability of online operations becoming profitable. More specifically, being profitable gives online operations like WPNI the corporate freedom to experiment both on the editorial side (to discover what readers want and how best to provide it to them) and on the business side (to discover how best to exploit the online advertising market and other alternatives such as subscription services).
Clayton Christensen has a slogan for this: "Be patient for growth, but impatient for profits". If the Washington Post were throwing money hand-over-fist into online operations in an all-out effort to "transform the business" and were still running heavy losses, then that lack of profitability would be a weapon the print side of the house would use to delay and deter the move to online, as well as to exert undue influence over online editorial decisions. WPNI being profitable is what gives Jim Brady the ability to say "no" to Len Downie and make it stick.
Re Jay Rosen's comments on the "additional reasons why print-era newsrooms are resistant": I know I tend to look at everything through the lens of Clayton Christensen's theories, but in this case the additional reasons you discuss, in particular the orientation of print-era newsrooms to meeting daily deadlines, are in fact accounted for by Christensen, most notably in his book "Seeing What's Next".
In the book Christensen introduces what he calls the "resources, processes, and values" (RPV) framework as a way to evaluate competitive battles between incumbent vendors (e.g., traditional print-era newsrooms) and emerging vendors (e.g., online news operations):
- resources: “things a company has access to”, including both tangible and intangible assets
- processes: “ways of doing business (skills)”, and in particular, ways an organization has developed to solve difficult problems it has faced in the past
- values: “prioritization determinant (motivation)”, or more simply, what business model an organization relies on and how it decides to devote resources to particular initiatives
In this case, as you point out, the processes of print-era newsrooms are oriented around solving the problem of meeting daily deadlines, and those processes impede the process of transforming to an online world. A pure online operation has quite different problems to solve, and will correspondingly develop different processes that are much more suited to solving those problems. In this way pure online news operations will develop what Christensen calls the "sword of asymmetric skills". This complements the "shield of asymmetric motivation" (Christensen's term again), which arises because the old and new news soperations make decisions on resource allocations in very different ways (the "values" part of RPV), with the new entrants motivated to pursue nascent but potentially lucrative opportunities that existing print operations would ignore as too small or outside the traditional lines of business to pursue.
I really can't recommend Christensen's theories highly enough for anyone wishing to understand the transformation of the news business and journalism. For those new to Christensen's ideas I suggest skipping the first two books ("Innovator's Dilemma" and "Innovator's Solution") and reading "Seeing What's Next" first, as it's the most fully-developed version of Christensen's theories and IMO the best guide to looking at competitive battles between the old and new orders.
Dave: I think you would agree that the Froomkin events were not "inside baseball" to all the outraged readers of his column. It's certainly the greatest wave of outcry that washingtonpost.com has ever received. There may have been incidents for the Post newspaper that generated more mail, but this one has to be up there.
What's so interesting to me about it is precisely that the events were so "small." In a technical sense, there was no news. Very little happened. No one at the Post took any action that changed Froomkin's column. No one was fired. No one quit. No policy shift either. It ended with the Froomkin status quo still quo.
In the absence of eventfulness, we had people expressing themselves, making statements-- some intended, some not. What was "being said" by the very low intensity action-- that's what everyone got excited about. The political reporters making public their complaint about Froomkin, via Howell's column and the statements Harris put out, is not what the Reliable Sources audience should be hearing about, in my opinion.
One audience that is very interested: the people who work at the Washington Post. Joel Achenbach picks up that side of the story, introducing us to the politics of the home page. Froomkin sometimes appears on Page One (of the web site.) The Harris-led troops figure that each time he does, that's one of their stories that doesn't. So it's a real estate fight, says Joel. (He did a follow-up that I figured in.)
To me it was amusing to watch everyone go on about how "nothing" this event was, the No Big Deal-ness of it all. But I understood it too: because the perception of the blogopshere as a hair trigger is not at all unreasonable.
To me these were the Froomkin Talks, because that finally is what happened. One side of the Post operation talked to the other-- and about the other. On the whole this is good. Under the surface it was big. A message went from the Bush Forces to the Beat Reporters through the Ombudsman (where readers heard about it) and through Downie, then it "jumped" across the Potomac and landed at WPNI where Jim Brady and Dan Froomkin received the message.
Great material for a Kurtz column. But to return to ami's point: we haven't seen that, either.
I think that part of Alter's review was unfortunate, Tim. (I still think the role of "Buckhead" is curious, though.) I haven't read the book by Mapes;
then perhaps you should read it, since in her book Mapes does a far better job of explaining hereself than she did on TV (which often hostile interviewers...)
Coming away from the book, one gets the strong impression that it was journalism that broke down, but CBS's defense mechanisms, and that a very large part of the problem was the personnel changes going on at CBS at the time, and the actions of Moonves (on behalf of Sumner Redstone.)
60 Minutes II had lost its executive producer, and this segment was far of the first program executive produced by Josh Howard and his assistant, Betsy West. Howard wanted the story "crashed" over the labor day weekend, but neigher Howard nor West showed up to help during that process (Mapes implies that Howard and West were being lazy and self-indulgent, but my guess is that they were intimidated by the reputations of Mapes and Rather, and didn't want to start out on the wrong foot with them by appearing to tell them how to do their jobs.) This played a key role in CBS's failure to respond -- Howard and West had no "ownership" of the story, and when Heyward started asking questions, they had no personal stake in defending the story.
But equally important is that 60 Minutes II was pretty much left up to its own devices, and the weekly news magazine was not set up to deal with the relentless 24 hour/day assault of false claims being made about the documents themselves -- claims that were taken at face value by mainstream media organizations, as well as by media critics like yourself.
Facts weren't checked --- and statements made by known liars like Staudt and Hodges were taken at face value by the mainstream media. The FACT is that virtually every one of the criticisms aimed at the documents is false, with a small number of them being potentially relevant, but not critical. Perhaps most importantly, everyone overlooked two simple facts
1) the criticism was based on very bad reproductions of the documents that CBS had in its possession. The single most eye-opening thing about the book is the appendix, which presents one of the documents as CBS had it side by side with what appeared on the internet.
2) the simple fact that computer programs are specifically designed to mimic "typed" correspondence -- that "similarities" between what would be produced by Microsoft Word (and it should be noted, no one has produced an exact copy of the Killian memos using Microsoft Word) and the documents that CBS had were a reflection of the advance of new technologies -- not damning evidence of "forgery."
You owe it to yourself to read Mapes' book, rather than just criticizing her from a position of complete ignorance on this issue.
Jay asked me yesterday -- back when it was a little more relevant -- to weigh in on whether or not I am an ideologue. I apologize for not responding with blogger speed.
But as it happens, Jay has already expressed my position on this issue more skillfully than I could. For instance, there was his post on washingtonpost.com’s Achenblog, in which he wrote:
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.)
Amen, Jay (and the many, many readers who said similar things.) (And re: the whole imperial presidency meme, see today's column.)
So I’ll just add a few thoughts.
I think one reason some people see the column as having a political bias may be a misreading of my enthusiasm. The fact is that, like most good reporters, I am delighted when I get wind of what I consider a great story – and I am outraged when I see the public’s right to know being stymied. Reporters have traditionally been encouraged to suppress that sort of passion or outrage in their work product. But I have long felt that the Internet audience demands voice. Nobody wants to read a bored blogger. So I wear my passion on my sleeve.
But it’s journalistic passion, not partisan passion. And what disturbs me is the suggestion that enthusiastically scrutinizing a Republican president is somehow de facto biased and liberal – and therefore inadvisable for a reporter in a mainstream newsroom. I think that’s toxic for the industry, and for democracy.
Incidentally, I think this also speaks to a larger issue going forward. As more reporters start blogging (and they should) they’ll either write boring blogs that fail – or they’ll write with a bit of attitude and succeed by connecting with readers. What will happen then? Here’s one scenario: Newsroom leaders will become less fixated on detachment and balance – two attributes that I think are hurting us more than helping us these days – and will instead focus on the values at the core of our industry, such as fairness and accuracy.
Finally: There’s been much speculation over whether my column would take the same approach with a Democrat in the White House. My answer is that the same passion for answers and accountability would inform the column no matter who is president. But a better question, really, is would the column take the same approach with another president -- either Democratic or Republican -- who was more forthcoming? And the answer is: I don’t know. It’s possible that in some ways the current incarnation of White House Briefing is a uniquely appropriate response to a unique presidency with a unique lack of transparency.