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December 19, 2005

Dan Froomkin on Attitude in White House Briefing

"A better question, really, is would the column take the same approach with another president -- either Democratic or Republican -- who was more forthcoming?" Plus, Michael Powell, the Post's New York bureau chief, writes in: "Let’s tamp down the triumphalism."

There were some arguments at PressThink about whether it’s more accurate to classify Dan Froomkin of White House Briefing as a liberal columnist, who opposes Bush from the Left, which is one view, or an accountability journalist who criticizes the President for a glaring lack of transparency— another view. Others were responding for Dan. I thought he should speak to it himself. He does that here. — JR

Dan Froomkin on Attitude in White House Briefing

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’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 about 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.

UPDATE: Dec. 20. I received this letter from Michael Powell, the New York bureau chief of the Washington Post, who wanted to commment on recent events and add some points he felt were being overlooked.

Michael Powell: “Print reporting is a ‘cool’ medium; blogistan is often as hot as Hades.”

I’ve been following the latest battle between blogistan and the print world and I had a few thoughts. I am a fan of Dan Froomkin and Jeff Morley, among other bloggers on our website. I admire the loose-limbed free associative quality of their writing, which to my mind stands in contrast to the mannered bloggers on the New York Times website.

A few of my esteemed (and I’m not being facetious in my use of that adjective) colleagues have dismissed Froomkin and Morley as clip jobbers. That’s unfair and a bit foolish. They are terrific bloggers, who read widely and compare and contrast and draw connections—often obvious—that reporters sometimes shy from for fear of appearing less than objective. (Aspiring to objectivity as opposed to, say, fairness, always has struck me as a desultory intellectual cul de sac.)

Most recently Froomkin noted the Big Dawg journalists traipsed out to Maryland to listen to President Bush give a thoroughly scripted talk on his views on health care. Meanwhile several reporters from smaller regional newspapers stayed behind and covered a Presidential sponsored health care conference, where the reception given to Bush’s plans was considerably cooler.

Bravo. That’s a nice catch and there’s no need for the Big Dawg reporters to act thin-skinned about it. Sometimes you zig and someone else zags and gets a more interesting story. There is a natural tendency to define political coverage as whatever the Great Man says and does and that’s too reductive. If Froomkin and his blogging brotherhood flip the script on that narrative, so much the better. Our readers are better informed.

That said, I can see the argument for tweaking Froomkin’s labelling. When Froomkin’s column first appeared, I assumed we had added a reporter to our corps in the White House (I would note in my clueless self defense that I am based in New York City and so lag on my awareness of newsroom hires).

I was intrigued too by your column analyzing the “two” Washington Posts, the corporeal edition and the on-line product. Yours was the first argument I’d heard that made a strong case for what often seems to be an incomplete marriage. Most newsroom reporters and editors are very much invested in the success of our Website, and even enthusiastic about our future in the Web ether. We talk often of making better use of audio and phots and layout, and so expanding the boundaries of our print existence.

But this enthusiasm comes tempered by a wariness, and it would be terrific if the Web triumphalists, who seem never to have experienced a moment’s doubt, could acknowledge that this just might, possibly, be honestly felt. As political editor John Harris notes, there’s a long and proud tradition of the journalist as independent and removed observer. It’s this reporting tradition that’s allowed the likes of Anthony Shadid to write pitch-perfect pieces in the middle of the bombing of Baghdad and Peter Baker to file dispatches while under enemy fire in Afghanistan.

To borrow terms from another media, print reporting is a “cool” medium; blogistan is often as hot as Hades. There are perfectly good and honest reasons that some of our best reporters are wary of turning into some version of the mindless babblers who hold forth on television (and, in fairness, on a few blogs) and so they put their toes one at a time into the Web waters.

Perhaps, as you argue, separation of the corporeal paper and its Web off-spring spurs innovation; you make an intriguing case. And there are good arguments for retaining the creative and editorial tension. But many of us suspect that the Post maintains a separate web operation for another more prosaic reason. Our operation is a non-union shop, while the The Washington Post, to the enduring credit of the Guild, is a union shop. I love the creativity of our Web colleagues, and I would not stifle that. But I want them to partake of the same salaries and benefits and protections offered by the mother ship.

No doubt Web gurus will dismiss this as dinosaur talk. But all writers have a real stake in the ability of labor unions to penetrate web operations.

One final point: To compare the Web readership with the suscriber/newstand base of the Washington Post is still to talk of apples and oranges. I love that our Web presence has expanded our readership, and many times e-mailing readers have caused me to re-think a piece, or forced me to consider a new avenue of inquiry. But, again, let’s tamp down the triumphalism. There are many many readers, including a fair number in their 30s and 40s, who spend precious little time in blogistan. Their primary and intimate relationship is with the corporeal Post.

Michael Powell’s bio: New Yorker born and raised. Worked at New York Newsday for eight years. At the Post since 1996, where he’s covered Marion Barry, national politics for Style, New York City for the national section. E-mail.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Jane Hamsher reacts to this post (and Michael Powell) with Notes From the Crankosphere. (Dec. 22)

The reason the WaPo editors and writers pooh-pooh the blogosphere’s concerns over GOP attempts to manipulate their content is not so much that they don’t see it as a problem as it is beside the point as far as they are concerned. What they are actually distressed about is real estate. Prime online marquee Beverly Hills pricetag terra firma. And they are furious at the WPNI — at war, as it has been described— because they have no control over it.

Brad DeLong does A Platonic Dialogue on Journalistic Fairness. (Dec. 21) Excerpt:

Capitalisticus: But his only asset is his credibility as an objective news reporter. He put that at risk…

Academicus: But identifying Pat Ruffini as a conservative weblogger is like identifying Jim Carville as the spouse of a Republican strategist…

Capitalisticus: Or like Judy Miller’s promising to identify Scooter Libby as an ex-Capitol Hill staffer…

Academicus: John Harris has a book about Clinton out, The Survivor. He can’t afford—he professionally can’t afford—to exhibit Judy Miller sourcing ethics…

Thrasymachus: Did I say that Harris was particularly smart, or thoughtful, or understood his own best interests?

Jeff Jarvis comments on this post: “What they’re getting to now is a dissection of the most dangerous assumption being made — most surprisingly in the Washington Post newsroom — that if you criticize someone in power on one side, you must be on the other side, if the White House complains about you, then you must be liberal. Or to put it more simply: You’re either for them or against them.”

He’s saying journalists picked up a bad habit of assuming: to have opinions is to show bias.

Jim Brady, executive editor of the Post website writes a long and link-filled explanation at The Washington Post & He runs down the list of projects where the two are working well together, and ends with:

I hope the point is made: could never be what it is today without the partnership we have with The Washington Post. One difference of opinion should not be viewed as a threat to that.

Well I don’t think it’s viewed that way, Jim. Some see large meaning in the difference of opinion. That’s different from “threat.” There’s some action in the comments at Brady’s post, too.

The Harvard Crimson reports on a dinner with Bob Woodward.

Asked at the Harvard dinner whether the American media had adequately questioned the White House on its intelligence before the war, Woodward replied, “Did we drop the ball? Did we fail? And I would say yes.”

Earlier Jane Hamsher…(Dec. 20) She has a question about the Froomkin business: where was the Democratic Party?

Brad Delong gets letters from journalists:

In email the lurkers—highly, highly respected journalist lurkers, both inside and outside the Washington Post newsroom—tend to agree with Dan, and also are irate because they typically believe that this passion for accountability and answers has been by and large absent from the print Washington Post’s coverage of George W. Bush.

He quotes some of what the e-mails are saying.

Anonymous Liberal, a week ago,

Because so few journalists are willing to call a spade a spade, Froomkin’s willingness to do so (and the fact that he’s covering a Republican White House) makes him appear very liberal. If you read through Froomkin’s columns, however, you notice that he almost never strays from his core mission of assessing the transparency and public accountability of the White House. He doesn’t opine about policy matters; he simply gages, as best he can, the degree to which the White Houses is leveling with the American people and engaging its critics.

But also see Christopher Fotos at PostWatch: Dan Froomkin, The Accidental Liberal, and Josh Trevino, Leader of the Hack and The hack.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 19, 2005 5:11 PM