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December 19, 2005

The Future of the Washington Post

Washington Post national political editor John Harris launches a creepy assault on Dan Froomkin's Post Online White House Briefing column http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/blog/2005/12/12/BL2005121200655_pf.html.

Harris assures us that he doesn't want to kill Froomkin's column--but hints that there are others, who belong to a group he describes as "we," who do. Harris says that Froomkin is biased--or, rather, he says that Froomkin is "not trying very hard" to avoid "perceptions" of bias. Harris says that the first issue is that there is "confusion" about whether or not Froomkin is one of the Washington Post's three White House reporters--but clearing up this "confusion" is not important enough to Harris for him to mention the name of even one of his White House reporters (they are: Michael Fletcher, Peter Baker, and Jim VandeHei).

Harris hints he doesn't believe Dan Froomkin when Dan says that he would be writing a similar "irreverent and adversarial" column if John Kerry were president (as it happens, I do believe Dan: I've known him since he was five, and he has always specialized in bluntly speaking uncomfortable truths to the most powerful person in the room). And there are further hints that Harris thinks there's something especially wrong about an "adversarial" approach to a Republican than to a Democratic administration(1)--that the fact that some Democratic partisans would be unhappy at what Froomkin would do to a Kerry administration justifies Harris's being unhappy at what Froomkin is doing to the Bush administration.

As I said, creepy:

John Harris: The first issue is whether many readers believe Dan's column is written by one of the Washington Post's three White House reporters. It seems to me--based on many, many examples--beyond any doubt that a large share of readers do believe that. No doubt there are some who enjoy the column for precisely this reason. If I worked outside the paper, I might presume myself that a feature titled "White House Briefing" was written by one of the newspaper's White House reporters.

[Dan Froomkin] is a problem. 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. Dan, as I understand his position, says that his commentary is not ideologically based, but he acknowledges it is written with a certain irreverence and adversarial purpose. Dan does not address the main question in his comments. He should. If he were a White House reporter for a major news organization, would it be okay for him to write in the fashion he does? If the answer is yes, we have a legitimate disagreement. If the answer is no, there is not really a debate: http://washingtonpost.com should change the name of his column to more accurately present the fact that this is Dan Froomkin's take on the news, not the observations of someone who is assigned by the paper to cover the news.

People in the newsroom want to end this confusion. We do not want to spike his column--or at least I don't. It might be the case that he would be writing similarly about John Kerry if he were president. But I guarantee that many people who posted here would not be Froomkin enthusiasts--or be so indifferent to the concerns I raise--in that case...

Let me say that I never thought and never imagined that White House Briefing was written by one of the print Washington Post's White House reporters. I've thought that the print Washington Post would be doing itself a big favor if it printed greatest hits from the past week's White House Briefing on Sunday. But I've never thought that Dan worked for the print version.

The job that Dan Froomkin created for himself is not a reporter's job. It is something different. When I've talked to Dan about what he is doing, he has pointed to the Defense Department's Early Bird http://ebird.afis.mil/: "A daily concise compilation of current published news articles and commentary concerning the most significant defense and defense-related national security issues. Available by 0515 hrs." The whole idea of the White House Briefing is to extend all of our range by having a smart person--Dan Froomkin, in this case--serve as doorman for the news. He doesn't report. He doesn't have time (OK, he does report a little.) What he does do is blow the whistle and point us to the particular taxicab that is the piece of genuine reporter-produced news that we are likely to find of most interest. In so doing he gives all of us a power and capability that only those like Senators with dedicated staffs had in the past. And he gives it to us for free (for now at least).

For example, consider this morning's White House Briefing http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/04/11/LI2005041100879.html: Dan links to:

http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2005/12/13/audience_hits_bush_with_tough_questions_on_progress/, a Boston Globe article on Bush's surprising taking of questions after his speech in Philadelphia yesterday.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/12/20051212-4.html the transcript of Bush in Philadelphia.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/blog/2005/12/06/BL2005120600822.html his own writing about Bush's not taking questions last week.
http://news.google.com/news?sourceid=navclient&ie=ISO-8859-1&rls=GGLD,GGLD:2003-44,GGLD:en&q=bush+30,000&tab=wn the headlines made by Bush's answers.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/12/AR2005121200124.html Peter Baker's print Washington Post article about the Q-and-A session and about Bush's first-time announcement that he thinks 30,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq.
http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2005/12/unintentionally.html Brendan Nyhan's pointing out that Bush said "extenuated" when he meant "exacerbated."
http://www.statesman.com/search/content/news/stories/nation/12/13bush.html Ken Herman of Cox's focus on Bush's belief that more "regime change" will be needed in the Middle East.
http://www.salon.com/politics/war_room/2005/12/12/bush/index.html A favorable appraisal of Bush unscripted from the left-wing Salon.
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/01/opinion/01thur1.html?ex=1291093200&en=0aea6c0bf19fe7d8&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss The New York Times editorial page's worry that Bush has trapped himself in a bubble, and lost touch with reality.
http://www.thecarpetbaggerreport.com/archives/6064.html The Carpetbagger Report's similar praise of Bush for taking questions.
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3720360/site/newsweek/?p=edew Newsweek's cover story on Bush the Bubble Boy.
http://www.merlotdemocrats.com/2005/12/13/bush-reckons-there’s-probably-around-30000-dead-iraqis-due-to-war/ Jason Kellett's carping at Bush's body language.
http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-12-12-bush-iraq_x.htm Oren Darrell of USA Today's belief that Bush's 30,000 number comes from Iraq Body Count http://www.iraqbodycount.org/.
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10439994/ NBC anchor Brian Williams's interview with Bush.
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/13/politics/13detain.html?ex=1292130000&en=222ad815aa657ab1&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss David Sanger and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times's piece on McCain and the fight over torture in the Senate.
http://today.reuters.com/news/newsArticleSearch.aspx?storyID=27074+13-Dec-2005+RTRS&srch=torture Reuters on how former Deputy Assistant to Bush Robert Blackwill appears to be pro-torture.
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/13/politics/13bush.html?ei=5090&en=02b44c2fecc7e5b1&ex=1292130000&adxnnl=1&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&adxnnlx=1134474438-BLRiXx9RfWNWfQn8l6n9kw Richard Stevenson of the New York Times reiterating that we will rebuild New Orleans.
Plus a host of others: http://www.wonkette.com/politics/brian-williams/brian-williams-a-day-not-in-the-life-of-a-white-house-correspondent-142605.php http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/TheNote/story?id=1397403 http://abcnews.go.com/International/PollVault/story?id=1389228 http://politicalwire.com/archives/2005/12/12/another_poll_shows_bush_rebounding.html http://www.cookpolitical.com/races/report_pdfs/2005_poll_tl_dec12.pdf http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-12-12-bush-approval_x.htm http://www.usatoday.com/news/polls/2005-12-12-poll.htm, all ending with the Manchester Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1665837,00.html:

Five years ago today Al Gore phoned George Bush to formally concede the presidency. Since then the United States has suffered its worst ever terrorist attack, become embroiled in a disastrous foreign war and bungled the response to a natural catastrophe. So what is the Bush legacy after half a decade? Is he a ruthless Machiavellian or a bumbling puppet? A devout idealist or a cynical opportunist? A disaster or a mild disappointment? Here, six top American commentators - from the left and the right - deliver their verdicts.... R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator: "One thing is certain. He will leave the White House with many Americans furious with him, much as Truman did. Most of those who seethed at Truman were Republicans from the Old Order, with a few conservative Democrats along for the wrathful ride. Those who seethe at Bush are from America's present Old Order - to wit, Democrats, who have been steadily losing power nationwide and who now hold power mainly in the media and the universities."

I look at what Dan Froomkin has done today and I find John Harris's complaints incomprehensible. Liberal bias? There is a bias, but it is toward the snarky, not the liberal. The quality of the work? As a doorman directing customers to good daily news taxis, Dan Froomkin is superb: http://washingtonpost.com is extremely lucky to have him. Confusion with the print Washington Post's news operation? John Harris should be so lucky.

I had thought that the print Washington Post valued what Dan was doing: providing a single place where somebody looking for coverage of the Executive Branch could find an overview of what was truly newsworthy about the news, and links so that they can explore and learn further. This is going to be a growth sector--the fact that people who could afford it were eager in the past to have people do for them what Dan does for all of us tells us so. And it provides a place for readers to gain perspective on an issue that John Harris's own reporters simply cannot provide.

For example... the only one of Harris's three I can find this morning is Peter Baker, who writes:

Bush Estimates Iraqi Death Toll in War at 30,000 : By Peter Baker: PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 12 -- President Bush estimated Monday that 30,000 Iraqis have died in the war since U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003, but he offered no second thoughts about ordering the attack and said the threat of terrorism against the United States has subsided as a result. "Knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again," Bush told a questioner after a speech here. "Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country."

The estimate marked the first time Bush has personally provided an assessment of the Iraqi death toll, a highly sensitive subject that his administration largely avoids discussing... military officers have said they do not count Iraqi dead.... The comments came during a rare audience question-and-answer session.... The first person he called on... asked him how many Iraqis have died in the war. Unlike aides who have been asked that question, Bush gave a direct answer. "I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis," he said.... Bush moved on to the next question without identifying how he arrived at the figure.... Aides later said it was not a government estimate but a reflection of figures in news media reports. Still, Bush offered it without qualification, in effect accepting it as a reasonable approximation....

A group of British researchers and antiwar activists called Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties between 27,383 and 30,892.... Iraqi authorities have said that roughly 800 people die a month.... An epidemiological study published in the British journal the Lancet last year estimated 100,000 deaths in the first 18 months since the invasion based on door-to-door interviews in selected neighborhoods extrapolated across the country, an estimate that other experts and human rights groups considered inflated....

This is, I think, somewhat depressing. Baker wants to be adversarial--in a way that Harris would call "liberal" and "biased," and would not like. Baker is outraged at the way in which the White House has pretended ignorance as a way of avoiding answering questions about the impact of the war on civilian Iraqis. Baker wants to use the fact that Bush has a "30,000 civilian Iraqis dead" number in his head as a knife to pry open this particular oyster.

The problem, however, is that Baker is underbriefed. He knows that the Lancet published an article last year but he doesn't really know what the study said. He doesn't make the point that the Iraqi Body Count estimate that tabulates only reported casualties is--if the individual reports are accurate--to understate total casualties because there are, inevitably, unreported casualties. He doesn't say who the "Iraqi authorities" who report 800 a month are, or why anybody should trust their estimates.

He can't write the story that he wants to write. One reason he can't is that being White House correspondent is, in many ways, a lousy job. You spend an awful lot of time sitting in the press pool with no outside stimulation--on the assassination watch, so to speak. You spend an awful lot of time fencing with White House briefers who are trying to tell you less than nothing. You have little ability to do detailed legwork outside the White House Briefing Room. You have the disabilities of a beat reporter: you must constantly walk the line between telling the story and keeping your sources happy (for if you don't keep your sources happy you have no chance of ever telling the story). Peter Baker is a good reporter stuck in a situation where he can't do nearly as much as he would like.

In this context, Peter--and John Harris--should welcome Dan Froomkin, who at his news-doorman job has the ability to direct traffic to things that will put the stories that Peter Baker and company can write into their proper context. If John Harris is lucky, the fact that Dan Froomkin is very good at the job he has created for himself will rub off on the print operation: print White House reporters will be less bitter if they know there is somebody in the organization backing them up by putting their articles in the broader context. And somebody who works for Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive will tend to think more like Post print reporters and cite them more often.

If I were running the Washington Post, I would want John Harris to say that Dan Froomkin is performing a very valuable function, in some ways analogous to what Time did during World War II as a doorman for the news, but raised to a higher power by being much more timely and interactive. I would want to say that it is very clear that what Dan Froomkin does is not reporting--that a doorman is no use without taxis--but that it is valuable, and we are proud to be associated with it.

But that's not what John Harris seems to think.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen at PressThink http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/. He interviews John Harris:

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...

Please, Mr. Harris: I call bullshit. Remember: I've dealt with Jonathan Weisman. There are Washington Post reporters who are not stenographers--Dana Milbank, Dana Priest, and Walter Pincus come immediately to mind. There are those who would not be stenographers if only they could get some backup from editors. And there are those who are enthusiastic stenographers--cf. Howard Fineman's view of Bob Woodward. Or take your Jim VandeHei, who appears to have decided to be a stenographer for Karl Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin: http://firedoglake.blogspot.com/2005_12_01_firedoglake_archive.html#113442242607540843.

Since January 2001, there has been a large disjunction between the picture of the Bush White House painted in the pages of the Washington Post and the picture told me on the phone and over coffee by senior and not-so-senior Republican officials. The Washington Post's coverage has been--with substantial and honorable exceptions--strongly subpar. I know this. You know this.

(1) Contrast what Harris wrote about Froomkin with his comments on his own reporting of the Clinton White House:

1997 was in its own way a very sullen, snippy, disagreeable year in the relationship between the White House and the press. Most news organizations -- the Washington Post included -- were devoting lots of resources, lots of coverage, to the campaign fund-raising scandal which grew out of the '96 campaign, and there were a lot of very tantalizing leads in those initial controversies. In the end they didn't seem to lead anyplace all that great.But there were tons of questions raised that certainly, to my mind, merited aggressive coverage...

Posted by DeLong at December 19, 2005 11:45 AM