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December 19, 2005

Is the Washington Post Newsroom Insane? (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? Department)

Those who watched Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell's initial attack on the online operation, WPNI, and on Dan Frookin's "White House Briefing" column:

The Two Washington Posts: Political reporters at The Post don't like WPNI columnist Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing," which is highly opinionated and liberal...

followed up by a truly remarkable and bizarre sequence of adjectives uttered by Washington Post national political news editor John F. Harris over a five-day period:

"[Froomkin] invites confusion... dilutes our... credibility... we would never allow a White House reporter... a problem... a liberal prism... not trying very hard to avoid such perceptions... we do not want to spike his column--or at least I don't... an obstacle to our work... tendentious and unfair... no regard for the tradition of objective journalism... my reservations about "White House Briefing" are not in theory but in practice... Froomkin’s... pompous suggestion... [false claim to be] high priest and arbiter of good journalism... total bullshit... [Froomkin's] comment... a smear on Washington Post reporters... I'm not trying to make this a bigger matter than it is... on-line crankosphere...

have one overriding question: Is the print Post's newsroom insane?

Those outsiders I have talked to who hold that it is not just insane--that "though this be madness, yet there is method in't"--divide into two groups.

The first group holds that what is really going on is a struggle between the print and the web factions within the Washington Post, and that claims of liberal bias and low standards are merely weapons used in a dirty internal bureaucratic war that has erupted into public view. They point to the fact that when Jay Rosen of PressThink asked John F. Harris for an example of Froomkin's bias, what he came up with was an attack by Patrick Ruffini, Bush-Cheney 2004 Webmaster and currently eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee, entitled "Dan Froomkin, Second-Rate Hack"--which Harris wrote "does not seem far-fetched to me." Is it possible, they ask, that the Washington Post's national political editor really thinks that the Washington Post should be responsive to a claim of liberal bias made by the RNC's eCampaign Director? Is it possible, they ask, that the Washington Post's national political editor really thinks that the idea that Dan Froomkin is a second-rate hack "does not seem far-fetched"?

For those things to be true would mean, they say, that the Post's newsroom is insane. The real issue, they say, must therefore be whether the current print or the current web people will have the upper hand of the world of five years from now in which print advertising revenue has collapsed and eDistribution is the dominant mode of transmission. Claims of bias, they say, play the same role in this internal bureaucratic war for dominance as did the blank sheets of paper Joe McCarthy held up that he said listed the names of Communists coddled by Truman's cabinet members.

The second group holds that what is really going on is that the print version of the Washington Post is scared of offending the Bush administration, and is willing to go several extra miles to keep the Bushies happy--or at least quiet. Executive editor Len Downie himself, they say, told Editor and Publisher that the key point was to disassociate the print newsroom from things that upset the White House, 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." It is five years too late, members of this group say, for the print paper to be launching attacks on the web operation. The print reporters and editors desperately need the enthusiastic approval and support of the online operation. Something like Dana Milbank's "Washington Sketch" column has much greater reach if it is also featured on the front page of http://washingtonpost.com/ than if it appears in the print edition alone. Launching attacks on the online operation is not a way for the print operation to make those who control the pixels on the online front page happier campers and more supportive partners. Attacks on the ethics, standards, and procedures of the online version would, members of this group say, be insane unless there was some overriding need--a need to keep the Bush administration from being offended.

I find both sets of arguments fully persuasive. Thus I can't choose an interpretation of what is going on. But not everybody is like Buridan's ass here. The very smart and highly observant Jay Rosen of NYU and PressThink is plumping for the "the Bush administration has successfully 'worked the ref' and intimidated the print newsroom" interpretation. He writes:

PressThink: Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One : For me the most interesting moment... came... [when] Leonard Downie, big boss at the Washington Post, stated his concerns.... "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."...

Across the Potomac, the other boss, Jim Brady, said 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.".... [W]ith Dan Froomkin, Columnist, at the top of the page next to his picture, and "Special to the Washington Post" [actually "Special to washingtonpost.com] under his name (instead of "Washington Post Staff Writer," which is what it says for reporters)... it's pretty clear that he's a columnist....

[T]he 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." What people?... 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 Froomkin's column "people" might get the impression the Washington Post newsroom is biased against Bush. That is what they're 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.

Which means there's news in the headline from Editor & Publisher: "Online Chief Says No." 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. The beat reporters felt they could't ignore it. Brady, I believe, felt they should ignore it. And if they wouldn't, he would...

UPDATE: And the equally smart and observant Jeff Jarvis disagrees with Jay Rosen.

Posted by DeLong at December 19, 2005 12:07 PM