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December 19, 2005

Dan Froomkin Writes to Jay Rosen

Dan Froomkin writes about what he thinks he is doing with WPNI's Dan Froomkin's "Cooking with Walnuts" column. I think that there is always sufficient "lack of transparency" inside any White House to leave plenty of room for a White House Watch column informed by "the same passion for answers and accountability" that Dan brings:

PressThink: Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One : 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 http://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.

Meanwhile, 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. Here are some not-atypical excerpts:

I think the [core] problem here is... [national political editor John] Harris doesn't care for heat from the White House.... [T]he White House has been treated so gently by the Post, for the most part, that anyone there complaining about Froomkin should blush. Of course they never blush...

The Post has many more columnists with full blown conservative than liberal biases...

The tension between the Post newsroom and the website is hardly new.... Post management has refused... to meld the two... operations because... the web folks would be covered by the Newspaper Guild contract.... Don't expect any melding... soon. It would cost the Washington Post Company too much money...

Froomkin is a columnist, not a reporter.... The folks at the White House obviously know this and Harris should remind them of it whenever they complain...

The print Post has always blurred the line in allowing reporters to be columnists. Howard Kurtz writes news stories for the Post, writes a weekly column, and writes still more columns for the website...

Post reporters [write news stories]... opinion pieces that appear in... Outlook... "News Analysis" stories which often have lots of opinions, [and] when an analysis piece get too obviously into opinions, it carries a "Commentary" label.

Posted by DeLong at December 19, 2005 02:02 PM