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December 21, 2005

A Platonic Dialogue on Journalistic Fairness, the Internet, Judy Miller Sourcing Ethics, Cross-Potomac White-Collar Outsourcing, and Other Topics

Capitalisticus: So what's this about Michael Froomkin's younger brother Dan?

Academicus: You won't believe me.

Capitalisticus: I won't believe you?

Academicus: Nope.

Capitalisticus: Try me.

Academicus: Well, you're aware that he writes this column--a combination of the Defense Early Bird and the White House Watch that Ryan Lizza currently does for the New Republic--called White House Briefing for the Washington Post's website? Anyway, the Washington Post Ombudsman took a strafing run at Dan's column, saying that it was inappropriate to call it "White House Briefing," that its name should be changed, and that the Washington Post's political reporters did not like it because it was "opinionated" and "liberal."

Capitalisticus: What a minute--did you say "the Ombudsman"?

Academicus: Yep.

Capitalisticus: Deborah Howell, the person who is supposed to handle complaints from readers about reporters and editors?

Academicus: Yep.

Capitalisticus: She based her column on complaints from readers?

Academicus: Nope. Readers seem pretty pleased. The column's principal aim was to try to tell people that the print Washington Post is a very different thing than the WPNI--Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive--operation that is http://washingtonpost.com. To the extent that the column had a base, it seemed to be based on complaints from unnamed Washington Post print newsroom reporters. And on a big complaint from Washington Post national political editor John Harris.

Capitalisticus: That would seem a broadminded view of her role--that is is supposed to include airing complaints from editors about reporters, for example.

Academicus: Yep.

Capitalisticus: What did John Harris say?

Academicus: That Froomkin's column was "an obstacle to our work." That it "dilute[d] [the Post's] only asset -- our credibility" as objective news reporters. That he found claims that Dan Froomkin was a "second-rate hack" to be "not far-fetched".

Capitalisticus: What?

Academicus: When New York University's Jay Rosen of PressThink asked him to document his complaints about Dan, John Harris responded by sending Rosen a webpage address-- http://www.patrickruffini.com/archives/2005/03/dan_froomkin_se.php--as part of his answer: "Does Dan present a liberal worldview? Not always, but cumulatively I think a great many people would say yes—-enough that I don’t want them thinking he works for the news side of the Post. Without agreeing with the views of this conservative blogger who took on Froomkin, I would say his argument does not seem far-fetched to me." The title of the web page was "Dan Froomkin: Second-Rate Hack."

Capitalisticus: Were the arguments on the webpage cogent?

Academicus: Didn't seem so to me--some of the things Froomkin wrote that were called "biased" were pro-liberal, some were pro-libertarian, some were pro-consistency, and most seemed pro-transparency. More important, I think, is that the author of the web page was Patrick Ruffini, Bush-Cheney 2004 Webmaster and currently eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee.

Capitalisticus: Harris thinks journalism is bad if Republican operatives don't like it?

Academicus: It sure looks like it. One theory--held by Jay Rosen--is that what is really going on is a Washington Post that is terrified, terrified of offending the White House.

Capitalisticus: And Harris holds out this Ruffini character and his "not far-fetched" arguments as evidence that Froomkin shouldn't be writing a column called "White House Briefing"?

Academicus: Not quite. You see, Harris didn't call Ruffini "Bush-Cheney 2004 Webmaster and currently eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee." He called him "this conservative blogger."

Capitalisticus: Harris got played? He didn't know what Ruffini's day job was?

Academicus: Nope. Harris was the player--or tried to be: When asked "[W]ill you fess up to what exactly you know/knew about Patrick Ruffini and when exactly you knew it?" Harris answered: "I'll address the matter here. I did know that some people raising questions about Froomkin are Republicans..."

Capitalisticus: So he tried to sell Republican operative Patrick Ruffini to Jay Rosen and his readers as a grassroots conservative weblogger?

Academicus: Yep.

Capitalisticus: Why?

Academicus: Well, wouldn't people have laughed at him if he'd told Rosen, "I think Froomkin has a liberal bias because Patrick Ruffini, Bush-Cheney 2004 Webmaster and currently eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee, says so"?

Capitalisticus: But people must be laughing at him now?

Academicus: Yep.

Capitalisticus: And he didn't anticipate that anybody would fact-check him? This is just not credible. I don't believe you.

Thrasymachus: Remember: he comes out of print daily news journalism. In daily print news journalism, it's easy to be sleazy. If you want to you can make your hit unanswered and then be gone. Your target writes a letter to the editor, it maybe gets published five days later, without context, and if the target is lucky the letter to the editor repairs a tenth of the damage. Can either of you think of an example of a daily print news journalistic hit in the past in which the target managed to effectively respond?

Capitalisticus: Ummm... I still don't believe you.

Academicus: Back when Max Frankel set Fox Butterfield to slime the victim in the William Kennedy-Smith rape case in the New York Times. There was substantial push back then--a lot of New York cocktail party chatter on how it was near-criminal how eager the New York Times was to go into the tank for the Kennedy clan.

Thrasymachus: That's one example--one exception that tests the rule. Are there any others?

Academicus: Ummm...

Thrasymachus: That's the daily news print for you. You can slime. It's in print. You're gone. And they can never catch up. The fact that the web works differently--that you can be fact-checked and the fact-checking can be as widely distributed as your initial slime--that was... not a thing that Harris thought about when he decided to call Pat Ruffini "this conservative weblogger" rather than "Bush-Cheney 2004 Webmaster and currently eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee."

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?

Platon: You have to laugh.

Academicus: You do indeed.

Capitalisticus: You realize that I don't believe you? That this is simply not sane?

Academicus: I told you so.

Glaucon: Yes, you do have to laugh. But has all this done Dan Froomkin any damage?

Academicus: I don't think so. WPNI boss Jim Brady appears to like the work that Froomkin does. And Brady says that he's not thinking of changing the name of the column. The Post's New York Bureau Chief, Michael Howell, has weighed on in the side of approving of what people like Dan Froomkin and Jefferson Morley do:

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.... 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.)... 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]t 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.... [P]rint 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.... [M]any of us suspect that the Post maintains a separate web operation for another more prosaic reason. Our dot.com operation is a non-union shop...

Glaucon: I'm surprised. I would have said "clip jobber" is exactly what Froomkin and Morley do--but that to do a good job of clip jobbing, of synthesis and analysis in real time, is a very difficult task and the ability to do it is a very valuable skill. There are more people who can summarize Scott McClellan's briefing in three hours than who can figure out what today's news means and what pieces of it are important in three hours.

Academicus: Did Harris or Howell say what they wanted the name of the column changed to?

Glaucon: Michael Froomkin recommends: "Dan Froomkin's 'Cooking with Walnuts'."

Platon: Still, nothing here seems to explain the energy and the animus that you can feel coming out of Howell and especially Harris, in waves...

Academicus: Yes. What's really going on over there the Washington Post anyway?

Glaucon: I think it's a matter of Froomkin's not having paid his appropriate dues. Dan Froomkin says that he's just providing a bunch of links and commentary so that you can easily keep up with that day's news about the White House. And he is. But he's also being Walter Lippmann--he's telling you where the real news is, and what the day's news really means.

Capitalisticus: And everyone in the Washington Post newsroom thinks that you only get to be Walter Lippmann after paying your dues, when you finally--after decades of loyal service--get promoted from objective news reporter to columnist.

Glaucon: You are not supposed to sneak in the side door, webmaster one day and author of "White House Briefing" the next.

Platon: May I point out that the fact that the Post and the Times choose their "Lippmanns" as a reward for long-time loyal service rather than on the basis of their intelligence or synthesizing ability is a reason that their mindshare is low, and falling? I mean Herbert... Tierney... Broder... Cohen... ye Gods, give me strength!

Academicus: The most heartfelt criticisms of Froomkin's "White House Briefing" I have heard coming from within the print Post aren't objections to Dan Froomkin's being "opinionated" or "liberal"--but rather print journalists' cries that one of us ought to be doing this, or we ought to be rotating it among ourselves, rather than outsourcing it to somebody who doesn't live in the print newsroom.

Televisticus: I think you all are missing the real source of energy here...

Glaucon: You do?

Televisticus: Yes. You have to pick up on Powell's "non-union" comment. I think that this is key: the employees of WPNI--Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive--are not in the print Washington Post's newsroom. They are across the river, in Arlington, Virginia. They are not members of the Newspaper Guild. Print reporters look at shrinking print advertising and growing online advertising revenues, think of how as more and more homes acquire more and more computers it makes more sense to take advantage of the efficiency of electronic distribution, think about how declining print runs and rising page views will shift the distribution of revenue sources for the entire Post operation, and think hard about what's going to happen to them in five years.

Academicus: And that is?

Televisticus: That as print circulation shrinks, and online circulation grows, the Washington Post Company is going to take advantage of this by shifting its beat reporters out from under the aegis of the print Washington Post and onto the books of WPNI. The print reporters will find that their jobs are being eliminated, but that they are welcome to apply to new jobs being created in Arlington. New jobs that do exactly what their old jobs did, but for the web rather than the print edition. New non-union jobs. New jobs that pay half of what their old jobs did.

Academicus: Ah. I see.

Televisticus: And that, I think, is the principal, although perhaps not entirely conscious, source of John Harris's imperative need to throw mud at the WPNI operation. He and his people must establish, and establish immediately, a large quality and reputational difference between Washington Post and WPNI in readers' minds, if they are to have any chance of keeping the Washington Post Company from halving their salaries and making them work in northern Virginia in the long run.

Academicus: Ah. So this is really a cross-Potomac white-collar outsourcing issue?

Televisticus: I think so.

Thrasymachus: You are naive.

Televisticus: Well, yes, I agree that I am naive. But in what way do you think I'm naive?

Thrasymachus: You said that Post corporate headquarters will transfer jobs from the Washington print newsroom to the Arlington web newsroom, in the process destroying the Newspaper Guild and halving journalists' salaries.

Televisticus: I did.

Thrasymachus: Why should they transfer jobs? Why shouldn't Post corporate headquarters wake up to the fact that its three White House print beat reporters spend a large chunk of the day trapped in the White House briefing room (or similar locales) on assassination watch, in the equivalent of a news isolation chamber where their only source of "information" is Scott McClellan? Post corporate headquarters will say:

Wait a minute. This is really expensive. Someone like Dan Froomkin--blogging in his bathrobe from his basement, running off of the wire services and the press releases and the think-tank reports and his own network of policy- and political-relevant sources--can pull together something that is as interesting and as informative as what the beat reporters do, and do it much cheaper. It won't be real White House reporting, but then reporting what Scott McClellan said today isn't real reporting either. And what Froomkin does is just as satisfying to the readers.

The print newsroom jobs won't be moved from Washington to Arlington. The print newsroom jobs will vanish. The White House Briefing Room will be empty--save for the AP and UPI and Knight-Ridder staffs. And, from the print reporters' perspective, their entire profession will have been replaced by something cheap and inferior.

Academicus: Ah.

Thrasymachus: And the only lever the print reporters have to stop this process is to try to make readers think that the work product of the Froomkins and the Morleys is vastly inferior and shoddy so that Washington Post Corporate won't dare undertake such a shift.

Glaucon: Vastly inferior compared to the work product of the Harrises?

Capitalisticus: The guys with the Judy Miller sourcing ethics?

Academicus: The guys who are easily browbeaten by Republican political operatives?

Thrasymachus: Did I say that John Harris and company were effective at making their case?

Posted by DeLong at December 21, 2005 05:20 PM