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Leader of the Hack

Dec
14
2005

The flap over Dan Froomkin’s White House Briefing in the Washington Post is an instructive little incident that ought to alert the journalism community to an unpleasant reality: having been regarded as the enemy for so long by the American right, it is now equally detested by the American left. What this means for journalism in the United States will emerge in time; what is likely is that the old model of impartial journalism as such will crumble. Its replacement will be a hybrid of British-style overt partisanship and the horrors of “citizen journalism” as exemplified by the legions of groupthink amateurs afflicting the public discourse from the comfort of their keyboards.

Let us not pretend that impartial journalism in America was ever a reality. Most professional journalists are Democrats and leftists; and their reporting will, over the course of a career, reflect this. It does not follow from this that we discard the ideal in response to its nonexistence. We presumably believe also in clerical rectitude, good men, and police who serve all citizens. No man would advocate the abandonment of these archetypes simply because they are, on a group level, unreal. Somehow journalism is different: somehow, because it often fails at what it wishes to be, it should stop trying. This is the implicit contention advanced by the defenders of Dan Froomkin. A more poisonous and portentious idea could hardly be put forth.

If by “liberal,” you mean “devilishly good-looking,” well then….

Now, full disclosure on me and Froomkin: I think his best work is his leadership at Nieman Watchdog, which is smart and has the virtue of being honest about what it is. On a less positive note, I have corresponded with the man at some length, and found him a detestable admixture of dishonesty and messianic self-conception. The latter is illustrated clearly enough in his own post.blog response to the controversy over his column, wherein he avers that he is no liberal when on duty at WaPo. Rather, his “agenda, such as it is, is accountability and transparency….in defense of the public’s right to know what its leader is doing and why.” Then he lets loose this gem of undiluted ego:

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.

Thou reporters, thou journalists, thou who actually work in the White House, Dan Froomkin shall bear witness to thy very deeds. Is he Victor Klemperer or Christ? Which would be more tolerable to the journalists who groan under the oppression of his rectitude? I leave it to those suffering masses, and the discerning reader, to assess whether he means this as a thing in itself, divorced from his biases; and whether it is consequently true that he would have taken “the same approach with John Kerry, had he become president.” For my part, it all seems exceedingly unlikely.

Let’s revisit the spark that lit the present Froomkin fire. WaPo ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote that “[p]olitical reporters at The Post don’t like WPNI columnist Dan Froomkin’s ‘White House Briefing,’ which is highly opinionated and liberal. They’re afraid that some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter.” She closed with a statement that she agreed that the Post ought to rename the column. This is, in a rational world, a benign enough suggestion that expresses no disapproval of Froomkin’s content or work.

The assumption of a rational universe is a fool’s errand where the media-watching left is concerned. No one took Howell’s commentary at face value, as an issue of branding. Froomkin, as noted, put his own total lack of self-awareness on display in earnestly correcting the impression that his work was opinionated or liberal. Weirdly, this meme picked up steam in the online left: leftism was either equated with truthfulness, or in a strange reprise of the 1988 Republican campaign theme, the liberal label became an implicit term of abuse in the eyes of outraged lefties. Perennial intellectual midget Markos Moulitsas saw a GOP plot in the illusory attack on Froomkin. Joshua Micah Marshall demanded to know why the WaPo ombudsman wasn’t following his priorities. Jane Hamsher did an admirable job upholding the Huffington Post’s journalistic standards by utterly failing to read Howell’s piece, and wrongly asserting that “folks in the [WaPo] newsroom don’t like Dan Froomkin because he’s too liberal.” Brad DeLong also rushed to defend lifelong friend Froomkin from the smear of “liberal bias.” Duncan Black simply contented himself with braying insults at perceived anti-Froomkin bete noir Washington Post Political Editor John Harris.

Harris and his colleague Peter Baker (who actually does cover the White House) rather admirably sought to explain and reinforce Howell’s points in public fora at the WaPo site. Both were met with relentless spleen from leftist readers, who complained, among other things, about “insecure, jealous, Washington Post reporters” attacking Dan Froomkin. That’s just a sample of the printable stuff. WaPo colleagues like Dan Balz, who explained that “it is just an issue of labeling [and] I have not heard anyone who thinks that column should not exist,” went unheard by the shrieking masses. Whether Froomkin is a victim in fact is irrelevant: he and his partisans wish it so, and they behave thus.

This, the reality-based community.

There’s one thing that the relentlessly shrill Hamsher did get right: Dan Froomkin is the future. When writers like him can pass themselves off as anything but what they are — opinion columnists rather than journalists — and when they can call on masses of irate keyboardists to defend them, and when their superiors cave in the face of that pressure (indeed, his column will not be renamed), then two things are clear. First, the Washington Post website is now the senior partner in its relationship with the print edition. Online Executive Editor Jim Brady has decided to ignore the wishes of the print Executive Editor and nearly every WaPo reporter on record in this matter. This is an extraordinary shift in the newsroom balance of power that will inevitably be reflected in publications across the nation. Second, in this new order, the true seat of power is not the chair of online Executive Editors like Jim Brady: it’s in the nattering keyboards of the masses of the easily-led and the paranoid who constitute, on both sides of the partisan divide, the titular “base.”

There was a time long past, known as 2002, when the internet and the things it made possible were going to revolutionize politics and journalism. Many voices would lead to many facts, and from that would be assembled holistic truths. Openness and transparency would reign, and communication would promote understanding. Instead, what has come to pass is a regrettable series of confirmations of John Gabriel’s thesis, and a rediscovery of the power of the mob. Certainly there remain a core of true believers in the power of the average person multiplied many times to supplant the professional: the tedious mediocrity of their efforts speak for themselves. For the most part, we are reconciled to the reality that the ability to coalesce and self-select associates on a virtual global scale means that preexisting divides will reinforce rather than dissolve.

Given this, the capitulation to the defenders of Froomkin is madness. Perhaps WaPo online Executive Editor Jim Brady truly does not believe in the longstanding American ideal of the impartial press. I doubt this; pace Froomkin’s cadres, journalists are people too, and most do not have ulterior motives that merit bouts of online ranting. More likely he simply wished to win an internal turf war, and did. In the long run, though, whether he believes in that idea or not is irrelevant. If we accept that the professional merits a privileged place in his sphere, then we cannot dismiss his counsel with regard to the Dan Froomkins — or the bloggers — of the world. The inevitable implication of this entire affair is that where journalism is concerned, the professional is not of a unique class. We thus move inexorably to the superiority of the online entity of erstwhile print publications, and all the debris that brings with it, from the bloggers to the endless glossing to the amateur pretense to the mobs. When we say that Dan Froomkin is the future, that is the future he brings. Like it or hate it, there’s one thing we can all agree on about the future: it’s coming.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 1:59 AM | Permalink

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