Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Open Letters re: Froomkini

For more information about the "regular press" going after an "online columnist", you might start with the Post's own coverage, but also invaluable are the interviews Jay Rosen did with the editors, Brad deLong's acid-tinged defense of his boyhood buddy Froomkin, firedog's historical retrospective on the editor's own, um, opinionating, and fellow WaPo (dot.com!!! The print side REALLY wants you to know the difference!!!) Aschenbach's determination that it isn't political at all, except for those crazed Froomkin readers. (We ardently hope that poor Mr. Aschenbach isn't next on the ombudsman's hand-smack list.)

Quick summary-- the WaPo ombudsman, Deborah Howell, took time off from exploring what it means that the paper's highest profile reporter kept secret his own involvement in the CIA leak case, though he didn't keep his own opinions about the case and prosecutor secret at all, to involve herself in what first appears to be a trivial in-house dispute-- that is, she writes that some readers are confused about whether Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing is in the "Washington Post" (the print edition) or just washingtonpost.com, and whether he's actually a White House reporter or (as his byline says) a columnist. Well, seems like a small thing for a busy ombudsman to concern herself with, but okay. Froomkin responded, rather more pleasantly than I would, and engendered many (like 1000) posts of support. Then the editor who first complained to her (John Harris, who edits the 3 White House reporters in the "real" WaPo) posted his own comment on all this, opining that Froomkin is an opinion writer, and the supposed reader confusion is "an obstacle" for his reporters. Never did he or Ms. Howell give any evidence of reader confusion or reportorial obstacles. Then the invaluable Jay Rosen of Pressthink got interviews with Mr. Harris and Len Downie, the executive editor, and both seemed to admit that the original complaint came not from you and me, ordinary readers, but Republicans, including, it seems, those in the White House. Apparently complaints from the White House get rapid service from the higher-ups there at WaPo.

Here's my take, as open letters to the editor (John Harris) and the other columnist, Mr. Aschenbach. I think probably they won't respond, but heck, here it is for your delectation and pleasure.


To Mr. Harris:
Mr. Harris, there's a real story here that you might want to assign to your political reporters:
1) While you first said that "readers" had complained, later you made it clear that it was "Republicans". So which is it? I guess Republicans can be readers too, but who specifically complained? And what was the nature of the complaints, and why did you think that was worth starting a public fight with a colleague over-- and why didn't you come clean originally about the source of those complaints?

2) Mr. Downie further refined the identity of the complainers to people in the White House. Was Mr. Downie also involved in the decision to take this public? If so, what did he hope to gain? Was he attempting to control the editorial content of a separate division of the company? Did he also get complaints, and again, why can't we hear the nature of those complaints and more important, the specific identity of the complainers? Did you and Mr. Downie promise them confidentiality? If so, why?

3) When the Nixon White House complained about the Post's coverage of Watergate, John Mitchell used very clear and plain language, to wit, that the then-publisher Mrs. Graham would get a particular portion of her anatomy "caught in a wringer" if the Post continued to publish the Woodward and Bernstein stories. Ben Bradlee was editor then, and he printed the entire quote, attributed directly to Mitchell, minus only the obscenity. Mrs. Graham was so cool, she joked about this to Carl Bernstein. Now please explain why instead of standing up to the current White House like that, you and Mr. Downie chose not only to do their bidding, but also to obfuscate whose bidding it was? And what do you think Mrs. Graham would say to you now?

4) You have in the print edition several columnists. Some are considered conservative, some liberal. Have you also received complaints from the White House about them? What about from the Democratic Party? Have you addressed these complaints to the editorial page editor?

5) One of your reporters, Mr. VandeHei, appeared recently on a TV talk show and surprised us all by opining that Stephen Hadley was Rove's source for the CIA leak. He turned out to be mistaken-- said that he misspoke, and meant that Libby was Rove's source. Is this true? If it is true, why isn't he writing a story about it? If it's not proven true, why is he saying this on TV? If it's only his opinion, should he be also reporting on this same subject, if he's so opinionated? Did you receive complaints from Mr. Hadley and/or Mr. Libby about this?

6) When Brad DeLong called you about the Froomkin issue, you several times refused to comment. Are you a truth-teller, or a truth-hider now?

7) You linked to a "conservative blogger" who called Froomkin "a hack". Turns out this "conservative blogger" has been a Republican operative off-and-on for years, and he's On Again. Did you know this? If you knew this, why didn't you mention that when you linked to him? Don't your readers have the right to know who this person is? It's the only person you linked to-- why did you choose him? Do you think Froomkin is a hack? What evidence do you have to prove that? If you don't think that, why would you provide a link to someone who had that accusation in his headline?

7) You mention that a source of yours who has run political campaigns was confused about Froomkin's status. Do you generally associate with political operatives who know so little about journalism? Can we have this person's name, please? Is this the same "conservative blogger" you linked to?

8) Do you actually think WaPo readers are as stupid as you keep suggesting? Do you think that the only reason readers might like Froomkin's column is that they're liberals, and that the commenters who say they are not liberal are either wrong or lying? Do you think that there's something wrong with being liberal?

9) Did you vote in the last presidential election? For whom? You might well think that's an intrusive question, and I would never have asked it, except that you have chosen to characterize the politics not only of Mr. Froomkin but his readers, and so if you're going to do that, I think you need to put your own politics on the table.

Thank you for your time and patience.

And for Mr. Aschenbach:
Joel, when you say, "Enough. Here's the headline: Not everything is political," you might be behind the curve here, I think. John Harris and Len Downie have both admitted that it's political, because the complaints apparently (they're not being completely clear on this) came from 'readers" but "Republicans".

The problem, as we Froomkin readers keep pointing out, is NOT liberal vs. conservative at all. That was the formulation of Mr. Harris and Ms. Howell. They were the ones who insisted on making this partisan. It's not clear to me-- and apparently to you either-- why if it was merely about the labelling of the column Ms. Howell decided (in the month, btw, that Bob Woodward was outed as someone who testified about his sources in the leak investigation, that is, when lots of other things are going on at WaPo) to make this public and side with Mr. Harris. But okay, she did that. She apparently took Mr. Harris's word that there were complaints from the Post WH reporters (though they mostly are saying, "Not me!") and that readers were confused-- no evidence offered on either count.

Now we read Jay Rosen's Pressthink interview with some of the people involved. It sounds like you read it too, and yet maybe you missed the quote where Mr. Harris now says that it wasn't the reporters really complaining. And not the ordinary readers either. But oops! It was Republicans! The only one he mentions specifically was a "source" who "runs campaigns", but he says: "They (the White House) have never complained in a formal way to me, but I have heard from Republicans in informal ways making clear they think his work is tendentious and unfair. I do not have to agree with them in every instance that it is tendentious and unfair for me to be concerned about making clear who Dan is and who he is not regarding his relationship with the newsroom." Then he links approvingly to a blogpost that calls Froomkin a "hack" in the headline. Turns out (oops!) he neglected to say that the "blogger" is a Republican party operative.

Then Mr. Downie mentions that the White House had complained (and as an afterthought, adds "readers" might have been confused).

So the questions that you might wonder about are--
1) Why was this basically internal debate made public? That's sort of weird. There doesn't seem to be that big a deal about changing the name of the column a bit, and in fact, Froomkin's editor has already made some concessions to Mr. Harris (sounds like this discussion has been going on for MONTHS, but for some reason now Mr. Harris decided to take it to the ombudsman). So why now?

2) Why did the ombudsman, who presumably has that whole Bob Woodward thing to investigate for readers, decide that this internal debate was worth writing about, and why does she make conclusions about the column (adversarial and liberal, and when, btw, has "adversarial" been bad for a columnist?) without providing any evidence?

3) What started this? Not reader or reporter complaints, apparently. Who at the White House or in the Republican party complained, and what was the nature of the complaints, and why did the newspaper that stood up to Nixon's attempts to throttle investigation decide it had to respond to this White House's complaints?

4) Why wasn't Mr. Harris clear on where the complaints came from when this all started? It seems, at a minimum, that he misled Ms. Howell by not telling her (at least she didn't say this) that Republicans were behind the complaints. Not that Republicans or the White House can't complain, but transparency matters here-- why attribute this to "readers" and "reporters"? Did Mr. Harris lie here? If so, should Ms. Howell investigate that?

5) Does Mr. Harris really approve of the mysterious blogger calling his colleague "a hack"? If not, why did he link to that blog and not any other blog? Did he know that Mr. Ruffini is a Republican operative? Is Mr. Ruffini the source who Mr. Harris said was confused about Froomkin's status? (And if so, what on earth is the Republican party doing hiring operatives who don't know the diff between a reporter and a columnist?)

6) What's going on between the paper and the website? Is Mr. Harris going to take on Newsweek (another division) next? After all, George Will is not only opinionated (as he should be), but a letter to the editor this week actually referred to his column as "an article", thereby showing that at least one Newsweek reader is making the mistake that so exercises Mr. Harris.

7) Mr. Harris's own writings include op-eds which seem to support this administration. Does that make him ineligible by his own rules to be a political editor? Does Mr. Harris think the very opinionated Mr. Woodward (who -- without telling listeners that he was about to be sub poenaed-- called the special prosecutor a "junkyard dog") should be disciplined or not allowed to write news stories anymore? Or is it only columnists on the website that bother him? Or columnists he calls "liberal"?

Froomkin didn't start this imbroglio. Neither did his readers. We were all bumping along happily, reading his column, clicking his links-- and then Ms. Howell decided to make a column of this, and Mr. Harris decided to give an interview where he-- not Froomkin, not the readers-- said that Republicans were behind the complaints. So it's kind of weird that you're so focused on the readers. I think you're probably pretty good at digging out the truth, so maybe you can find out what story lies behind this story. If there actually were some readers who complained of being confused, can you find that out? But if it was the White House (as both Downie and Harris seem to be saying), does that change your view of what's happening here? Thanks!
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Me again, Pippen that is:
Why is this important? Well, it's because, if in fact (and it's hard to tell because Mr. Harris isn't being very candid) this all started with the White House complaining, it's bad enough that the WaPo editor decides that he better hop to it and do what the WH wants. It's bad enough that he might have, um, not been completely upfront with the ombudsman and that she decided her role wasn't as "reader representative" but "columnist disciplinarian". It's bad enough that the Post hasn't yet admitted that its political editor might have been trying to control another division of the publisher on the request of the White House.

But what's worst is, like the Jeff Gannon/Guckert mess, like all those reporters who didn't report about their entanglement with the CIA leakers, like the MSM spending far more time speculating about Pitt and Jolie's marriage plans than the White House payments to their colleague Armstrong Williams-- this is another example of the press refusing to be upfront and truthful about its own deep ties to the White House. The reporters constantly criticize the blogs, and yet no one else holds the reporters themselves to account. And the response to anyone who says, "You're kowtowing to the White House?" is not self-analysis, but the knee-jerk accusation that the critics (even conservative ones) are "liberal" (not that there's anything wrong with that!). This MSM is markedly partisan (and not just the columnists) in that they in the main support the current administration and won't truly investigate or front-page its scandals until forced to. And yet (shades of Bush's people trying to paint the veterans Kerry and Murtha as "cowards") the first and maybe only response they have to any criticism is "YOU'RE partisan!" They can't even see that partisans should be listened to also, even those who are not working for Bush. :)

More to come!!