Musing a little more on Dan Froomkin’s new independence, DougJ’s post below makes a compelling case that Dan Froomkin did not have an ideological problem so much as he kept stepping on the beat of the Post‘s media critic Howard Kurtz. In fact one should feel at least a little sympathy for Kurtz’s position. When a guy in the lower ranks keeps doing your own job better than you can or will, the only choices are to live with the tension, get better at your job or make the upstart go away. History does not favor bets on options A or B.
For some reason Froomkin’s situation struck me as oddly similar to another recent embarrassment at the Post.
In the wake of widespread refutations on blogs, and action alerts by FAIR and Media Matters, the Washington Post received floods of emails complaining about the inaccuracies in Will’s column, and the Post’s ombud Andy Alexander soon issued a response to a blogger at Think Progress.
Claiming that Will’s column had been subject to multiple fact-checks, Alexander addressed only critics’ concern about Will’s misrepresentation of the University of Illinois’s sea ice research, defending Will by citing a University of Illinois statement that, in fact, actually refuted Will’s claim.
Given that the position of ombud (a person responsible for responding to reader complaints and upholding accuracy at a media outlet) is the closest thing to a system of accountability that exists at newspapers, the Post ombud’s response aptly illustrated the bankruptcy of what passes for accountability at a leading newspaper.
Unfortunately, the erroneous climate change column is not a blip on Will’s record. On the issue of climate change alone, FAIR’s magazine Extra! documents that Will’s history of misquoting data to distort the debate goes back nearly two decades. As FAIR’s senior analyst Steve Rendall recently noted on the FAIR Blog, in 1992, Will so grossly misrepresented a Gallup poll on scientists’ views on climate change that Gallup took the rare step of issuing a written correction to Will’s column. A decade before that, Will made such a glaring factual error in a column published in Newsweek that the magazine took the unusual step of agreeing to publish a letter by Noam Chomsky (Will managed to block the letter’s publication by throwing a temper tantrum.)
“The thing you’ve got to understand,” a source familiar with both Judy and the inner workings of the Times told me, “is that every big decision that comes out of the Times comes directly from the top. Nobody does anything there without Arthur Sulzberger’s approval. It’s the larger, untold story in all of this — that he now runs the newsroom.”
Sulzberger, who succeeded his father as publisher in 1992 and chairman of the New York Times Co. in 1997, has been friends with Miller for a long time. But that doesn’t seem to be the reason behind the unequivocal stance on Miller. “You have to understand something about Arthur,” my source explained. “He’s always unequivocal. He doesn’t have another setting. You’re either his friend or his enemy. He either supports you in an extreme, almost childish, way or he won’t speak to you.”
Sulzberger has clearly chosen the extreme support path when it comes to Miller. “There are times when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience,” he said after Miller was taken to jail. “Judy has chosen such an act in honoring her promise of confidentiality to her sources.”
Atrios has hit on the problem repeatedly in the last few weeks, if in his usual oblique way, in noting that media figures reflexively appeal to their privileged status rather than expertise or a more objective definition of journalism when they complain about ruffians like Sam Stein from the Huffington Post hedging in on their turf.
If you take the last eight years in one glance, the difference between celebrity journalists and harder working kind could not be more stark. There is a reason why ordinary reporters Jane Mayer and Charlie Savage broke the major news of the Bush era while the protected kind apologized (or didn’t) for one embarrassment after another. In the current news era access to important people inherently and automatically grants status in the newsroom. If you’re a star like Judy Miller or Bob Woodward or Howard Kurtz important people with familiar names will talk to you. For reasons that must seem pretty stupid by now, everyone just assumed that super access would translate into big awesome stories.
Bushies, of course, figured out the weakness in that formula long before news outlets did. As a rule people with household names have the most reason to obfuscate, spin and lie. In particular Bush officials f*cking lied about everything. One could go so far as to say that the Bush team managed this unfortunate system with all the talent that they never showed for crafting policy. A reporter who worships access will re-print any moronic crap you tell him. Better yet, if you make the reporter run enough blatant lies you put her in a position where accounting for the bullshit will wreck both your career and hers. Best of all, the magic that kept the whole system running for so long that Fred Hiatt still hates Iraq war skeptics with the heat of a thousand suns, is how the system automatically placed the easiest reporters to manipulate at the very top of the newsroom food chain.
This would all be a funny sad story except that the same schmucks still run newsrooms and they still have a lot to lose. The tension between honest reporting and covering of important asses will keep taking the jobs of good people like Froomkin until the schmucks either go away or accept the full scope of their failure.