The Washington Post's Problem
The Washington Post building in Washington, Friday, November 3, 2006. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
It is no secret to anyone that conservatives have conducted a remarkably successful, decades-long campaign to undermine the practice of honest, aggressive journalism with trumped-up accusations of liberal bias. They have made massive investments of time and money in groups and individuals devoted to “working the refs,” and these have yielded significant ideological dividends—which, as might be predicted, have only encouraged them to keep it up.
To the extent that conservatives face any difficulty achieving a hearing for their views in journalism (or in academia, for that matter), the phenomenon is less the result of purposeful exclusion than a function of a commitment to maintaining professional standards. To be a good journalist or scholar, one must be willing to follow one’s research wherever it may lead. This is one reason, among many, that conservatives have so far proven almost completely unsuccessful in nurturing and training actual journalists—i.e., those who put evidence before ideology in determining the truth of a given story before explaining it to readers and viewers. Thus, while no newspaper or television news program is without a bevy of right-wing commentators, conservatives remain rare in the nation’s newsrooms. Their absence is evident in the conservative media as well. Take a look at almost any conservative website, TV or radio program, or print publication and you will likely find a mix of ideological cheerleading for its own team and invective aimed at its perceived opponents, glued together by an avalanche of frequently unsubstantiated, tabloid-style gossip and purposeful political rumor-mongering. This has been the formula for almost every one of Rupert Murdoch’s publications (along with some illegal phone tapping and official bribery) as well as the most successful right-wing media personalities, among them Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Andrew Breitbart. It is also undoubtedly the key reason why their consumers are so misinformed. For instance, against all imaginable evidence, 63 percent of Republican respondents polled in late April and early May 2012 continue to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, while approximately the same number say they think President Obama was born outside the United States.
As the newspaper of the nation’s capital—and, hence, the capital of conservative power—the Washington Post has been more susceptible to political pressure than most media institutions. In the past, the paper sought to purchase peace with far-right critics by occasionally kowtowing to conservative narrative structures in its news stories and, far more significant, by providing space on its op-ed page to a plethora of right-wing pundits. Indeed, with George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Kathleen Parker, Mike Gerson, Marc Thiessen, Robert Kagan and the like, there’s clearly no shortage of right-wing voices in the Post’s opinion pages. Nor is there any shortage of right-wing misinformation, as in the case of Will’s widely derided arguments for climate-change denialism or Thiessen’s fervid romance with Bush-era torture.
But with the advent of blogging as a key component of contemporary journalism, the paper faced a new problem. It goes without saying that the Post should employ a conservative blogger. On the liberal side, it boasts Greg Sargent, a hard-working professional journalist who advances news stories regardless of whether they critique or flatter his own side. But the liberal blogosphere is filled with many such reporters, trained at places like The American Prospect (where Sargent previously worked), The Nation, Think Progress, Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post and so forth. On the right, however, such journalistic bona fides are rare indeed. Here, the conservative lack of emphasis on—or interest in—the independent investigation of facts ran up against the Post’s need to maintain its traditional reporting standards. As Andrew Ferguson of the neoconservative Weekly Standard admits, “The great missing element in conservative opinion journalism has been reporters.”
The Post was forced to address this conundrum as it simultaneously grappled with a series of undoubtedly more serious challenges, ones that may threaten its very survival. These included the collapse of its business model—something all newspapers face—and a steep decline in the power and prestige of its product. It has recently lost many storied practitioners to its competitors, including not only the (now vastly superior) New York Times but also Politico, whose frenetic, up-to-the-millisecond political coverage almost always beats that of the Post. Add to this a crisis of leadership at the top after attempts by the paper’s publisher and president to exploit its journalistic power for cash via expensive, exclusive salons, followed by a failed cover-up by executive editor Marcus Brauchli of his own role in them; and then attempts by Post Company chair and CEO Donald Graham to lobby lawmakers for favors for the paper’s sister enterprise, the Kaplan Higher Education Company, whose nefarious activities in the world of for-profit education have been the subject of considerable media and official scrutiny. Then throw in the effects of endless rounds of buyouts of the paper’s most experienced (and therefore expensive) reporters and editors, the closing of every last one of its national bureaus, its shutout at the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes, and many more problems than we have room to mention here, and you have a crisis of institutional self-confidence for the paper’s leadership—a crisis that has naturally made it harder for the Post to resist the ideological pressure on its journalism that conservatives are so adept at applying.
All of this is evident in the ongoing saga—one might say “crisis”—of the Post and its conservative bloggers.
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The Post’s first attempt to fill this position lasted all of seventy-two hours. Twenty-four-year-old Ben Domenech had been a low-level Republican staffer before beginning to blog on the right-wing site Redstate.org, where he established a name for himself by referring to Coretta Scott King as a communist on the day of her funeral and suggesting that gay blogger Andrew Sullivan needed “a woman to give him some stability.” He termed the members of the Supreme Court “worse then [sic] the KKK,” dubbed filmmaker Michael Moore “Fatty Fat Fat Fat,” and called then–Post blogger Dan Froomkin “a lying weasel-faced Democrat shill.” Such juvenile name-calling apparently made him attractive to the Post editors who hired him in 2006, but unfortunately it was accompanied by a predilection for plagiarism as well. After liberal bloggers revealed numerous such examples in Domenech’s work, Post editors had no choice but to ditch their damaged goods with a minimum of ceremony and a maximum of professional embarrassment.
Once bitten, the editors waited nearly four years before settling on a replacement, Reason.com’s Dave Weigel. A left-wing libertarian, Weigel did a fine job with his straightforward coverage of the conservative movement—so much so that high-profile conservatives like David Frum and Ross Douthat praised his reporting. So, too, did executive editor Brauchli, who noted that “Dave did excellent work for us.” Unfortunately, Weigel made some unflattering comments about individual conservatives on a private, now defunct liberal listserv called Journolist. When these were leaked to various blogs, Post editors went into a collective tizzy. “We can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work,” Brauchli announced. The Post needed to be “completely transparent about what people do…and completely transparent about where people stand.” And so Weigel had to go as well.
Brauchli’s explanation for Weigel’s forced departure, however high-minded, was actually nonsensical. The Post has traditionally employed all kinds of journalists with all kinds of opinions. Privileged reporters like the late David Broder were invited to write a front-page news story one day, an opinion column on the same topic for the op-ed page the next, and then give a paid speech about it on a third. Current Post columnist Dana Milbank joked that Hillary Clinton was a consumer of “Mad Bitch” beer in an attempt at humor on the paper’s website, and he also called journalist Nico Pitney a “dick” in a CNN studio—and yet his job at the paper remained secure. The problem with Weigel, it appears, was not his comments, but rather that the Post’s editors had apparently been under the misapprehension that he was a right-winger when they hired him and hence might appease the right’s unhappiness with the paper. The Post’s then-ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, admitted as much when he explained, “Weigel’s exit, and the events that prompted it, have further damaged the Post among conservatives who believe it is not properly attuned to their ideology or activities.” Alexander went on: “Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.” In other words, the journalistic quality of Weigel’s work was irrelevant to his hiring and his (effective) firing. What mattered was his ideology.
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The Post’s third (and so far final) attempt to “address” conservative “concerns” in a way that might be more “properly attuned to their ideology” came with the hiring of Jennifer Rubin. Like Domenech, Rubin was hired as an ideologue, not a journalist. A former Hollywood lawyer without a single article to her credit before 2007, she had worked briefly as an editor for the right-wing Pajamas Media and as a blogger for Commentary, where she developed a specialty in venomous attacks on liberal American Jews who deviated from the magazine’s hard-line pro-Likud policies. At the time of Rubin’s hiring by the Post, her op-ed page editor, Fred Hiatt, admitted that he “did not read her regularly.” Perhaps he should have. At Commentary, Rubin’s fulminations were frequently at odds not only with any conceivable journalistic justification but also with simple common sense. For instance, she published a 3,800-word article investigating the reason American Jews supposedly “hate” Sarah Palin, in which she managed to quote exactly one American Jew (Naomi Wolf). In so doing, she ignored an avalanche of polling data demonstrating that American Jews did not “hate” Palin any more or less than most Americans—especially liberals. “In a strikingly unified response from liberals as well as conservatives,” an Atlantic writer noted of the article, “most commentators are trashing the piece as illogical, poorly-argued, and anti-Semitic.” In addition to her animus toward dovish and liberal American Jews—which, by the way, is most of them—Rubin displayed an obsessive antipathy toward President Obama. Indulging the most paranoid ravings of right-wing jingoists, for instance, she insisted the president’s “sympathies for the Muslim World takes precedence over those, such as they are, for his fellow citizens.” She accused him of being “the most anti-Israel U.S. president (ever),” and insisted that supporters of Israel “must figure out how (quite literally) the Jewish state is to survive the Obama presidency.” Even more egregiously, Rubin quoted, in apparent approval, an elderly Jewish woman in Florida who professed to see “parallels” between Nazi Germany under Hitler and the United States of America under Barack Obama.
Rubin’s work first came to widespread public attention in July 2011, when, immediately after two related terrorist attacks in Norway that resulted in nearly eighty fatalities, she wrote, “There is a specific jihadist connection here.” Rubin insisted that the bombing and shooting rampage proved “a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists,” and then used the balance of her post to attack Senator Saxby Chambliss, who “would have us believe that enormous defense cuts would not affect our national security,” as well as President Obama, who “would have us believe that al-Qaeda is almost caput and that we can wrap up things in Afghanistan.” She followed up that post with a tweet: “Norway bombing and why we shouldn’t slash defense—IT IS A DANGEROUS WORLD.”
The murderer, of course, had no “jihadist connection” whatsoever but turned out to be a blond, blue-eyed, pro-Zionist Norwegian right-winger, Anders Behring Breivik.
When Rubin returned to her blog, she exacerbated her problem by doubling down on her faulty logic and foolish clichés: “That the suspect here is a blond Norwegian does not support the proposition that we can rest easy with regard to the panoply of threats we face or that homeland security, intelligence and traditional military can be pruned back.” As before, just who was putting forth such a “proposition” went unnamed. “To the contrary,” she continued, “the world remains very dangerous because very bad people will do horrendous things.”
Finding the paper in the midst of yet another contretemps over its conservative blogger, Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton weighed in, acknowledging Rubin’s mistake but largely excusing the weakness of her column and her tardiness in correcting it by citing “several factors,” particularly her “faith”:
What compounded Rubin’s error is that she let her 5 p.m. Friday post remain uncorrected for more than 24 hours. She wrote four other unrelated blog posts that night, through about 9 p.m. Police officials in Norway at 8:33 p.m. Washington time had made their first statement that the suspect had no connection to international terrorism or Muslims. Rubin should have rechecked the facts before signing off, and Post editors should have thought about editing her post more that night.
But Rubin has a good defense. She is Jewish. She generally observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; she doesn’t blog, doesn’t tweet, doesn’t respond to reader e-mails.
When she went online at 8 p.m. Saturday, her mea culpa post on Norway was the first thing she posted….
The Sabbath defense would be interesting if it held up, but as I noted in a column for the Center for American Progress, it doesn’t. Wired blogger Spencer Ackerman, who had speculated similarly, managed to correct his blog entry at 7:45 pm, forty-five minutes before the Norwegian authorities’ announcement. He wrote that his mistake “should teach all of us in the media—this blog included—a lesson about immediately jumping to ‘jihadi!’ conclusions.” What’s more, sunset (the moment the Jewish Sabbath begins) occurred that evening at 8:20 pm in Washington, DC—thirty-five minutes after Ackerman managed to correct his own mistake, and well before Rubin posted the final of her four items that evening.
Pexton went on to note in Rubin’s defense that “liberals and conservatives don’t talk to each other much anymore; they exist in parallel online universes, only crossing over to grab some explosive anti-matter from the other side to stoke the rage in their own blogosphere”—an odd complaint for a newspaper that purposely segregates its pundits into “left-leaning” and “right-leaning” camps. So “if your politics are liberal and you don’t generally read Rubin, but you read her Norway posts, you probably would be pretty offended. But if you are a conservative, or someone who reads Rubin regularly, you’ll know that this is what she does and who she is.”
This was yet another amazing admission on the part of the Post. For what Pexton was saying is that Rubin’s regular readers—i.e., conservatives—should not be expected to value journalistic accuracy, because this is not “what she does and who she is.” And here the Post was more than happy to oblige.
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A second Rubin-related crisis occurred not long after, in October 2011, on the release of Israeli kidnap victim Gilad Shalit by his Hamas captors. Rubin, who as a Post employee had traveled to Israel at the expense of the anti-Obama Emergency Committee for Israel, chose to retweet a message from one of its co-founders, Rachel Abrams (wife of Elliott Abrams, stepdaughter of Norman Podhoretz and sister of John Podhoretz). It read: “gilad is free and home. now round up his death-worshiping captors and turn them into food for sharks,” and linked to a blog post that elaborated on the point:
Then round up his captors, the slaughtering, death-worshiping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages who dip their hands in blood and use women—those who aren’t strapping bombs to their own devils’ spawn and sending them out to meet their seventy-two virgins by taking the lives of the school-bus-riding, heart-drawing, Transformer-doodling, homework-losing children of Others—and their offspring—those who haven’t already been pimped out by their mothers to the murder god—as shields, hiding behind their burkas and cradles like the unmanned animals they are, and throw them not into your prisons, where they can bide until they’re traded by the thousands for another child of Israel, but into the sea, to float there, food for sharks, stargazers, and whatever other oceanic carnivores God has put there for the purpose.
Shocking as the hatred, violence, racism and malevolence contained in the Abrams/Rubin tweet was, such sentiments were not entirely new to Rubin’s readers. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Ali Gharib noted that Rubin had “at least four times…quoted, linked to, and endorsed Rachel Abrams’s notion that Jews in America have a ‘sick addiction’ (in Rubin and Abrams’s words) to the Democratic Party.” Pexton got off the bus here and cited the Post’s digital guidelines for social media, which note that Post bloggers “reflect upon the reputation and credibility of The Washington Post’s newsroom,” and hence “must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence.” But by embracing what Pexton termed “the Abrams brand of incendiary rhetoric,” which “pollutes our discourse and erodes the soil on which reasonable solutions and compromises can be built,” the Post ombudsman concluded that Rubin’s actions constituted “a huge disappointment.”
It was editorial-page editor Hiatt’s opinion that mattered, though, and he stood by his woman. Asked by Gharib specifically about the “sick addiction” that Rubin attributed to American Jews, Hiatt replied, “As a general matter, I agree with you about the demonization of opponents by means of using terms of mental illness…. I haven’t attempted to censor columnists who use such terminology, but I don’t like it much.”
These were some of Rubin’s most high-profile journalistic transgressions, but they are hardly the only ones. Indeed, barely a day goes by without a Rubin post filled with nasty name-calling attacks on a group or individual she deems overly dovish on Israel. For instance, Rubin has constantly berated the “fraudulent…faux ‘human rights’ groups that provide cover for de-legitimizers of the Jewish state,” as well as that alleged “all-star…Israel-hater” Daniel Levy, former Israeli peace negotiator and adviser to Ehud Barak, and “the not-very-pro-peace, pro-Israel J Street,” among many possible examples.
Rubin’s obsession with Barack Obama hasn’t mellowed much either. She still attacks him, Likud-style, as an “apt negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians and a thorn in Israel’s side,” who has “alienated Jewish voters” and “re-McGovernized the [Democratic] party, which now stands for appeasing despotic powers, turning on allies and slashing defense spending.” (Rubin fails to mention that virtually every poll of Jewish voters has put Obama’s level of support at well over 60 percent—his most loyal constituency after African-Americans.) And while the talk of Nazis and Obama’s alleged love for Islam have been tamed a bit, Rubin’s penchant for hate-filled fantasy has not. When, for instance, Obama used the phrase “thinly veiled social Darwinism” to describe Paul Ryan’s budget, she claimed, “The supposedly erudite Obama labeled Ryan a race supremacist,” adding, “Either the president is ignorant of the term he used or he’s getting an early jump on playing the race card. In either event, it’s uncalled for and repulsive.” Nonsense. “Social Darwinism” is understood by all but Rubin to refer to an economic philosophy championed by Herbert Spencer, among others, that promotes the so-called survival of the fittest. Race is not entirely ignored in the most famous examination of the term, Richard Hofstadter’s 1944 Social Darwinism in American Thought, but the historian’s focus is on its class applications, which have traditionally been used to build support for laissez-faire economics of the kind Ryan espouses (minus his fondness for corporate welfare, of course).
No less transparent than Rubin’s Obama hatred has been her slavish devotion to the political fortunes of Mitt Romney. Not surprisingly, her affection tends to take the form of abusive invective directed toward Romney’s opponents. As several candidates challenging Romney saw their fortunes rise during the Republican primary season, each one also came in for highly personal attacks from Rubin. When Rick Perry appeared to be Romney’s main rival, she lambasted him in eight posts in a single day, according to Politico, and wrote sixty columns overall adding up to 38,722 words—including “sleepy,” “hostile,” “dreadful,” “provincial,” “cloying” and “buffoon.” When Newt Gingrich was the flavor of the month, Rubin termed him an “egomaniac” whose “hyperbolic rhetoric” would leave the GOP “(correctly) mocked.” When Rick Santorum was barely registering as the (even more) conservative alternative to Romney—but one who proved a useful hammer with which to beat Gingrich—Rubin wrote post after post singing his praises, noting that “in comparison to his opponents, [Santorum] has come to be seen as a practical politician rather than an ideological zealot.” Once Santorum appeared to be a threat to Romney, however, Rubin gave him the treatment previously meted out to Perry and Gingrich: the same fellow she had insisted was “no extremist” would likely be labeled a “‘wacko’ and ‘zealot’” by most Americans once they got wind of his positions, she now argued.
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It is true that the Washington Post has bigger problems than the serial inaccuracy and incivility of its right-wing blogger. Indeed, it may appear to some to be a frivolous concern at a time when the institution’s survival may be at stake. But the question for the house that Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham built is not merely whether it will survive, but how. Will the paper’s various troubles drag down its journalistic practices to the point where it can no longer be depended on to stand up to powerful interests—something that once made it such an important newspaper?
In his engaging portrait of Bradlee, Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman recounts an incident from 1969 in which two young Post reporters, Leonard Downie and Jim Hoagland, had worked for months on a story about racial discrimination in the Washington savings-and-loan industry. Titled “Mortgaging the Ghetto,” it was scheduled to run over a ten-day period. Just before that happened, a group representing the industry went to Bradlee’s office and told him that if the series ran, they would pull all their advertising from the paper—representing, even then, about $1 million in revenue. What did Bradlee tell Downie? “He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, ‘Just get it right, kid,’ and walked away.”
The series ran. The advertising was pulled. And the Post went on to become the great newspaper that not only set a standard for accuracy and bravery in the profession, but helped to demonstrate the power (and beauty) of the First Amendment in American democracy. That the same institution that risked so much for so long simply to “get it right” now publishes—and defends—a writer who cares nothing for the truth, but rather dedicates herself to spewing childish insults at the president of the United States as well as the millions of people who reject her ideological obsessions, is a potent symbol of how far it has fallen. In its desperation to appease conservative critics, the paper has created the perception that it is willing to sacrifice the very values and practices that, in a previous era, defined its purpose. And no less disturbing: no one in a position of authority appears even to care.