Attack Dog Jennifer Rubin Muddies the Washington Post's Reputation

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.

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.

Tags: eric alterman, jennifer rubin, washington post

    • Eric Alterman
    • Eric Alterman is an award-winning writer and professor. He writes a regular column for The Nation magazine and is a senior fellow at American Progress in Washington, D.C., where he writes and edits the “Think Again” column. Alterman is the author of eight books, including the bestselling What Liberal Media? The Truth...

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