Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, August 12, 2013 6:16 pm

Quote of the day, newspaper-industry edition:

Charlie Pierce:

Nobody, I assure you, knows anything. They’re just bailing like hell, and people like [Washington Post buyer Jeff] Bezos and [Boston Globe buyer John] Henry are the newest, shiniest buckets.

In the case of the Post, I suppose it’s possible that Bezos will bring Amazon.com’s customer-service technical know-how to the business side in salutary ways. But the content side has problems you don’t have to be a technology entrepreneur to see: It’s too focused on the horse race at the expense of policy coverage, it’s too focused on inside-the-Beltway middle-school cat fights at the expense of the kind of policy reporting a national newspaper ought to strive to provide, and its op-ed page is, with a few honorable exceptions, staffed with hacks who are either flat wrong or else clinging to a world view that went out of style the day after the Berlin Wall fell. His best hope is to turn the Post into an online-first operation and then look for ways to phase out or kill the print edition, and even he seems in no hurry to do that.

As for Henry, it’s hard to see what he gets out of this besides (even more of) a megaphone for his Boston Red Sox. He’s paying 5% of what the New York Times paid for the Globe 20 years ago and no matter what he does, he’ll be lucky to sell at a profit in his remaining lifetime.

Thursday, October 18, 2012 6:56 pm

Our terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad news media and the deficit; or, Don’t point that gun unless …

Economist Dean Baker:

In the middle of a steep recession, any measure that reduces the deficit will cost jobs. That is because it will reduce demand. If anyone wants to see a lower deficit in 2013 (certainly the Post does), then they want to throw people out of work.

This is sort of like pulling the trigger on a gun pointed at someone’s head. Presumably this is not done unless the desire is to see the person dead.

 

Monday, August 6, 2012 7:23 pm

An hour of work, a quarter-century of drift

J-prof Jay Rosen finds the biggest problem in American political “journalism” in one short blog post at The Washington Post.

Count me in the “Fight for what is true” crew.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 8:04 pm

Dean Baker sums up our economic, political and journalistic problems in three short paragraphs

Baker:

Dana Milbank devoted his [Washington Post] column to the disenchantment of progressives with the current political situation. At one point he comments that “the still-lumbering economy has depressed President Obama’s supporters.”

While this is no doubt true, it is worth mentioning that just about all progressives said at the time that the stimulus would be inadequate to restore the economy to a healthy growth path. The collapse of the housing bubble destroyed close to $1.2 trillion in annual demand from construction and consumption. At its peak in 2009 and 2010 the stimulus only replaced about $300 billion in annual spending.

It is discouraging to see so many people suffering unnecessarily, but this outcome is exactly what our analysis predicted at the time. Unfortunately, having a track record of being right is not generally a factor in determining which views carry weight in Washington policy debates.

Somebody tell me again how the U.S. is a meritocracy. Or, as Driftglass famously observed:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 8:22 pm

Just Die Already, Washington Post, Ruth Marcus ahistoricity edition

In the place, time and culture in which I was reared, it was considered rude to draw attention to the fact that members of the fairer sex might have had the unmitigated gall to have survived on the planet in excess of four decades. Indeed, acknowledging the passage of three decades since a gentlewoman’s birth was permitted only on the occasion of her 30th birthday, whereupon she was then presumed to be 29 for the remainder of her days.

I’m so over that now.

I am 52 years old. Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post is, I believe it is fair to say, older than I am, which point I mention to highlight the fact that in both her recent criticism of President Obama for criticizing the Supreme Court and, in the same piece, her defense of that court — in whose recent oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act one could effortlessly find some of the most mendacious arguments in recent American jurisprudence — this one-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize demonstrates that she is a contextual liar, a lousy reporter, an incipient dementia patient or just batshit insane and, in any of those cases, unfit to hold her current job, because even during her adult lifetime, other presidents have said much worse things about the courts.

First, here is what President Obama said during a news conference:

Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.  And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint — that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.  Well, this is a good example.

Marcus called the president’s remarks “rather unsettling” and added:

… Obama’s assault on “an unelected group of people” stopped me cold. Because, as the former constitutional law professor certainly understands, it is the essence of our governmental system to vest in the court the ultimate power to decide the meaning of the constitution. Even if, as the president said, it means overturning “a duly constituted and passed law.”

Of course, acts of Congress are entitled to judicial deference and a presumption of constitutionality.  The decision to declare a statute unconstitutional, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1927, is “the gravest and most delicate duty that this court is called on to perform.”

But the president went too far in asserting that it “would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step” for the court to overturn “a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”  That’s what courts have done since Marbury v. Madison.  The size of the congressional majority is of no constitutional significance. We give the ultimate authority to decide constitutional questions to “a group of unelected people” precisely to insulate them from public opinion.

I actually agree with her in principle, and if this discussion were only about principle, her column would be unremarkable. But it isn’t only about principle, as any halfway conscious follower of the Supreme Court must know, because Obama’s remarks were not delivered in a vacuum.

A former constitutional law professor himself, he appears aware, as Marcus does not, that the conservative wing of the current court has abandoned its longstanding pretense that its rulings were based not on rightist ideology so much as on wanting to avoid “judicial activism” — making law from the bench rather than soberly assessing the constitutionality of congressional legislation and overturning it only when it violated the Constitution.

Now, that group — John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, with Anthony Kennedy and on-again, off-again member — is behaving as if the authority to decide major constitutional questions even at the expense of overturning legislation is not Holmes’s “grave and delicate duty” so much as it is Archimedes’s lever to move the world — back to a place and time in which the wealthy and corporations called the shots, a time both economically inefficient and thoroughly un-American.

And this trend is not new, not anything that could have sneaked up on Marcus; Jeffrey Rosen identified the trend five years ago in The New Yorker. After last week’s oral arguments on the health-care law, Jonathan Chait comments:

What made Rosen’s piece so shocking was that, for decades, judicial activism had been primarily associated with the left — liberal judges handed down broad readings of laws to expand rights, enraging conservatives who believed they were taking upon themselves decisions better left to democratic channels. Their complaints were not wholly unfounded — even if you support, say, abortion rights, as I do, the notion that the Constitution requires the right to an abortion is quite a stretch of judicial activism. The whole conservative legal and political movement had come to orient itself around opposition to judicial activism, which actually remains the term Republican politicians use to disparage liberal judges.

The only thing Rosen truly failed to anticipate in his piece was how quickly Republican judges would pivot from impassioned defenses of judicial restraint to judicial activism when the opportunity arose to deploy it in their party’s behalf. In the piece, he described Antonin Scalia as a fierce opponent of this movement. Scalia, wrote Rosen, “was not in favor of striking down laws in the name of ambiguous and contestable economic rights.” At one point Scalia attacked the movement to read economic rights into the Constitution as a “threat to constitutional democracy.”

The spectacle before the Supreme Court this week is Republican justices seizing the chance to overturn the decisions of democratically-elected bodies. At times the deliberations of the Republican justices are impossible to distinguish from the deliberations of Republican senators.

The blogger NYCSouthpaw explains exactly how Scalia, in particular, has flip-flopped dramatically in a relatively short time. In the 2005 case Gonzalez v. Raich, Scalia wrote in a concurring opinion that a 1937 case, National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Lauglin Steel Corp., gave Congress the right not only to regulate interstate commerce but also to regulate things that, while not commerce themselves, could substantially affect interstate commerce. The court in that case found that Congress had the power to do so under the “necessary and proper clause” of the Constitution, which basically holds that Congress can do anything not otherwise banned by the Constitution if it is a “necessary and proper” way to carry out constitutionally permitted responsibilities.

Scalia made that argument in support of prosecuting a guy in California who was growing marijuana in his own back yard for his own personal use, so as you can see, he took a very broad view then of what Congress can do to regulate “interstate commerce.” Writes NYCSouthpaw:

So, two things to note that Scalia says [in his Raich concurrence]:

  1. Activities that substantially affect interstate commerce are not, themselves, commerce.
  2. A 1937 labor rights case, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., permits the regulation of activities that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce (i.e. not commerce).

Now look back up at Scalia’s exchange with [Solicitor General Donald] Verrilli [during health-care act oral arguments].  That 1937 case, Jones & Laughlin, is the very one that Verrilli is referring to.  Verrilli uses Jones & Laughlin to try to persuade Scalia that the Supreme Court often extends Commerce Clause authority to new areas that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce (in that case, unions, in this case, health care).

But Scalia shuts him down, saying that “there was no doubt” that “what was being regulated” in Jones & Laughlin “was commerce.”  That’s the flip flop.

For a good recent example of the court’s situational jurisprudence, one need look no further than Citizens United — not only for the substance of the ruling, which not only continued but expanded the conflation of speech with purchased audience begun by the court in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, but also for the unseemly and actually unprecedented way in which the court practically begged other parties to bring challenges to the law as it then stood. Normally, the Supreme Court lets cases  “ripen” — letting real litigation involving real people work its way through trial courts and appeal courts in the ordinary course of time. As Henry Aaron, senior economics fellow at the Brookings Institute, points out, the argument that the act’s requirement to buy health insurance constitutes a “tax” normally couldn’t even have been litigated, let alone gotten to the Supreme Court, until someone had first actually been made to pay for insurance. And that requirement doesn’t take effect until 2015. (Granted, the ACA cases appear to have been heard on a somewhat accelerated schedule once appeals courts ruled, but only because proponents, opponents and the justices alike all saw benefit, for various reasons, resolving the contradictions among the appeals rulings quickly. And it is hard to argue that the American people, many of whose lives will be dramatically affected by the outcome either way, were harmed by that acceleration.)

Marcus, with her Harvard Law degree and her years of covering the Supreme Court for The Washington Post and her near-Pulitzer-worthy status, either is unaware of this context of conservative justices’ recent behavior, or she is deliberately ignoring it.

She also appears historically unaware — almost a capital offense among students of Supreme Court jurisprudence — that Obama is far from the first president to gripe about unelected justices. That griping has continued without surcease at least since Marbury v. Madison 200 years ago, a case of which Marcus, at least, claims to be aware. But Marcus, like many denizens of what blogger Digby likes to call The Village — the Washington government/media establishment that vigorously defends any encroachment on the privileges of wealth and power, leaning Republican although it’s frequently less a matter of partisanship than of differences with those who are Not Our Kind, Dear — criticizes Obama’s recognition of reality without the slightest hint of acknowledgment that far worse has gone before. Consider this remark from then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980:

The former California governor, campaigning in Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, blasted the court’s most recent abortion ruling as “an abuse of power as bad as the transgression of Watergate and bribery on Capitol Hill.”

Yeah, because engaging realitically with the practical ramifications of a law is just like felony bribery, burglary, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. (Also, isn’t it quaint how Republicans a generation ago acknowledged that Watergate really was a crime rather than a liberal media coup? But I digress.)

(UPDATE, 4/6: And how could I forget this not-so-golden not-so-oldie from Newt Gingrich, which Marcus appears to have let go by without comment, let alone criticism? Newt Gingrich pledged not only to “abolish whole courts to be rid of judges whose decisions he feels are out of step with the country” — which is constitutional, but only if Congress legislates it and the president signs off or allows the bill to become law without his signature; Congress also can, of course, impeach federal judges individually and remove them from office without affecting the existence of the judgeships themselves  — but also to “send federal law enforcement authorities to arrest judges who make controversial rulings in order to compel them to justify their decisions before congressional hearings,” which is unconstitutional on its face.)

That’s bad enough. But then consider Marcus’s expert’s summary of what the justices actually did during oral arguments:

I would lament a ruling striking down the individual mandate, but I would not denounce it as conservative justices run amok.  Listening to the arguments and reading the transcript, the justices struck me as a group wrestling with a legitimate, even difficult, constitutional question.  For the president to imply that the only explanation for a constitutional conclusion contrary to his own would be out-of-control conservative justices does the court a disservice.

Contrast that analysis with this one from Amy Davidson of The New Yorker. Granted, Ms. Davidson has never come within sniffing distance of a Pulitzer Prize that I know of, but unlike Marcus, she appears actually to have been present at the arguments and/or read the transcripts:

Here’s where a person could lose just a little bit of patience with the Supreme Court: in the midst of an exchange with Deputy Solicitor Edwin Kneedler, Justice Antonin Scalia saw an obstacle he didn’t like:

JUSTICE SCALIA: You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages?

(Laughter.)

JUSTICE SCALIA: And do you really expect the Court to do that? Or do you expect us to give this function to our law clerks?

(Laughter.)

JUSTICE SCALIA: Is this not totally unrealistic? That we’re going to go through this enormous bill item by item and decide each one?

The twenty-seven hundred pages make up the text of the Patients Protection and Affordable Care Act. Put aside, for the moment, the matter of the mandate and “severability” and “community ratings” and all the rest. If the Justices—or their clerks—need to read through a law to figure out whether it’s constitutional, it shouldn’t matter whether the law is twenty-seven pages or twenty-seven thousand (those numbers are divisible by nine, so they can split them up). Perhaps that’s a civilian’s view, and that’s not how things work in the Court these days. … But it’s a good bet that there are many, many Americans whose chronic illnesses or health crises have generated far more than twenty-seven hundred pieces of paper, from doctors and hospitals and labs and insurers and, in too many cases, ultimately from collection agencies. Even if you’re covered, the broken state of the health-care system has meant hard work, and hardship, for millions of people.

One might be inclined to give Scalia the benefit of the doubt on a bad joke here, if not for the fact that, as Davidson’s colleague Ryan Lizza noted, he actually didn’t know what was in the bill:

2. Justice Antonin Scalia: “All right. The consequence of your proposition, would Congress have enacted it without this provision, okay that’s the consequence. That would mean that if we struck down nothing in this legislation but the—what do you call it, the corn husker kickback, okay, we find that to violate the constitutional proscription of venality, okay? (Laughter.) When we strike that down, it’s clear that Congress would not have passed it without that. It was the means of getting the last necessary vote in the Senate. And you are telling us that the whole statute would fall because the corn husker kickback is bad. That can’t be right.” (N.B.: The so-called Cornhusker kickback was repealed by Congress only days after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.)

Sadly, that wasn’t the only example.  I know no more about insurance than any other insurance agent’s son, but it was clear even to me that the conservative justices either didn’t know or were pretending now to know how insurance works. Put simply, and this has been the case since the English began colonizing North America, it is a mechanism for spreading risk. But don’t take my word for it; Aaron at Brookings, linked above, discusses it in pretty simple language:

Several of the justices, notably Scalia and Alito, responded to the externalities argument by saying that every economic transaction creates similar externalities. “If I don’t buy a Volt, I raise the price of Volts,” said Scalia. Alito said much the same thing. So did Paul Clement’s brief for the plaintiffs.

This response was and is bad economics. It is true that every commodity is produced along what economists call a “cost curve”—raising output may lower average or marginal unit costs by spreading overhead or achieving economies of scale, but it may also raise costs by forcing up the cost of inputs or incurring diseconomies of scale. None of this occasions concerns about fairness or free-loading or, to use the economist’s term, “externalities.” But the cost shifting that occurs when uninsured patients fail to pay their bills does; it causes one group—the insured—to have to pay part of the cost of services others use.

Perhaps the most glaring instance of the failure to appreciate what an externality really is came from Justice Alito who at one point challenged the solicitor general by positing that the cost of all of the care currently used by those who are uninsured is less than would be the cost of the insurance they would be forced to carry. That being the case, Alito asked, how can one say that the uninsured are shifting costs to the insured? This query is painfully detached from an understanding of what an externality really is, how insurance works, or what the impact of insurance would be on service use.

Kevin Outterson, a Boston University law professor who co-directs the No. 2 health-law education program in the country, is even blunter:

On Tuesday, several Republican Justices and the Solicitor General displayed remarkably limited understanding of the nature of health insurance risk pools. If a healthy person stays out of the pool, the average costs for those left in the pool are higher. That’s not true for underwritten insurance products (such as life or auto).

So at least several of the justices didn’t understand the very nature of the industry upon which they were being asked to rule.

That’s bad enough. What worse, and has been widely remarked upon, is that not only were the justices ignorant of the industry, they were ignoring decades of settled law with respect to what Congress can and cannot do under the Constitution’s grant of power to regulate interstate commerce, spouting discredited right-wing talking points during the oral arguments and in general behaving so ignorantly that even Charles Fried, the notably liberal (that’d be irony) solicitor general during President Reagan’s second term, felt obliged to call the court out on both its tea-party talking points and its lack of principle in this Q&A, which Marcus might even have read, inasmuch as it was published by The Washington Post:

Ezra Klein: Tuesday’s arguments seemed to focus on the question of a “limiting principle.” So is there a limiting principle here?

Charles Fried: First of all, the limiting principle point kind of begs the question. It assumes there’s got to be some kind of articulatable limiting principle and that’s in the Constitution somewhere. What Chief Justice John Marshall said in 1824 is that if something is within the power of Congress, Congress may exercise that power to its fullest extent. So the question is really whether this is in the power of Congress.

Now, is it within the power of Congress? Well, the power of Congress is to regulate interstate commerce. Is health care commerce among the states? Nobody except maybe Clarence Thomas doubts that. So health care is interstate commerce. Is this a regulation of it? Yes. End of story.

Here’s another thing Marshall said. To regulate is “to make the rule for.” Does this make a rule for commerce? Yes!

EK: The Court seemed to see it as considerably more complicated than that.

CF: There’s all this stuff that got in there about creating commerce in order to regulate it. … But quite apart from that, what is the commerce? The commerce is not the health insurance market. The commerce is the health-care market, as [current solicitor general Donald] Verrilli said a million times. And it’s very hard to deny that.

There is a market for health care. It’s a coordinated market. A heavily regulated market. Is Congress creating the market in order to regulate it? It’s not creating it! The market is there! Is it forcing people into it in order to regulate them? In every five-year period, 95 percent of the population is in the health-care market. Now, it’s not 100 percent, but I’d say that’s close enough for government work. And in any one year, it’s close to 85 percent. Congress isn’t forcing people into that market to regulate them. The whole thing is just a canard that’s been invented by the tea party and Randy Barnetts [i.e., extreme libertarians; link added -- Lex] of the world, and I was astonished to hear it coming out of the mouths of the people on that bench.

And yet Marcus and her Post editors seem to think that this behavior, called out far and wide by conservative and liberal legal experts alike, constitutes “wrestling with a legitimate, even difficult, constitutional question.”

You know, it’s one thing for a fascist, racist, lying demagogue like Rush Limbaugh to call the president a thug (a word which, these days, tends to have unmistakably racist connotations) for daring to draw attention to this pattern of behavior on the part of the nation’s highest court. It’s quite another for someone who is supposed to be one of the most capable and credentialed observers of that court to write a column so contextually lacking as to constitute a major — indeed, fatal — distortion in order to make an invalid point.

But that’s what passes for journalism today at The Washington Post, which is why Marcus needs to find another line of work and the Post needs to go ahead and die.

UPDATE: And James Fallows catches the AP going all Politifact on us. Sheesh.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012 10:52 pm

This would leave a mark, if The Washington Post, the administration and Congress had any integrity

Economist Dean Baker on the Post’s reporting on unemployment:

The unemployment rate for the 30 percent of the workforce with college degrees is still more than twice its pre-recession level. If the Post had done its homework it would know that the problem is not the skill levels of unemployed workers, the problem is the skill level of people who make economic policy.

 

Thursday, June 9, 2011 8:36 pm

Why we’re done

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Evil,Journalism — Lex @ 8:36 pm
Tags:

Glenn Greenwald connects the dots to find a pattern, the logical explanation behind which is that The Washington Post, that pillar of the Establishment, no longer believes in equal justice under the law or holding the powerful accountable:

The Post Editors, July 3, 2007:

IN COMMUTING I. Lewis Libby’s prison sentence yesterday, President Bush took the advice of, among others, William Otis, a former federal prosecutor who wrote on the opposite page last month that Mr. Libby should neither be pardoned nor sent to prison. We agree that a pardon would have been inappropriate and that the prison sentence of 30 months was excessive. . . . Add to that Mr. Libby’s long and distinguished record of public service, and we sympathize with Mr. Bush’s conclusion “that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive.”

The Post Editors, October 27, 2007:

The biggest sticking point [in agreeing to a new FISA bill] concerns the question of retroactive immunity from lawsuits for communications providers that cooperated with the administration’s warrantless surveillance program. As we have said, we do not believe that these companies should be held hostage to costly litigation in what is essentially a complaint about administration activities.

The Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, August 30, 2009:

[T]his is also a nation where two political parties compete civilly and alternate power peacefully.Regimes do not seek vengeance, through the courts or otherwise, as they succeed each other. Were Obama to criminally investigate his predecessor for what George W. Bush believed to be decisions made in the national interest, it could trigger a debilitating, unending cycle. . . . There is a better, though not perfect, solution, one that the administration reportedly considered, rejected and should consider again: a high-level, respected commission to examine the choices made in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and their consequences. . . . The alternative, for Obama, is a series of debilitating revelations, prosecutions and arguments that could drip-drip-drip through the full length of his presidency.

The Post Editors, November 28, 2010:

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) schemed to get around a Texas law prohibiting corporate contributions to political campaigns . . .  .Mr. DeLay’s conduct was wrong. It was typical of his no-holds-barred approach to political combat. But when Mr. DeLay, following the conviction, assailed “the criminalization of politics,” he had a fair point.

The Post Editors, June 3, 2011:

LET’S STIPULATE: There are very likely good grounds to prosecute deposed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. . . . The decision by Egypt’s ruling military council and state prosecutors to begin a trial of the former strongman on Aug. 3 — before the country holds its first democratic elections — is nevertheless a mistake.

The Post Editors, today:

[W]e would not be particularly troubled by the effort to impose a fine [on John Edwards]. But a criminal case based on this novel application of the law goes too far. . . . Mr. Edwards is a cad, to put it mildly. His deplorable conduct would appear to have ended a once promising political career. It is troubling that the Justice Department would choose to devote its scarce resources to pursuing this questionable case.

the Post Editors on May 31:

AGENTS FROM the FBI arrested Abdullah al-Kidd at Dulles International Airport in 2003. Mr. Kidd, who was headed to Saudi Arabia to study, was wanted as a material witness in an ongoing terrorism investigation.

Mr. Kidd, a U.S. citizen whose parents and wife, also U.S. citizens, all resided in the United States, was held for 16 days in three different facilities and kept in cells that were lighted 24 hours a day; he was strip-searched multiple times. After his release, he was subjected to domestic travel restrictions for two years, forced to report his whereabouts and submit to in-home visits from a probation officer.

Mr. Kidd sued former attorney general John D. Ashcroft after the government neither charged him nor called him as a witness, arguing that Mr. Ashcroft had violated his constitutional rights by knowingly misusing the material witness warrant to detain him.On Tuesday, a unanimous Supreme Court handed federal law enforcement a victory by ruling that Mr. Kidd was barred from suing Mr. Ashcroft. It is the right decision . . . In 2003, at the time of Mr. Kidd’s arrest, no court had squarely addressed the issue of whether a material witness warrant could be used to hold an individual suspected of terrorist activity. As such, there was no way for Mr. Ashcroft to know conclusively whether such an action contravened the Constitution.

[Then there's] this April 28, 2010 Post Editorial which supports the recollection I had: in it, Post Editors defend Goldman Sachs from what it derisively calls “the blame game” and argues that the effort to ascribe culpability to the investment bank for the 2008 financial crisis “does not strike us as a terribly useful or even accurate analysis of the crisis.” Leave Goldman Sachs alone!, cry the servants of power masquerading as “journalists.”

Now, I make my claim about the Post based on inference, not deduction. But, really, is there a better explanation for the pattern Greenwald identifies?

And if The Washington Post has given up on the notion of equality under the law, then what the hell are the rest of us doing here?

Fact-checking the fact checker

The Washington Post has a guy named Glenn Kessler writing a column called “The Fact Checker: The Truth Behind the Rhetoric.” I did not know this, but then I don’t read the Post religiously; the existence of this column was brought to my attention by my friend Fred. A little box next to the column talks about all the years Kessler has spent covering this and that in the federal government. What it doesn’t indicate is the extent to which Kessler has learned anything about context.

That’s a problem, friends, because contextual accuracy is just as important as factual accuracy. It is a key element of fairness. It is an essential ingredient in determining the importance of a story. It underlies the frequency with which conservatives accuse national news media of being liberal. And, at least in this instance, it appears to be a subject with which Glenn Kessler has only glancing familiarity.

I say this because of this column, which purports to “fact-check” the president’s recent comments regarding the auto-industry bailout. Kessler focused on this passage:

“Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency — and it repaid that money six years ahead of schedule.  And this week, we reached a deal to sell our remaining stake. That means soon, Chrysler will be 100 percent in private hands.”

And here is what Kessler said about this passage:

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.

Now, “misleading” is a word most mainstream journalists overuse because they’re too bent, bought, scared or lazy to use more straightforward words like “false” or “lying.” Of course, sophisticated readers know that — and Kessler, being as experienced as the Post claims he is, probably knows that they know that. So Obama must be lying out of his ass, right?

Um, not so much. What the president says does need some contextual clarification, and in fairness to Kessler, he appears to provide that clarification with rigorous factual accuracy:

According to the White House, Obama is counting only the $8.5 billion loan that he made to Chrysler, not the $4 billion that President George W. Bush extended in his last month in office. However, Obama was not a disinterested observer at the time. According to The Washington Post article on the Bush loan, the incoming president called Bush’s action a “necessary step . . . to help avoid a collapse of our auto industry that would have had devastating consequences for our economy and our workers.”

Under the administration’s math, the U.S. government will receive $11.2 billion back from Chrysler, far more than the $8.5 billion Obama extended. …

Even the Treasury Department admits that U.S. taxpayers will not recoup about $1.3 billion of the entire $12.5 billion investment when all is said and done.

But Kessler’s tone puts his own column in need of some contextual clarification, perhaps better known as perspective. Consider this sentence:

The president snuck in the weasel words “during my presidency” in his statement. … Through this sleight-of-hand accounting, the White House can conveniently ignore Bush’s loan …

What Kessler considers “weasel words” an accountant might consider a material factual clarification — hardly “sleight-of-hand accounting.” In any event, Obama is objectively defining the time period he’s talking about, a time period for which he, not his predecessor, is directly responsible. Is his omission of the Bush Administration loan a lie? Hardly. Is it misleading? Yeah, some. One could argue that Obama is talking only about the money lent during his tenure because, arguably, that’s the only money he’s responsible for. I don’t buy that argument — as a senator, he voted for Bush’s bailout loan — but reasonable people could disagree on it.

Or you could look at it this way: It’s not that Obama spun the facts, it’s that he spun them the wrong way. Suppose, instead of using the wording he used, he had said something like this:

We loaned Chrysler $12.3 billion total during my administration and President Bush’s. Yeah, we may have to write off about 12% of that. But we saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Big Three auto makers and their suppliers. I’d do that deal again in a heartbeat.

It’s factually accurate without the misleading spin of which Kessler complains. If I were an incumbent congresscritter who had supported the bailout, particularly one with a lot of auto-industry workers in my district, I’d happily run for re-election on a line like that.

Kessler grudgingly admits that, as the president said, Chrysler will soon return to 100% private ownership. But he errs himself in arguing that “The debate was over the right course to take in the bankruptcy process. … the debate was not either [bankruptcy]/or [not], but rather what was the best policy to bring the automakers back to financial health.”

The fact of the matter was that the debate was technically about what type of bankruptcy might have been the best idea. But the important context, which Kessler glides right past, is that the result of any form of bankruptcy likely would have been the permanent loss  of hundreds of thousands of jobs. I don’t know whether Kessler is objectively pro-Republican or whether the GOP “working the refs” has him bending over backward to avoid the appearance of pro-Obama bias, but his omission of this context is every bit as bad as Obama’s and has far greater consequences.

And yet Kessler awards Obama’s comments three Pinocchios on the Post’s 1-to-4 scale. According to that scale, three Pinocchios indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” I’ll let you decide whether one Pinocchio or two is more appropriate:

  • One Pinocchio: “Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.”
  • Two Pinocchios: “Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.”

If anything, it’s Kessler who deserves three Pinocchios. His contextual shortcomings come a lot closer to the kind of material omission that constitutes a lie than did those of the president.

And here’s some more context: If Kessler wants to check some facts, he could check what government officials are saying about how we’ve coddled investment banks and why it supposedly was necessary not to let them fail.

And here’s even more context: Along with most other major national news outlets, the Post has focused its news coverage far more on the potential dangers of the current large budget deficits (primarily inflation, which, with rates on 10-year notes having fallen half a point in May, looks more remote than ever) than it has on the actual human suffering caused by years of high unemployment. With its coverage, it is saying that jobs don’t matter. That’s a value judgment, not a verifiable or disprovable factual assertion. But it says a great deal about the Post’s values, none of it flattering.

UPDATE: Kessler screws up even worse, failing to get even basic facts straight, in assigning three Pinocchios to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’s recent denigration of Rep. Paul Ryan Medicare scam. Sorry, Glenn, but when you take away Medicare, replace it with vouchers worth substantially less and dump the patients into the private insurance market, it is demonstrable with straightforward mathematics that those people will be able to afford less care. And in that age group, health problems are so common that it logically follows that with less care, a nontrivial number of those people will indeed die sooner than they otherwise would. Saying so is hardly “outrageous”; it is common sense.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 8:36 pm

Just die already, Washington Post edition (redux)

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 8:36 pm
Tags: , ,

Anne Laurie catches the Post dutifully whoring for our plutonomic corporate overlords:

The chief counsel for the president’s oil spill commission said Monday that concerns about money didn’t drive key decisions made on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig before the April 20 blowout that caused a massive oil spill and killed 11 people.

The conclusion is good news for BP, which has been widely criticized for letting concerns about the roughly $1.5 million a day cost of the drilling rig affect choices that might have prevented the blowout.

“To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety,” said Fred Bartlit, general counsel for the National Commission on the BPDeepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

He added that he didn’t believe that rig workers “want to risk their lives or the lives of their buddies.” He said: “I’ve been on a lot of rigs, and I don’t believe people sit there and say, ‘This is really dangerous, but the guys in London will make more money.’ We don’t see a concrete situation where people made a trade-off of safety for dollars.”

Laurie calls it “three-card monte,” and, indeed, the misdirection is a sight to behold. We (including government inspectors) have been talking about senior management and company policies, and yet somehow the Post manages to make it all about the roughnecks on the rigs and their immediate supervisors:

The story is no longer: BP corporate policy was to cut corners wherever possible in order to improve the profits available to the executives in the corner office, a policy that eventually led to the deaths of 19 workers and an enormous environmental disaster.

The new, improved, plutonomy-friendly story is: It would be cruel and unproductive to blame well-intentioned middle managers and hard-working rig employees of deliberately making decisions that would kill their fellows and negatively affect the company’s bottom line.

This is why the ‘Kaplan Daily’ is still publishing. In the days of a dying empire, the strategic skills—and strong stomach—required to re-write current events to better serve the Narrative preferred by the ruling class are a very, very valuable asset.

Yup. The one redeeming factor is that when the Post’s financial breakdown  finally leads  corporate parent Kaplan to usher its newsroom denizens onto the street (yet again), these culprits, like Winston Smith, will never have seen it coming.

 

 

Sunday, October 10, 2010 12:44 pm

Dear Washington Post: Just die already

Dinesh D’Souza recently published a book suggesting that President Obama is full of anger that he inherited from his anticolonialist Kenyan father. Or something like that. And Forbes magazine published a D’Souza cover story harping on the same theme.

You have to be seriously screwed up to attract criticism from the right-wing noise machine. D’Souza is seriously screwed up. Even the race-baiting, vote-suppressing Right couldn’t stomach this. Card-carrying member David Frum wrote, “When last was there such a brazen outburst of race-baiting in the service of partisan politics at the national level? George Wallace took more care to sound race-neutral.”

So you would think that any reputable news organization wouldn’t touch this crap with a 10-foot pole. And you’d be right. But The Washington Post isn’t, and for quite some time hasn’t been, a reputable news organization. A couple of days ago it published an op-ed from D’Souza rehashing some of these same themes. Even outgoing Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who never has a harsh word to say about his soon-to-be-ex-employer, found this decision inexplicable.

Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt was asked why he ran the piece. He said, “I approved publication of this Op-Ed. D’Souza’s theory has sparked a great deal of commentary, from potential presidential candidates as well as from commentators on our own pages.”

Memo to Hiatt: Lots of things spark a great deal of commentary, among them Klan marches, allegations that the president is not a U.S. citizen, and arguments in favor of creationism. But “sparking a great deal of commentary” is not, by itself, grounds for giving a wacko a forum on the op-ed page of what is supposed to be one of the country’s greatest newspapers. And the fact that I even have to explain this to you proves you are unqualified for the job you hold. And, no, publishing Michael Mann’s excellent piece calling out politicians on their hostility to the inconvenient truths yielded by disinterested scientific research doesn’t get you off the hook.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010 12:02 am

In which The Washington Post demonstrates that Old Media still do not get it …

… NYT’s David Carr has a piece up at the Times on the Dave Wiegel contretemps at The Washington Post.

For those not following along at home, which is probably all of you, Wiegel posted some derogatory (but, in at least some cases, factually accurate) things about certain prominent conservatives to a supposedly private e-mail list before becoming a reporter/blogger for the Post, covering the U.S. conservative movement. When these e-mails were made public a few months after he joined the Post, Wiegel offered the Post his resignation. The Post accepted with unseemly haste.

Carr starts out by acknowledging that Wiegel’s “job” was actually a no-win situation for its holder:

Wanted: Political blogger covering the conservative movement. Must be provocative and write with a strong point of view although not in a way that would reveal bias or offend any of your potential subjects. Social media a plus until it’s not. Must be completely transparent, unless that proves embarrassing to the newspaper. Send sanitized résumé, innocuous clips and nonpartisan references to The Washington Post.

Carr writes:

But part of working the edge is that every once in a while, you go flying off, which Mr. Weigel did rather spectacularly last weekend when a news site, The Daily Caller, published some of his contributions to JournoList, an invitation-only e-mail list composed of 400 politically interested journalists.

Looked at in the light most favorable to Carr, this sentence suggests that Wiegel was thrown off, rather than having gone off course under his own power. And if that’s what Carr meant, I’d be at least somewhat inclined to go along. Despite the common-sense dictum that everything on the Internet is public, Wiegel joined JournoList believing it to be a closed community. That’s not smart, but it is neither malicious nor proof that he cannot cover conservatives fairly and accurately.

And what were Wiegel’s offending comments? Per Carr, they were that

Mr. Weigel used the term “Paultard” to describe followers of Ron Paul and also suggested that Patrick Buchanan was “an anti-Semite” and that Newt Gingrich was an “amoral blowhard.” More recently, he wrote that Matt Drudge, the conservative aggregator and blogger behind The Drudge Report, should “set himself on fire.”

Dumb, that, especially the part about sliming both disabled people and conservatives in just eight letters …

Well, let’s take a look at that. “Paultard” is politically incorrect, certainly. But frankly, the more of Ron Paul’s views come to light, the stupider and more out of touch with reality he appears. Moreover, denigrating Ron Paul doesn’t denigrate all conservatives; it denigrates a well-defined subset whose grip on reality is, at best, tenuous. [UPDATE: Preceding two sentences edited to eliminate my conflation of Ron and Rand. Hey, it was late. Don't judge me.] Patrick Buchanan’s anti-Semitism has long since been recognized by everyone except Patrick Buchanan; it’s a fact, like oxygen. Newt Gingrich an “amoral blowhard”? Well, “blowhard” is in the eye of the beholder, but, yes, anyone who creates something like this as an instrument of campaigning/governing should consider himself lucky to get off with being dismissed as “amoral,” given what God had to say in Exodus about bearing false witness. And someone please tell me what’s so wrong with suggesting — in a joky kind of way, sort of like Rush Limbaugh’s sense of humor — that Matt Drudge should “set himself on fire,” other than what he should really do is take a long walk off a short pier so as to replenish the ecosphere and not contribute to global warming?

Considering the evil that can credibly be laid at the feet of these subjects, and the fact that Wiegel wrote this stuff before the Post hired him, this is bad … how, exactly?

Carr continues:

… but even as his resignation was offered and quickly accepted, none of the Post leadership suggested his actual work was anything less than rigorous or fair.

“Dave did excellent work for us,” the executive editor of The Post, Marcus Brauchli, told Howard Kurtz, the paper’s media columnist, but then added, “We can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work.”

So, let me make sure I understand Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli: What matters is not the quality of the reporter’s work. What matters, instead, is the opinion about him of those he covers.

Gee. I’m SO freaking glad my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John Alexander took a bunch of his sons-in-law into battle at Cowpens and Kings Mountain and Yorktown so that Marcus Brauchli could see to it that some of the most sociopathic figures in American politics don’t get a case of the vapors over something that somebody freaking wrote about them. God bless America. Seriously. I think I might weep.

This past weekend, (Brauchli) told the newspaper’s ombudsman that The Post needed to be “completely transparent about what people do … and completely transparent about where people stand.”

So, we’re now going to get completely transparent about the fact that where Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt stands is with  his lips firmly attached to Dick Cheney’s rear end? That Mark Thiessen gets sexually aroused at the thought of Abu Ghraib? That Charles Krauthammer probably shouldn’t be left unattended around little children? Well, the photos’ll be ugly, but …

And it ain’t just Brauchli who has no grip on reality:

The Post’s managing editor, Raju Narisetti, said in an earlier interview with the ombudsman that one need not be a conservative to cover conservatives. “But you do need to be impartial,” he said, adding, “It may be in our interests to ask potential reporters: ‘In private … have you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to do your job?’ ”

So: Expressing an opinion, particularly a negative one, about those one covers, makes it “difficult” for a reporter to do his job. How? Because doing so might create the perception that the reporter cannot be fair to them.

OK, I follow that logic as far as it goes. Which, unfortunately, isn’t very far, because the real test of a reporter’s work isn’t whether there’s a perception that he can’t be fair. It is whether the work he actually publishes is fair, accurate, and ethically produced. That’s all that matters. The problem a lot of conservatives have with Wiegel wasn’t that he was, or even was perceived to be, unfair. It’s that he was all too fair — so fair that he hung them with their own rope, as even “Post leadership” and Carr acknowledged (see the bolded line in the excerpt above).

This Old Media management obsession with “perception” needs to stop, because whether those managers like it or not, time is not their friend on this issue. The World Wide Web is almost as old as some reporters, e-mail older still. The likelihood that you can hire a reporter who has never expressed a potentially controversial opinion in some online forum or other grows slimmer by the day. The way you judge whether a reporter is fair and accurate is whether his stories are fair and accurate, factually and contextually. If the work is fair and accurate, perceptions are irrelevant. If the reporter follows what Jay Rosen has called the discipline of verification, the work will stand … and the reporter’s opinions, however artlessly or indelicately phrased, will be all the more damning for being undergirded with fact, which is something that I’m just guessing might help bring readers back.

Something else the Post doesn’t get: The days when you could punch a hippie and not get called out on it are, thankfully, drawing to a close. Even Carr seems to get this, and to get that the Post doesn’t get this: He writes, in a tone of something less than complete approval, that Wiegel

… probably could have survived if he had slammed Rachel Maddow or had some fun at Al Franken’s expense … A little thought experiment: What if a reporter made a wildly inappropriate video suggesting that the secretary of state, who happens to be a woman, should drink Mad Bitch beer? Surely that reporter would be forced to apologize to Hillary Rodham Clinton before walking the plank. Yet when this happened, Dana Milbank, the longtime Washington Post star who made the video, remained a prized political writer at the paper.

Yup, but those filthy bloggers are destroying journalism.

Carr observes that Wiegel’s

willingness to train his guns inside the conservative movement was a bit much, especially in the eyes of The Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander. “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,” he wrote. “Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.”

And why is that, exactly, Andrew? Why should the Post be “properly attuned to their ideology or activities” … as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, reporting on them fairly and accurately and letting the chips fall where they may? Their ideology is, in many cases, blatantly anticonstitutional, so, O Ombudsman of the Highest Pillar of Amerian Political Journalism, please enlighten me: just how attuned to that does a reporter need to be? Because if the Post gets any more attuned to it, Fred Hiatt is going to be accused of practicing proctology without a license.

I would point out that that would not be a crime if Rand Paul were in charge, but then I’d have to go set myself on fire.

(UPDATE: Title changed and first sentence revised after some readers suggested they thought I was implying that the Times was at fault here. No. The Times was at fault here. I know it’s hard, but please try to keep up.)

Friday, July 2, 2010 8:27 pm

Quote of the day

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 8:27 pm
Tags: , ,

John Cole may be an amateur journalist, but he understands the rot at the heart of U.S. journalism on a scale toward which most professionals can only aspire:

“Sincere panels about the appropriateness of crushing a child’s testicles are acceptable and serious op-eds about the necessity for torture are welcome, but dropping an f-bomb on a private listserv is simply inexcusable and cause for a serious case of the vapors.”

Monday, June 21, 2010 5:22 pm

The Washington Post should just die already

Yesterday the Post apparently published an article by the Fiscal Times. The Fiscal Times is published by Pete Peterson, the billionaire raising such hell about the deficit because his agenda is cutting social spending as an end in itself, not just as a means to long-term deficit reduction, a fact the Post didn’t see fit to share with its readers.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that U.S. deficits have far less to do with social spending per se than they do with our absurdly high-cost and inefficient health-care system. Adopting any of a number of other Western health-care financing systems, which run the gamut from total socialization to private, nonprofit funding, would generate long-term surpluses rather than deficits even before we touched other social spending, let alone military spending or our absurdly regressive tax system.

This information is readily available to the public, so we must presume that the editors of The Washington Post are either idiots or corrupt. And call me crazy, but I’m going to presume further that they’re not total idiots.

UPDATE: Peterson is also behind the group America Speaks, which will be holding meetings across the country this weekend to discuss what to do about deficits. As you might expect, the group’s framing has been constructed to try to build consensus around cutting Social Security and Medicare.

Saturday, March 20, 2010 3:02 pm

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

… which is a pretty significant mistake if, like The Washington Post, you are in the word bidness:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, already one of Washington’s largest lobbying groups, is gearing up to play a major role in this year’s midterm elections on a scale that rivals the nation’s two main political parties.

Modeled in part on Barack Obama‘s 2008 campaign juggernaut, the group has built a grass-roots operation known as Friends of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It has a member list of 6 million names, aimed at lobbying on legislation and swaying voters to back preferred candidates, primarily Republicans, in battleground areas, officials said.

Interesting that the Post article even links to a reasonably workable definition of “grass-roots” while using the term to describe a top-down, centrally funded, $50 million effort. I’m sure there’s some Professional Journalist reason why they’re doing this that I’m just not enough of an insider to understand.

Friday, December 4, 2009 9:51 pm

But the Internet is killing journalism!

Just ask The Washington Post:

Taxes are killing us.: The US at 26.1% pays less tax than any other industrialized country except Japan at 25.8%. Sweden is at 50.2%, the UK at 35.8%, and Spain at 35.5%, for example. BTW each of these three countries had higher growth (average per capita growth 1995 – 2005) than we did. 2.5%, 2.4% and 3.1% resp. compared to our 2.1%. Also Japan’s was 1% growth.

Frank Ahrens: But did you know our corporate tax rate is among the highest in the world? That makes a real difference if you’re a business and you’re thinking about locating in the U.S. or, say, India.

[snip]

But did you know our corporate tax rate is among the highest in the world?: Dead wrong. Our nominal tax rate of 35% is among the highest, but because of loopholes our real tax rate of 18% is among the lowest real corporate tax rates.

Frank Ahrens: Back atcha.

He’s not only incompetent, he’s also a jackass. But because he’s being snarky in defense of big business rather than in defense of DFHs, no punishment shall befall him.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 8:16 pm

Newspaper TKO

I don’t know how much the real world cares, which is one reason I’m late to this, but the newspaper world has been abuzz about an actual fight that broke out in The Washington Post’s newsroom a few days ago. The subject was a “charticle,” a kind of hybrid story/graphic (and we’ll leave the merits of that genre for another day) that two reporters had put together for the Post’s Style section. The Style editor, Henry Allen, told the reporters it sucked. Actually, according to one source, he called it the “second-worst piece I’ve ever had handed to me in 43 years.” (What was the worst? Patience, dear reader; we’ll get to that.)

One of the two reporters, Monica Hesse, asked for the piece back so that it could be reworked. The other, Manuel Roig-Franzia, apparently said, “Oh, Henry, don’t be such a [rude name for a serial performer of a sexual act that was illegal in many states, including North Carolina, until a recent Supreme Court decision].”  Whereupon Allen hit Roig-Franzia in the face and it was on, briefly, until Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli and others separated the two.

A number of bloggers have had things to say about this episode, but so far the best take I’ve seen was by the Post’s own Gene Weingarten:

The first thing I want to say is, hooray. Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story. …

… if you’re a Henry Allen, or if you’re a Manuel Roig-Franzia, what is happening now [to the newspaper industry] hurts.

I don’t know the ultimate precipitating factor in what led to blows between these two guys on Friday — for all I know, Manuel strangled Henry’s cat. But I do know what I read, that the proximate cause was the quality of written word — what we put in the paper. It doesn’t surprise me. “What we put in the paper,” used to be a sacred term in most newsrooms, back before things began to change and some mediocre stuff began to appear with regularity. Back then, the meaning of “the paper” was completely different, too.

The news about the news, for the most part, has stunk for some time: There’s been cowardly and crappy decision-making in scary times; ethics, at times, have been mislaid; lousy things have found their way into print, and worthy things — killed for unworthy reasons — have not. I am not shocked that tempers boiled over, nor am I shocked that they boiled over between two people who know what has been happening, and care.

I hope Henry is invited and welcomed back to the newsroom; if anyone deserves a little slack, it’s him. I hope he and Manuel bury the hatchet. I hope neither of them loses one ounce of passion and I hope each of them remains privately convinced he was right.

Well, Weingarten can hope, but hope is not a plan. In fact, the Washingtonian blog post linked up top says this: “Brauchli called Allen into his office and closed the door. Allen’s contract is up later this month. Few Style writers expect to see him again.”

Weingarten explains well how such an incident is a natural, if not inevitable, byproduct of newsroom culture, at least up until a few years ago when the industry started making like the Titanic.

But you also need to know that running a newsroom can be a little bit like what I imagine running a kindergarten class is like: You’re responsible for a bunch of people with the maturity level of 5-year-olds who like to color outside the lines, people who may or may not work and play well with others on any given day, people who are, by and large, id embodied and very little else. As in kindergarten, at any given time there’s at least one person in the room who’s angry, bitter and disgruntled and may even have soiled his/her drawers. And as in kindergarten, newsroom disagreements are frequent and sometimes sharp, typically of short duration and usually forgotten by the next day.

In 25 years in newspapers, I had my share of sharp disagreements. I raised more than my share of voice more than my share of times. And yet only two incidents stand out in my memory, neither fully focused.

One involved a story I was writing with another reporter who wanted us to make a factual claim that might or might have been true but which was not supported by the data on which we were basing the story. As I recall, perhaps imperfectly, aspersions were loudly cast upon both my race (the story was about racial disparities in home-mortgage lending) and my intestinal fortitude.

The other, when I was an editor, involved a shouting match with a photographer who didn’t want to do a particular assignment I’d made or found the scheduling inconvenient or some such. Just the day before, I had written that same shooter’s editor a memo praising him for the quality of work he had done on a different assignment, so I was feeling betrayed as well as annoyed when I let loose on him with a diatribe that ended with the phrase of direct address, “you [copulating] ingrate!”

True to form, I had forgotten all about the incident by the next morning. But the rest of the newsroom, it seemed, was buzzing with the story when I came in to work. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would care until I heard the coda: Apparently, after our shouting match, my co-worker walked back into the photo lab and asked a colleague, “What’s an ingrate?”

Managing people like that in a culture like that is at least as much art as science, and while I’m grateful for the science part of the management training I’ve received over the years, both literal and metaphoric, I wonder whether the gradual encroachment of the science on the art hasn’t contributed in some small way to newspapers’ current woes. I always thought a good newspaper company should resemble most other professional businesses but that a newspaper newsroom should more closely resemble a scrappy, improvisatory rock ‘n’ roll band — sometimes sloppy, true, and not, shall we say, unfamiliar with failed experiments and improvisation gone horribly wrong, but also usually capable of great initiative, teamwork, creativity, passion, compassion, endurance and grace. A friend once asked me why I’d given up radio for journalism, and the first words out of my mouth were, “It’s rock ‘n’ roll by other means.” It sounded facile even then, and like most ex-newspaper people I’m capable of oversentimentalizing and over-romanticizing the job, but at the time and for years afterward, it was true, at least for me.

But whether Henry Allen stays or goes, both he and Roig-Franzia were fighting the wrong guy. And the real enemy is one they probably could never defeat.

* * *

So, if this story that Allen and Roig-Franzia fought over was the second-worst story Allen had seen in his 43 years in the bidness (or second-worst he’d ever seen at the Post’s Style section; accounts differ), what was the absolute worst? No one knows for sure. The Washingtonian solicited nominations. I’ve seen references to a piece on Paul Robeson that was so bad it never saw print. Weingarten has his own nomination, and after following his link to it and reading it, I’d say it’s definitely a contender.

Why? Well, editors don’t just edit stories. Good editors, anyway. They also edit ideas. And this was a story that begged to be killed at the idea stage, strangled in its crib, gutted with a fileting knife. the remains to be sauteed in butter, lemon, white wine and capers, then served with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Monday, June 22, 2009 8:02 pm

Eating their lunch, drinking their milkshake, kicking their …

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lex @ 8:02 pm
Tags: , ,

Huffington Post is starting to edge out The Washington Post’s Web site and may be about to make a run at nytimes.com as well.

If they want to accelerate the trend, I know of a guy they could hire.

Friday, June 19, 2009 6:11 pm

“The squeaky wheel got greased.”

The Washington Post fires Dan Froomkin. Fred Hiatt still works there. And you still think there is a God?

Steven Benen comments:

The Politico says the move is “sure to ignite the left-wing blogosphere,” but Froomkin’s departure, if true, should disappoint anyone concerned with insightful political analysis. Indeed, far-right complaints notwithstanding, Froomkin has spent months scrutinizing the Obama White House, cutting the Democratic president no slack at all. Just over the past couple of days, Froomkin offered critical takes on the president’s proposed regulations of the financial industry, follow-through on gay rights, and foot-dragging on Bush-era torture revelations.

Froomkin was one of the media’s most important critics of the Bush White House, and conservative bashing notwithstanding, was poised to be just as valuable holding the Obama White House accountable for its decisions.

So Froomkin, whom I read frequently, was 1) holding Obama and Bush to the same standards on some major policy issues and 2) also holding Obama to the standards set by his own campaign rhetoric. No one else on the Post’s staff comes anywhere close to meeting that performance standard, so of course Froomkin’s the one who gets fired. The Post needs to check its HVAC system for aerosolized traces of Teh Stoopid.

I hope Froomkin lands on his feet. I’d like to say I trust he will — he’s one of the best analysts in the blogosphere and head and shoulders above every print competitor — but we don’t live in a fair world.

The Post’s ombudsman blogged about this, and readers are letting him have it. As well they should.

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