Just don't call me a White House reporter
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The war over Dan Froomkin's column "White House Briefing" on Washingtonpost.com -- not to be confused with the newspaper -- is turning into a bizarre public brawl. On one side are the paper's editorial staff, including political editor John Harris, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., and assorted unnamed reporters, all arrayed against Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady, Froomkin, a number of bloggers, and hundreds of readers.
The firestorm was sparked by a column penned by ombudsman Deborah Howell:
Political reporters at The Post don't like WPNI columnist Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing," which is highly opinionated and liberal. They're afraid that some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter.
John Harris, national political editor at the print Post, said, "The title invites confusion. It dilutes our only asset -- our credibility" as objective news reporters. Froomkin writes the kind of column "that we would never allow a White House reporter to write. I wish it could be done with a different title and display."
Harris is right; some readers do think Froomkin is a White House reporter. But Froomkin works only for the Web site and is very popular -- and Brady is not going to fool with that, though he is considering changing the column title and supplementing it with a conservative blogger.
No doubt some of these reporters are the same who also told Howell they "don't appreciate that links are put on the Web site to what bloggers are saying about this or that story -- especially when the bloggers are highly negative."
Back in the dark ages, the entire story would have ended right there. The editors would have deigned to publish a couple of letters from unhappy readers, along with some positive ones for the sake of "balance." Not so in the age of technology. Readers posted more than six hundred comments in Froomkin's support and soon the leading progressive bloggers jumped in the fray.
All of which led Leo Downie to offer this defense of his newspaper staff's asinine behavior: "We want to make sure people in the [Bush] administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin's column because it contains opinion ... And that readers of the Web site understand that, too." [ E&P]
Harris made it all better by labeling Froomkin over and again as a "liberal" without offering proof in this interview with Jay Rosen. When pressed by Rosen to offer specific examples, he cited a nasty attack on Froomkin by a conservative blogger named Patrick Ruffini, who -- according to Jane Hamsher -- was the webmaster for Bush/Cheney '04.
In any case, now the likes of Harris are hiding behind the claim that their only problem is with the title of the column, which is supposedly so direly misleading as to compromise the credibility of their entire White House contingent.
Whatever the merit of the complaint against the name of Froomkin's column, it seems odd that the Howell column -- the first shot that started this war -- chose to air it in such an ugly and arbitrary way, tucked inside a column about the differences between the website and the newspaper. Then there's the fact that the damn column has been running for two years. So why has its title suddenly become a problem? Not just a problem but a cause for such public name-calling?
The irony is that this entire performance -- supposedly staged in defense of media ethics -- is unlikely to improve the readers' already lagging confidence in the nation's leading newspapers. Who can trust a newspaper run by people who seem to be unable to treat their peers with even a modicum of respect?