L’Affaire Froomkin, as Told by Froomkin
Froomkin and Rosen on accountability, impartiality, and the dangers of the journalistic lobotomy
Jay Rosen calls it "the Froomkin kissoff." Others call it, less colorfully, "l'affaire Froomkin." Many call it politically motivated. Some call it "dumb, short-sighted, and self-destructive." Some just call it stupid.
However you choose to describe it, the event in question-the unceremonious dismissal of Dan Froomkin, the immensely popular blogger, from his contract with The Washington Post Company, and therefore from his blogging slot at The Washington Post-has been a popular subject among bloggers, in particular, since it was announced earlier this month. And it was the unofficial subject of a panel this afternoon at today's Personal Democracy Forum, in which journalism professor Jay Rosen interviewed Froomkin about the dismissal (before moving on to the official topic: "Accountability Journalism Online").
"What I was basically told is that they didn't think the column was working anymore," Froomkin put it to a roomful of political activists and media thinkers during the interview session, his voice punctuated with the crinkles of paper bags and plastic sandwich wrap, and the occasional pop of an opened soda can. (The interview was an optional event during the conference's allotted time for "Networking Lunch.") "They explained to me that traffic was down," Froomkin continued. Then, after a pause: "But...traffic was down compared to what?"
Ultimately, Froomkin attributes his Post dismissal to a combination of "disagreements between myself and my editor" and the fact that, telecommuting as he did for the past five-plus years, he was disconnected in several ways from the institutional culture of the Post. "As a contractor, I was a particularly easy line item to scratch out," Froomkin said.
But he also acknowledged a broader explanation for his contract's termination: "I was kicked out of the news side because I was too opinionated," Froomkin said, referring to the six years he spent working on the news side of washingtonpost.com; "I was kicked out of the opinion side because I wasn't opinionated enough." And part of that latter dismissal, Froomkin believes, was that his White House Watch column has focused on accountability not just for the occupants of the White House, but also for those who cover them. Froomkin thinks of himself as a press critic as well as a political critic; and "I suspect," he said, that in the "kissoff" Rosen refers to, "some of the trends and tension that both Jay and I have been writing about for years did have a role to play."
The Froomkin/Rosen talk could have easily been, or could have easily devolved into, a gripefest/whinefest/doesn't-Fred Hiatt-suck-fest. But instead, Froomkin and Rosen made, if not lemonade of lemons, then at least wine out of sour grapes. The two media thinkers-both of whom, as Froomkin mentioned, have long been critical of the established system of Washington press coverage (Rosen makes a near-daily habit of disparaging what he refers to as "the Church of the Savvy" and the vagaries of ‘he said/she said' coverage in political journalism; Froomkin's brand is based in large part on his outside-the-beltway status)-stayed true to the title of their talk: it was indeed about accountability journalism. What it's become, what it could be-and what's preventing it from living up to its full potential in the present moment.
The principal culprit both men pointed to today is the one they've been singling out for years: an institutional and cultural structure of principle and practice that prevents individual journalists from taking a stand in their journalism-from, essentially, calling the world as they see it.
Froomkin pointed to Len Downie, the former editor of the Post known for, among other things, his refusal to vote based on the principle of even-handedness. "Journalists' credibility, for him, lies in ‘the impartial center,'" Froomkin said-and their striving to achieve it has become a kind of religion in itself. Of which "Len has been the chief acolyte, or high priest."
And yet "the sense that, if you have a belief that you publicly espouse, you can no longer be fair about reporting a subject is problematic," Froomkin continued. "Reporters have beliefs, they have values-the key is for them not to let those beliefs affect their reporting. Downie wanted people to disenfranchise themselves." Besides, Froomkin continued, there are principles that journalists do, and more to the point should, stand for-accountability, transparency, fair play, human rights-and "there's nothing wrong with journalists wearing those values on their sleeves."
"There's a lot of professional pride wrapped up in this idea" of impartiality, Rosen noted-noting as well that the flip side of that pride is a "fear of giving up what you've known and dominated for so long."
Froomkin shared a story that David Corn-the White House correspondent for Mother Jones magazine, who also happened to be sitting in the front row of the audience during the Froomkin/Rosen talk-had told him during yesterday's PDF proceedings. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, Corn found himself in a bar with several WaPo reporters and editors, who were talking in strong terms about what a poor acceptance speech the president had just delivered. The next day, Corn read those same journalists' coverage of the Bush speech in the Post-very little of which reflected the feelings they'd expressed the night before. Which is to say, their true feelings.
"My explanation for this-or my language for it-is that there's an innocence agenda in the press," Rosen said, describing the externalized profession of "Hey, I don't judge" that the press uses, ultimately, to seduce sources. That agenda, Rosen said, "comes from the inability to justify modern professional journalism in any other way than objectivity. And the demand for something stronger, better, more truthful just has never been met."
Take, for example, journalists' tortured relationship with the word "lie." "The traditional media is so incredibly averse to that word-and especially when applied to President Bush-it isn't even funny," Froomkin said. But "it's inappropriate squeamishness." The rule for most mainstream news organizations, he noted, is that you can't come out and call someone a liar unless you have proof that the person's intention was to deceive-which rather absurdly puts the burden of proof on a confession, rather than an external judgment based on fact. "My wife, who is a federal prosecutor, just thinks this is the funniest thing," Froomkin said, as the crowd laughed along with him.
The caution that has come to define so much of journalism's culture and products is "really the antithesis of what I think journalism should be," Froomkin said. "Which is: you call it as you see it." Or, as Rosen put it: "‘Safety First' is a terrible principle for journalists."
In accountability journalism at its best-and, really, journalism more generally at its best-"you're truth-telling," Froomkin said. "You're shouting it from the rooftops, and if that means people are constantly getting mad at you, so be it."
Instead, much of the mainstream reporting we have today is diluted, triangulated, watered down, and weak. "It's kind of a self-inflicted lobotomy for journalists," Froomkin said. "You're cutting off the most important parts of the journalistic brain"-the ability to make determinations based on accumulated knowledge.
"You have to try to imagine overlapping fears," Rosen interjected. "A newsroom is an apparatus of social control. It is organized in part to de-voice the individual journalist." And news organizations, he continued, are "in a situation in which, the way the world is going, that's not what's valuable." We're in a culture, instead, that creates and promotes journalistic celebrities whose fame is largely independent of the news organization they represent. And "it's scary," Froomkin said, "for them to think that the individuals might walk away from the brand."
Froomkin was careful to blame the state of affairs not on individual press members-or even on press members in the aggregate-but rather to frame the problem as an institutional deficit. "The White House press corps is made up of terrific people who work hard under hard conditions," he noted. But "the corporate structures of the modern newspaper hold back these very knowledgeable beat reporters from calling it like they see it." So "the key is to free the people from these strictures."
But that freedom had better come soon. "By playing it safe," Froomkin said, "they're making themselves irrelevant."
© 2009 Columbia Journalism Review