David Frum March 9th, 2011 at 4:09 pm 49 Comments
You’ll miss the Mainstream Media when they’re gone.
You’ll miss professional reporting.
You’ll miss editors who ask questions like, “What’s your source?”
What you’ll have instead is … well let me tell you a story that happened yesterday.
It involves Dan Froomkin, a writer who became a hero of the lefty blogosphere during the Bush years for his ferocious attacks on the supposedly supine Washington press corps.
I still believe that no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling than a well-informed beat reporter – whatever their beat. We just need to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship – or whatever it is – out of the way.
Froomkin delivered these attacks from the belly of the beast, WashingtonPost.com, where he was employed from 1997 to 2009. After the Post ended his contract, Froomkin shifted to the Huffington Post, where yesterday he published a story on HuffPo’s homepage under the reader-inviting headline:
The piece glowingly profiled Paul Craig Roberts, who was introduced by Froomkin in the following terms:
Roberts, 70, is one of the original Reagan Republicans. From his perch at the Treasury Department, he was a chief architect of Reaganomics. He edited and wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and was a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Now a syndicated columnist living in the Florida Panhandle, he’s still a devoted supply-sider.
But Roberts is profoundly alienated from the modern GOP, particularly when it comes to civil liberties — and wars.
Sounds interesting, right? Man-bites-dog and all that. To underscore the significance of Roberts’ critique, the story was illustrated with a flattering close-up photograph of Roberts, a portrait of a Founding Father in Continental uniform hovering just over his left shoulder.
Unfortunately, Froomkin’s introduction of Paul Craig Roberts omitted some relevant facts from Roberts’ biography:
* Roberts is a 9/11 denialist, who has stated his views emphatically, repeatedly, and unabashedly for over a decade, eg here.
* Roberts believes that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reduced whites to second-class citizenship.
Racial privilege is a fact of U.S. law. … White males had best give up any idea of defending their women or themselves, and women should not confuse their men’s aversion to jail with cowardice. America has returned to the feudal age when legally-privileged nobles could assault commoners at will, but woe to any commoner who returned the compliment.
* Roberts laments the disappearance of Confederate symbols from public spaces, and argues that never in American history were black people treated as badly as white people are treated today.
There’s no money for California, or for Americans’ health care, or for the several million Americans who have lost their homes and are homeless, because Israel needs it.
Roberts’ idiosyncracies are not exactly obscure facts. As the ADL noted, no non-fringe US publication has carried any of Roberts’ writings since 2006. A phone call or Facebook message to any of Roberts’ former Reagan administration colleagues would have discovered the whole sad story.
I exchanged emails with Dan Froomkin last night, and he acknowledged he did not know that Paul Craig Roberts was a Truther crank. Froomkin evidently did not know any of the things you’d think a reporter would want to find out before writing a piece attesting in front of millions of news consumers to the significance of one individual’s views.
OK, so one reporter did bad work. So what? It happens.
Here’s the so what: It is precisely because “it happens” that reporters do bad work that old-line media organizations instituted quality checks to protect news users from disinformation. Old-line media organizations hoped that these quality checks would incubate a corporate culture in which truth took precedence over ideology.
But those quality checks were expensive. They got in the way. And it turned out that a media organization could make a lot more money by putting ideology ahead of truth. That’s the story of Fox and talk radio. That’s the story of media pranksters like Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe.
And it’s the story of Dan Froomkin and Huffington Post.
I wrote to Dan last night to ask him whether he was unaware that Roberts was a 9/11 Truther. Dan confirmed that he was indeed unaware – but that the Huffington Post had since added an update.
Here it is:
A reader notes that Roberts has also written several times that he does not believe the official explanations surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Roberts wrote an essay in 2006 espousing many of the so-called “Truther” beliefs, casting doubt on how the World Trade Center towers actually collapsed and raising the possibility of a military cover-up. Roberts defended those views in an email: “No real investigation has been done, and experts who raise points have simply been brushed aside or called ‘conspiracy theorists.’” He added that “until the ‘truthers’ are professionally answered, I will remain a 9/11 skeptic.” Roberts’ beliefs clearly raise questions about the soundness of his foreign policy views. He either should not have been cited in the piece or the article should have clearly noted his perspectives.
Beyond that PS, the story remains intact on the Huffington Post site, although hastily removed from prominence, under its original headline identifying Paul Craig Roberts as a “Reagan Republican.”
I wrote to Dan last night that I’d seen more repentant corrections for spelling errors. I asked if I might interview him. When I did not get an answer, I emailed my questions:
Dan, I appreciate that you may feel reluctant to answer questions, and I do have a mid-morning deadline. To encourage and to expedite, permit me to provide in advance the questions I’d wish to ask you:
1) How did the idea of a Huffington Post profile of Paul Craig Roberts originate? Was it suggested to you by anyone? If spontaneous with you, how did you happen to know of Roberts? After all, he has not published any work on any non-fringe media platform since 2006?
2) Beyond your telephone calls and email exchanges with Roberts, what other research did you do before writing the profile?
3) What editorial process occurred after the piece was drafted? Did an editor read and approve or did it proceed direct to the home page without editorial intervention?
4) Who wrote the postscript to the piece? By what process was it decided to leave the original headline and text intact?
Froomkin responded by email as follows, and I’ll give his reply in full:
When I spoke to Roberts about his views on Afghanistan, I was unaware that he was a 9/11 skeptic. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have written about him. There was plenty of evidence of his views on the Internet and I was negligent in not having explored his past writings more thoroughly. Had I found out before publication, we would have killed the story. When we became aware of those views after publication, we quickly removed the story from a position of prominence on the website. But rather than take the story down entirely, which would not have been transparent, we immediately appended an editor’s note.
I originally decided to contact Roberts after running across a recent column he wrote criticizing the push for military action in Libya. I did a brief search for his writings about Afghanistan, and found his intense opposition notable given his background with the Reagan administration and in light of Grover Norquist’s recent suggestion that Reagan himself would not have supported such a venture. But I should have looked much more closely at his background.
But of course Froomkin didn’t look closely. Perhaps he did not wish to look. Who knows what you might find that way? And there does not seem to have been anybody with the authority or the interest to make him look.
When the Huffington Post hired veteran newsmen Howard Fineman and Tom Edsall, it did seem that some Old Media values might be imported into at least one New Media platform. But the incentives run very strongly the other way. Everyone can see that a media enterprise gets more clicks and better ratings from confirming preconceived opinions than from challenging them. And the consequences of a horrible mistake? Very low. It didn’t hurt Andrew Breitbart to circulate a deceptively edited tape of Shirley Sherrod. And I doubt it will matter very much that Dan Froomkin celebrated a 9/11 denialist as a lonely heroic defender of civil liberties.
Welcome to 21st century journalism. That old ideal “Without fear or favor”? It’s outmoded! It’s been replaced with a new rule: “Let the buyer beware.”