In my day job, or one of them, I’m a professor of journalism at the City University of New York. And while I don’t usually teach classes that involve explicit instruction in journalistic technique, I do spend a great deal of time examining the underlying values of the profession, both implicit and explicit. For some of the students who are not interested in a career in journalism, the point of the class is simply to help them become more sophisticated consumers (and therefore critics) of the media they consume. For those who are considering a career in the profession, the idea is to give them the tools to one day reach the top: a job, say, one day at a place like the Washington Post.
Well, I’ve been wrong before.
You see, I completely misunderstood the kinds of professional values sought by the Washington Post editors. At least that’s the only conclusion I can reach when I examine the sorry story of their brief hiring and then “resignation” (rhymes with “hiring”) of the young partisan political operative, Ben Domenech, cofounder of the right-wing web site RedState.org, to be a blogger on Washingtonpost.com. I admit I had never heard of Domenech before, but I figured upon hearing the announcement that he must have had considerable experience in journalism and distinguished himself with various forms of expertise to receive such a plumb position.
Imagine my confusion, therefore, when, upon reading his very first blog entry, I found myself informed that liberal “views on the economy, marriage, abortion, guns, the death penalty, health care, welfare, taxes, and a dozen other major domestic policy issues have been exposed as unpopular, unmarketable and unquestioned losers at the ballot box.” This surprised me, as I was well aware that, according to a May 2005 survey published by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 65 percent of Americans who were questioned favor providing health insurance to all Americans, even if it means increasing taxes, and a full 86 percent say that they favor raising the minimum wage. Seventy-seven percent of those polled believe the country “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” while 63 percent subscribe to that view “strongly.” With regard to foreign policy, a May 2005 Rasmussen poll found that 49 percent of Americans say that President Bush is more responsible for starting the war with Iraq than Saddam Hussein, compared with only 44 percent who believe that it was Saddam Hussein’s fault. During 2005, strong majorities of Americans polled have consistently expressed disapproval of the war and told pollsters they believe the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into it. By similarly significant majorities, Americans believe the Iraqi incursion has made the nation less, rather than more, secure. What’s more, a recent Pew poll HERE taken in February explains that in fact, “[t]he public believes the Democratic Party could do a better job than the GOP on a host of policy issues.” I scoured the site for some support for this surprising contention, but I found none.
Confused, I looked forward to improved journalism. What I got instead was a steady stream of unsupported invective. Perhaps I was naïve to be so surprised. It turns out that instead of experience as a journalist, Domenech had worked only as a far-right political operative, a speechwriter for HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and Texas Senator John Cornyn, and an editor at the ideologically extreme publishing house, Regnery, known for books like that one by the Swift Boat liars and their like.
What’s more, the young man apparently had quite a checkered past in his previous incarnation as a blogger. His work consisted of one part invective — which was known to the Washington Post editors who hired him — and one part plagiarism, which was not. In the former category, we find that Domenech called Coretta Scott King — on the day of her funeral — a communist and suggested that the gay blogger Andrew Sullivan “needs a woman to give him some stability.” Regarding the United States Supreme Court, he wrote that “[t]he worst black-robed men and women are worse then [sic] the KKK.” He wrote Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, “ends up looking like an oddly shaped egotistical ketchup-colored muppet.” He termed the filmmaker Michael Moore “Fatty Fat Fat Fat” and a “blimp that crashed into the Fleet Center [in Boston and] caused nearly $16 million in damage.” He opined that, “[T]he hypocritical Lindsey Graham, a less virile John Edwards” has “already shown a propensity to sell out his party for camera time and a bottle of hair gel,” and “staff puppet Lincoln Chafee[’s] … cranium would explode if he had one actual substantive thought.”
Of his fellow Washington Post blogger, Dan Froomkin, he wrote that he was “without question a lying weasel-faced Democrat shill,” and added, “I just have this specific and deep-rooted dislike for everything Dan Froomkin says and does. He’s one of the dozen or so people in the world that I just detest — along with Noam Chomsky, Eric Alterman, Louis Farrakhan, Barbra Streisand, Kate Michelman, Mitch Albom, Michael Irvin, David Duke, Peter Singer, and Rick Reilly….”
A group of liberal bloggers led by Daily Kos and Atrios examined Domenech’s past work and discovered that he was also a serial plagiarist, which led to his “resignation” just three days after he was hired. Naturally his editors were unaware of this history, or they would not have hired him in the first place. But the plagiarism, which gave the Post a convenient exit strategy, does not begin to explain the difficult question about what it was that attracted the paper to offer this young man a job in the first place — particularly at a moment when genuine journalists are being asked to take buy-outs and much of the paper’s institutional memory and experience base is being sacrificed. How insulting to the journalists at the paper that this is the kind of new hire the paper seeks to make in an era when journalists are struggling to keep their jobs and do honorable, fair and, yes, balanced reporting.
No less strange was the defense of the paper during the period that Domenech was using its website to spew his inaccurate, unsourced invective. For instance, Post media reporter Howie Kurtz defended this hiring by writing, “I don’t get it. One conservative blogger? It’s not like The Post doesn’t have a left-leaning blogger, or liberal columnists. Is the New York Times a GOP mouthpiece because it employs David Brooks and John Tierney? If people don’t like what Domenech has to say, don’t click on him.”
Kurtz didn’t name any names, but it was widely understood that he was speaking of the allegedly “liberal” Post blogger Dan Froomkin, who is not considered to be a “liberal” by most liberals but has been critical of Bush-era journalistic tendencies to take administration lies at face value. In any case, take a look at Froomkin’s qualifications: He has been a reporter since 1986 for the Post, the Orange County Register, the Miami Herald, the Winston-Salem Journal and the National Journal, and has taught journalism at American University and the Poynter Institute. What’s more, his writing has been entirely free of the invective that characterized Domenech’s work, to say nothing of his reliance on made-up assertions.
So what’s really going on here? Simple: The far-right has “worked the refs” at the Washington Post so effectively that they are jettisoning their own values in order to curry favor with those who behave with nothing but contempt for journalists and journalistic traditions and mores. As the sage Molly Ivins wrote this week, “I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying.” Most of us don’t really care in what form our work is read. “It’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”
By capitulating to those who think a great newspaper should carry the caterwauling of the likes of Mr. Domenech, the Post is effectively committing suicide in the eyes of those who want to be able admire its journalistic ethics and standards. And after all this, I still don’t know what to tell my students.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.