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The Washington Post: Trumped

The Washington Post has not only lost its journalistic compass but also its self-confidence, writes Eric Alterman.

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In the wake of the collapse of its business model, the once-great newspaper <i>The Washington Post</i> has not only lost its journalistic compass; it has also lost its self-confidence. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
In the wake of the collapse of its business model, the once-great newspaper The Washington Post has not only lost its journalistic compass; it has also lost its self-confidence. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Remember the days when Osama was still alive?

If you want a perfect pictorial image of almost everything that’s wrong with the contemporary elite media in the age of Obama, you could do a lot worse than to focus on the sight of carrot-topped megalomaniacal billionaire Donald Trump, seated as an honored guest of The Washington Post at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Both Obama and comedian Seth Meyers went to town on him, and the surrounding journalists guffawed and applauded madly. Thing is, without all those smart, sophisticated reporters and editors applauding their superior common sense, Trump’s hysterical ravings about Obama’s birth certificate wouldn’t have mattered at all. As David Axelrod told “Meet the Press,” “Donald Trump didn’t make the decision to put himself on a split screen. Donald Trump didn’t make the decision to cover this over and over and over again, once he raised the issue.”

But turn away, if you can, from the frowny-faced clown image of Trump and ask yourself this: What in the world was he doing being given an honored place at The Washington Post’s table? Just two days earlier, the paper’s editors had complained that Trump had been raising a “bogus” issue and should “cease and desist.” Its news pages noted that his attacks on Obama were “simply wild speculation” with “almost no basis in fact.” (The “almost” is journalistic posterior-covering.)

A similar phenomenon can be found on the paper’s op-ed page. Just last month, the paper’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt authored a column strongly critical of those Republican politicians he accused of engaging in “climate change denialism” as part of what he termed the new “catechism.” But as CAP Action Fund’s Matt Yglesias pointed out, while Congress was debating the Obama “cap and trade” plan in 2009, Hiatt published six separate columns by George Will passing along much of the same disinformation back when, legislatively speaking, it mattered. When experts complained, and the newspaper itself reported Will’s conclusions to be unfounded, Hiatt defended Will’s right to misinform. “Do I think it’s somehow dangerous to have one of our many columnists casting doubt on this consensus? No, I think it’s healthy.” In addition, he published an op-ed by Sarah Palin in which she asserted—again, in opposition to available evidence in 2009—“we can’t say with assurance that man’s activities cause weather changes.”

Donald Trump and George Will don’t have much in common save the fact that both are selling peculiarly dangerous forms of snake oil and are doing so with the imprimateur of The Washington Post. In my last Nation column, I wrote about the deeply questionable business dealings of The Washington Post Company together with the newspaper’s editorial enthusiasm for its company’s profit center, the Kaplan Education Company. But a second, no less disturbing trend at the Post that has accelerated under the leadership of publisher Katherine Weymouth and editor Marcus Brauchli—as evidenced by the above—has been its sometimes desperate desire to court conservatives, regardless of what its editors know to be true. Brauchli sent a clear message to his troops when, following the release of the James O’Keefe-Andrew Breitbart doctored ACORN videos, he complained, “We are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."

The desire of the Post poohbahs to cater to conservatives actually predates Brauchli’s arrival. In 2006, for instance, the paper hired a young right-wing blogger with no journalistic experience named Ben Domenech. If the paper had been mocking the pretensions of right-wing agitprop that masquerades as journalism, they could hardly have done a better job. They hired him while presumably being aware that he had referred to the liberal then-Washington Post blogger Dan Froomkin as “a lying weasel-faced Democrat shill.” What they apparently did not know was that he was also a serial plagiarist, which, after it was revealed, cut short his career as a Post employee after just three days.

Continuing on its campaign to placate right-wingers, the Post next hired Dave Weigel apparently in the belief that he not only covered right-wingers but shared their beliefs as well. He did a fine job of straightforward journalism in blog form, so much so that high-profile conservatives like David Frum and Ross Douthat praised his work. So, too, did Brauchli, who noted that “Dave did excellent work for us.”

Unfortunately, Weigel’s unflattering comments about a few conservatives made on a private, now-defunct list serve called “Journolist” (of which I was a member) led Post editors into a frenzied panic. “We can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work,” Brauculi announced. The Post, he continued, must be “completely transparent about what people do … and completely transparent about where people stand.” And those in "traditional reporting positions," he said, should remain "nonpartisan, unbiased and free from slant in their presentation in the paper and in any other public forum. There should be no appearance of conflict."

This is nonsense, of course. The Post employs all kinds of journalists with all kinds of opinions. The sainted David Broder would write a news story on page one one day, an opinion column on the op-ed page the next day, and then give a paid speech about the topic on the third. But nobody bothered Broder because he was David Broder, and tended, for the final decades of his career, to attack only liberals. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became an obsessive target but nobody ever told David Broder not to cover the Senate.)

The blogger problem was apparently rectified to the editors’ satisfaction when The Post hired Commentary’s Jennifer Rubin, an obsessive critic of Israel’s critics who considered President Obama to be “peevish and self-absorbed.” At the time, Hiatt admitted that he “did not read her regularly.” Not long after joining The Post, she demonstrated her loyalties by accepting an expense-paid trip to what one writer called a “Neocon Woodstock” in Herzliya, Israel, care of the William Kristol-led, anti-Obama organization, Emergency Committee for Israel.

The upshot of all of the above is the fact that the questionable business and editorial practices and the sucking up to Trump and the right are of a piece. In the wake of the collapse of its business model, the once-great newspaper The Washington Post has not only lost its journalistic compass; it has also lost its self-confidence. The rest is just commentary.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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