Lessons from Froomkin

Dan Froomkin, formerly of WashingtonPost.com, where he wrote a web-only column from January 2004 to June 2009 called White House Watch (originally White House Briefing). Modified from an original photograph by JD Lasica (jdlasica); used under a Creative Commons license. Click on photo to get full licensing info.

Dan Froomkin, formerly of WashingtonPost.com, where he wrote a web-only column from January 2004 to June 2009 called White House Watch (originally White House Briefing). Modified from an original photograph by JD Lasica (jdlasica); used under a Creative Commons license. Click on photo to get full licensing info.

I’ve been catching up somewhat on stuff in the wider political world outside the Anchorage equal rights ordinance battle. Having been so focused on AO 2009-64, it wasn’t until early this morning that I learned Dan Froomkin had been fired from the Washington Post — more properly, from its online version at washingtonpost.com —  & wrote his last White House Watch web column today.

I’ve followed Froomkin’s column, originally called White House Briefing, off & on since it started in January 2004, especially in the run-up to the November 2004 presidential election .  I’m sad to see it go. White House Briefing/White House Watch was one of the most important watchdogs & fact-checkers on the numerous abuses and lies of the Bush Administration, & that kind of work is still needed.  As Froomkin wrote in his final column,

Obama is nowhere in Bush’s league when it comes to issues of credibility, but his every action nevertheless needs to be carefully scrutinized by the media, and he must be held accountable. We should be holding him to the highest standards – and there are plenty of places where we should be pushing back. Just for starters, there are a lot of hugely important but unanswered questions about his Afghanistan policy, his financial rescue plans, and his turnaround on transparency.

There’s some disagreement as to why WaPo dumped Froomkin — with some saying it was for political/ideological reasons, & others say for economic reasons.  The latter is the opinion of Erik Wemple of the Washington City Paper — Froomkin just hasn’t been generating enough hits since the end of the Bush Administration.  Wemple writes:

The Obama administration has offered a less juicy target, in part because it hasn’t had quite as much time to screw things up. In the past six months, accordingly, hits on White House Watch have dropped to the point that Post officials cite traffic as a reason for bagging the column.

Though Wemple goes on to say,

The Froomkin axing is a red-letter event in Post history because it’s the first time that a major personnel decision has hinged so squarely on Web hits. For years, the orthodoxy from Post leaders is that the paper produces journalism that it believes in—mass popularity be damned. Perhaps that’s no longer the case. Questions on this matter were sent to newspaper spokesperson Kris Coratti but went unanswered.

So maybe Froomkin’s column was no longer journalism that WaPo believes in? — or at least not enough to overcome the paper’s economic considerations.  If so, that argues for ideology being a component, if perhaps not the biggest component, behind WaPo’s decision to sack Froomkin.

Regardless, it wouldn’t be the first time that a newspaper’s overall excellence in journalism has leaked away due to decisions that are based in some part on economics.  Witness our own paper-of-record, the Anchorage Daily News, which has lost a lot of ground both economically & in overall quality of coverage over the past few years.  From stuff I’ve read over the last several months, both about the ADN in particular & the newspapers in general, the papers are being hit hard by loss of revenues from classified ads as more people turn to free online ad solutions like Craigslist, not to mention the public’s increasing dependence upon online sources — including blogs — to get their news.  And then there’s just the economic downturn itself.  And there’s blogs, many of which have stepped into the journalistic realm formerly reserved for traditional media like newspapers and broadcast news to take on stories that traditional media either don’t know enough about or don’t dare to report on.  Think: who first broke the story last year about what became known as Troopergate?  Not any of Alaska’s newspapers or news stations: it was Andrew Halcro on his blog.  Who took the lead in giving the rest of the country needed perspective on Sarah Palin when she became John McCain’s running mate?  It wasn’t the Alaska mainstream press: it was Alaska’s progressive bloggers. It’s been an adjustment, & the traditional media are still adjusting.

But wait: I was talking about Froomkin.  “I remain a big believer in the ‘traditional media,'” he wrote in his final column,  “especially when it sticks to traditional journalistic values.” But he also gave every evidence of respecting & making use of the new (blogger) media — at least when it adhered to the same values, identified in his essay Why “playing it safe” is killing American newspapers thusly:

The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.

His entire series for Niemen Journalism Lab on the future of news journalism is worth a read.  For political bloggers, too.

Some quotes about Froomkin from other people:

Equivocation, hedging, shading, tiptoeing—none of those turn up in Froomkin’s toolkit.

— Erik Wemple, “Why Did the Washington Post Sack Dan Froomkin?” (Washington City Paper)

Providing ample proof of why he couldn’t coexist with the go-along ethos of High Broderism. He reads, and links to, bloggers! He’s intellectually consistent, willing to criticize both Republicans and Democrats! That’s perhaps the rarest commodity in a Village that seeks at all times a political equilibrium that won’t endanger its cocktail circuit invite.

— McJoan,  “Froomkin’s Last WaPo Stand” (DailyKOS)

Hopefully, the next time the nation faces a grave national security crisis, we will listen to the people who were right, not the people who were wrong, and heed those who reported the truth, not those who served as stenographers to liars.

— Dan Froomkin himself, “White House Watched”, his last “White House Watch” column for WashingtonPost.com

What I found in Froomkin’s work was:

  • He researched thoroughly, gave his sources, & based his opinions on facts;
  • He was, as McJoan on DailyKOS said, intellectually consistent, & didn’t pull punches with what he saw.

Nor do I expect he’ll change in the future (he’ll be taking some time off, then launching in some new direction he’ll announce at whitehousewatch.com).

* * *

Plenty of lessons in how Froomkin for Alaska, I think.

For one: the Anchorage Daily News is Alaska’s principal statewide newspaper-of-record — Anchorage’s Washington Post, if you will.  But for whatever reasons — & it seems ever more so over the past few months & years — the ADN  often acts as the same kind of “stenographer to liars” that Froomkin criticized in his final column.  Which isn’t to say the ADN is all bad — but it’s struggling in this environment, & all-too-obviously doesn’t have the first idea of what to do about the independent bloggers springing up all around it, or how to balance its own strengths with theirs.

Which is why, for Anchorage, the Anchorage Press, web-based newspapers like the Alaska Dispatch & Alaska Report and independent bloggers like the Mudflats, Celtic Diva’s Blue Oasis, Progressive Alaska, Shannyn Moore: Just a Girl from Homer, Immoral Minority, Alaska Commons, SOSAnchorage.net (the factchecker version) — just to names some of those I follow — are so very crucial.  Especially if they do their jobs wisely & well, with the same kind of integrity that Froomkin displayed in his column.

I should say, if we do our jobs wisely & well, because I’ve become part of it too, at least when the public sphere of the polis is what I’m writing about, as with Wayne Anthony Ross’ nomination for Alaska attorney general back in April, as with the Anchorage equal rights ordinance & the activities of Jerry Prevo now.  As I wrote in the introduction to my anti-WAR letter to Alaska legislators,

I’m a writer-blogger, not a political blogger — though I did try it out a little last fall after Palin became a vice-presidential candidate. But it proved too emotionally exhausting for me, & other Alaska progressive bloggers were doing it better. Sometimes, though, you gotta take a stand on something.

But I want to be honest & based in factual reality when I do.

Integrity is a big word with me — central to my own spiritual worldview. It’s what Job had when his friends so-called were “comforting” him in his losses by telling him that the horrible things that happened to the people he cared about, & to himself, wouldn’t have come down on him if he hadn’t sinned. Except that he hadn’t. I often think of integrity as being like a pole at the center of oneself — in one part a navigational aid, in another something to hang tightly to in the midst of the storm. If you let go of your integrity, you lose your way, you lose your Self. If you hold to it, you always know where you are & who you are. It can still be plenty damn painful, but it’s far less painful then letting go & losing your Self.

The hard part of doing what any of us who write about the stuff  in the political world is knowing when to withhold judgment — because we don’t know all the facts — & when to apply judgment. “Stenographer” reporting is not so much reporting as simply copying: dutifully getting on record “both sides” of any question, but never having the moral courage to go in there & make a judgment: are the sources reliable? what might their agendas be? what’s the context, what else is in play? But then there’s the other bad way to do it: judging willy-nilly, without ever bothering to seek out the facts, depending only on what what feels or believes: truthiness not truth.

But then there’s what I believe Dan Froomkin did, & what we are all called to do: to ask questions.  And, if necessary, to make judgments.  To hold those who claim authority over our lives accountable.  No matter how damn painful it is — holding on to our integrity all the way.

Here’s some good stuff I know about because of Dan Froomkin:

  • Niemen Watchdog: Questions the press should ask. A site for & about watchdog journalism, from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Froomkin is deputy editor of this site.
  • Niemen Journalism Lab. “a collaborative attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age.” Also from the Nieman Foundation’s
  • whitehousewatch.com. The site where Froomkin will announce what he’s going to do next. Also links to archives of his columns on the Bush Administration and Obama Administration.

Tip o’ the nib to Amanda Coyne of Alaska Dispatch, relevant discussion with whom coincided with news of Froomkin’s firing.

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