The Froomkin Effect
December 14, 2005
By Adam Short
corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders
of the Western World. No First World country has ever managed to
eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity - much less
dissent." - Gore Vidal, 1991
It's been a weird week in Washington, or so they tell me.
I wouldn't know myself, having skipped town weeks ago, headed
back down south to the land of my birth. Sweet Virginia is my home
once again. Not that savage spray of prefab nothingness up north
of Fredericksburg, god no, I'm talking about the real thing, Richmond,
the capital of the Confederacy, the only place in the country where
you can drive down a single street and gaze upon Robert E. Lee astride
a magnificent horse and, just blocks away, stare aghast at what
appears to be a depiction of Arthur Ashe mercilessly beating a group
of small children into submission with a tennis racket.
Why leave the capital of the world just when things finally seem
to be getting interesting? My reasons are arcane and useless to
you, Dear Reader, so put them out of your mind. We have more important
things to talk about.
Eugene McCarthy, for example, who foretold the rigor mortis that
afflicts our Democratic party (and indeed, the Republic itself),
all the way back in 1978, when he said that defending the two party-system
is like praising the Titanic because not every soul on board was
pulled immediately to his doom.
I'm paraphrasing, of course; but Gene, who died last week at the
age of 89, never had much of a way with words. He had vision, though,
and that's a commodity always in short supply in Washington, not
least because men like Eugene McCarthy tend to be much too far ahead
of their time to ever take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,
or even in the offices across the street. Those spaces are reserved
for men with other, less threatening qualities, like paranoia, or
When Gene made his prescient comparison between the American electoral
system and the most famous maritime disaster in history, Democrats
at the time must have thought he was nuts. After all, the Republican
party had just a few years before collapsed in a massive, turgid
wave of corruption, greed and general craziness, and the Democrats
seemed to be on the verge of inheriting the world and every damn
thing in it. From all external indications, the two-party system
was working just fine, at least for the party of Jefferson.
McCarthy saw through it, and in time his colleagues did, too.
The Reagan Revolution was just over the horizon, with worse yet
to come as the decades tumbled away. Clean Gene lived to see the
rise and fall of Bush I; the Gingrich revolution; the establishment
and eventual legitimization of Fox News and the rest of the right-wing
noise machine; and finally, the greatest disaster of them all, the
George W. Bush presidency.
Through it all, I can't help but imagine that Gene must have wondered,
in his weaker moments, how it was all coming to pass just as he
had predicted, without anyone raising the alarm. It must have pained
the old man to watch as the great snarling hound that is American
journalism failed to bark again and again and again.
Why is it thus?
We must be careful here, Dear Reader, as we are in danger of becoming
embroiled in the dreaded quicksand of Conspiratorial Thinking, bane
of serious people everywhere.
Fortunately for us, we can avoid these treacherous swamps altogether,
and right from the start. Having lived for some time in Washington
it is no great trick to diagnose the trouble, and almost anyone
who's spent a similar stretch in our nation's capital is likely
to assent to the conclusion with a knowing, cynical nod.
For those men and women who are charged with reporting on the
moguls and solons who roam the halls of our hallowed democracy,
life is a massive dinner party that never ends, unless of course
some fool happens to spoil the fun with an impertinent question,
or worse yet, an inconvenient fact.
It may surprise many with little understanding of the way Washington
works, but press business in D.C. is conducted based not upon the
factual record per se but upon a handy subset of the facts,
kind of a "Cliff's Notes" version of reality. It's not
that anyone has an active interest in suppressing the excluded information,
it's simply that for D.C.'s celebrity press corps, much like the
hard-partying college students who rely upon digest versions of
Great Expectations or War and Peace, there is just no time between
pressing social engagements to read through the whole thing.
Occasionally, though, someone comes up through the system who,
for whatever reason, hasn't quite got with the program. These malcontents
and troublemakers insist on bringing up embarrassing facts and even
interpreting them through too-complex perspectives that make their
colleagues look simpleminded and ill-prepared.
Fortunately, the D.C. media community has a way of dealing with
these criminals. For an example of the D.C. press corps' finely
tuned immune system in action, look no further than the recent travails
of Dan Froomkin, the man who, at least as of the time of this writing,
authors the "White House Briefing" feature on the Washington
As avid WashingtonPost.com readers know, Dan Froomkin has for
years been doing the job that Howard Kurtz is allegedly paid to
do, thereby embarrassing Kurtz and the reporters for whose pathetic
lack of professionalism and competence Kurtz spends most of his
"media critic" columns making excuses. Political editor
John Harris has finally had enough of Froomkin's shenanigans, and
has apparently leaned on website editor Jim Brady (using the laughable
rubric that the title of Froomkin's long-running blog is "confusing"
to readers) to rein Froomkin in, suggesting ways to chastise Dan
by forcing him to change the name of his blog and to "balance"
the website by providing a companion blog to serve up reheated conservative
talking points alongside Dan's biting and witty analysis.
None of this will stop Dan from continuing to ruin the party,
of course, at least in the short term. But the point of all of this
isn't to silence Froomkin or even to dilute his ideas; it's to remind
him and all the other budding young muckrakers in the D.C. media
game just exactly what the rules are.
It's a minor matter, of course, as these things go. After the
Post gives Froomkin his slap on the wrist, the sun will still
rise over the Chesapeake. But if we step back for just a moment,
is it so difficult to see how this ethos of punishing those like
Froomkin, who work hard to bring a vibrant and contentious perspective
to their reporting, while rewarding stenographers and blathering
stuffed shirts like John Harris with plush editorial desks, has
created a country in which a president can openly take the country
to war on false pretenses and then be reelected by voters who are
largely ignorant of this most salient fact? In the name of "objectivity"
we are deprived of objective reality, instead fed equal helpings
of spin and counterspin.
Can we not see in this institutional sclerosis the roots of a
national disorder? Every year we turn on the television to hear
publisher after publisher bemoaning the decline in newspaper readership,
the erosion of demand for TV news, or the declining market for serious
books on public policy.
The base assumption in every one of these discussions is that
this is all a reflection of some collective failing on the part
of us, the would-be readers and viewers of our media machine's self-evidently
pristine product. And so, at the end of these sober segments, we
are always treated to the same patronizing prescription – the news
must become more exciting, less factual, less real.
New Post ombudsman Deborah Howell brings us the central
contradiction in her first address to the paper, as she discusses
Froomkin and his spat with the Harris' politics desk: "But
Froomkin works only for the website and is very popular..."
Perhaps one day there will be a spate of sudden cancellations
on the Beltway dinner-party circuit, and D.C.'s reporters and editors
will find time to sit at home and think for an hour or two about
the strange duality of Froomkin's popularity and Froomkin's position,
frozen out of the print version of the paper and subject to petty
discipline by the website that deigns to publish his dangerously
Until then, what is a loyal reader to do? For this one, the Froomkin
Effect is the final straw, loaded on the back of a beast that's
carried the fake Clinton scandals, the War Against Gore, the support
for the Iraq war, and innumerable other insults and depredations
just about as far as I can possibly carry them.
This far, and no farther. I can still get the Post where
I live these days, and I had until this week planned to do so. I
have decided today, with a heavy heart, that I will not be renewing
my subscription to the Washington Post. I am abandoning the
best political paper in the country because it's no longer good
enough, and clearly has no interest in being better. Not because
of what's being done to Dan Froomkin, but because of what that sorry
spectacle symbolizes about the sad, slow death of American journalism.
May it rest in peace, alongside Eugene McCarthy.
Both served us well, once upon a time, and have gone on to their
In Memory of Eugene McCarthy, 1916-2005.