Democratic Underground

The Froomkin Effect

December 14, 2005
By Adam Short

"The 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 rabies.

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 Post website.

As avid 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..." Indeed.

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 heterodox ideas.

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 rest.

In Memory of Eugene McCarthy, 1916-2005.

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