Froomkin, Lord Carlile, and US Political Journalism

by Kevin Jon Heller

As most people probably know by now, the Washington Post, completely overburdened by liberals like Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, George Will, Jim Hoagland, Michael Gerson, Robert Kagan, Fred Hiatt, David Broder, Richard Cohen, John Bolton, Joe Lieberman, and Douglas Feith, has fired Dan Froomkin, author of the wonderful blog White House Watch.  Froomkin has yet to say anything about his firing, other than that he is “terribly disappointed,” but something he wrote a few years ago — h/t: Glenn Greenwald — about his quaint understanding of the role of journalism almost certainly explains why he is no longer welcome on the editorial page of the increasingly execrable Washington Post:

Mainstream-media political journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, but not because of the Internet, or even Comedy Central.  The threat comes from inside.  It comes from journalists being afraid to do what journalists were put on this green earth to do…

Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

It also resonates with readers and viewers a lotm ore than passionless stenography I’m not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue in so many newsrooms — why, in fact, it’s so often consciously avoided. There are lots of possible reasons. There’s the increased corporate stultification of our industry, to the point where rocking the boat is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There’s the intense pressure to maintain access fo  insider sources, even as those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive. There’s the fear of being labeled partisan if one’s bullshit-calling isn’t meted out in precisely equal increments along the political spectrum.

If mainstream-media political journalists don’t start calling bullshit more often, then we do risk losing our primacy — if not to the comedians then to the bloggers.

I still believe that no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling than a well-informed beat reporter – whatever their beat.  We just need to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship — or whatever it is — out of the way.

It’s difficult not to feel despair at the increasing banality of journalism in the US.  A couple of days ago, I had the privilege of spending the evening with Lord Carlile of Berriew, who has served as the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation since 9/11.  He has no binding authority, but he insisted that his power to “name and shame” gives him a great deal of actual influence over the content of antiterrorism legislation.  And indeed, it seems clear that many of the UK’s imperfect antiterrorism laws would have been far less perfect but for his efforts.

I found Lord Carlile’s discussion of his “soft power” fascinating, so I asked him why he thinks the power to name-and-shame has almost no effect in the United States, where those who are named as the intellectual authors of repressive legislation feel no shame and suffer no consequences for their actions.  He gave a very simple answer: journalists.  I won’t repeat some of the words that he used to describe just how pathetic he considers US political journalism, but it’s clear that he believes it has completely abdicated its duty to — as Froomkin describes it — call bullshit on the government.

Lord Carlile contrasted US political journalism with journalism in the UK, where journalists of all ideological stripes feel a solemn obligation to make the government’s life miserable.  He has been constantly attacked in the British media — from the left for ignoring civil liberties, from the right for ignoring national security — and clearly dislikes and disagrees with many of those attacks.  But I was struck by the underlying note of pride in his voice while he told us about some of them.  It reminded me of the the parent who disciplines her child for being unruly, all the while thinking how great it is that her child is learning to stand on his own.  It’s obvious that, for all the discomfort UK journalists cause Lord Carlile, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

People often attribute the sorry state of journalism in the US to its increasing corporatization.  That is certainly true — but it’s obviously not all of the story.  The media is corporatized in every other western country, as well, yet journalists everywhere else seem capable of maintaining (to various degrees, of course) their independence and critical spirit.

American exceptionalism at its worst — as the Washington Post‘s despicable treatment of Dan Froomkin makes all too plain.

ADDENDUM: Lord Carlile’s very appointment as Independent Reviewer also reflects well on politics in the UK.  He is a member of the LIberal Democrats, has extensive practical experience as a criminal-defense barrister, and was the first MP to openly campaign for the rights of transsexuals.  Can you imagine someone like that being appointed to any important government position, much less one involving national security, in the US?

12 Responses

  1. As you have suggested, ‘it’s obviously not all the story’. Several years ago, William Kristol may had hinted at what may constitute part of his motivation. He has some nostalgia for debates within Rand and Objectivists circles. I understand they were lively and pugnacious.

    In current times, however human rights groups have supplanted the journalists in the ‘name and shame’ arena. And they can do so even more eloquently and forcefully.

  2. Just on the last point you make in the addendum: sure, it’s great that the UK might be willing to appoint someone like him.  But this is also a country that is about to keep track of the sender/recipient of each and every telecommunication, and (sorry for hackneyed statistic) has the most CCTV-surveilled populace in the world.  At least in the US, illegal wiretaps are, well, illegal.

  3. SDJ: Morning Daniel Froomkin News Roundup: Hamilton Nolan: >Gawker – Washington Post Fires Token Liberal ..

  4. In the U.S., I’d argue that this phenomenon is far less about media “corporatism,” American exceptionalism or ideological/partisan affiliations of any stripe (Democrat, Republican, Libertarian …or Octogenarian) than it is about access.  When information – or even working press credentials are granted or withheld in a sort of carrot/stick system that’s largely an open secret, the perception that we have what one wag has dubbed a “servile Fourth Estate” is entirely understandable.

    How so? Well, if direct access to power-wielding decision makers – as the primary source of your news product – is the lifeblood of your legacy print or broadcast media organization, you can bet the McMansion in Mclean you’re most likely not going to jeopardize it.

    So, despite all the earnest aspirations to hard-nosed Edward R. Murrow-ism, you can be certain no self-respecting member of the Washington press corps wants to find him or herself the next Les Kinsolving – quirky, gadfly journalist and talk radio host, who, through decades of both Republican and Democratic administrations has reportedly had to re-apply for White House press credentials on a daily basis.

    In a world of Twittering, liveblogging networked citizenry, – a veritable global army of ad hoc microjournalists, however, the larger question that remains is just how much has access as the primary currency of the journalistic realm been devalued?

  5. “At least in the US, illegal wiretaps are, well, illegal.” Unless you are POTUS, in which case even illegal wiretaps become (retroactively) legal. All through the magical incantation -if the President does it it is legal – made famous by highpriest of executive power Nixon.

  6. That Brian Williams NBC special inside the White House recently was an embarrassment: “Mr. President, why are you so amazing?” “Is it true, mr. President, that you can walk on water?”

    I don’t think access is the explanation. Brits don’t really have a great deal of access to 10 Downing Street either, but that doesn’t stop them asking real questions when they do get in.

  7. Response…

    I wonder if the U.S. media has become so much wimpier because it has significantly lost power.  Two decades ago, the New York Times and the Washington Post held the agenda for the rest of the media.  And the three network news stations commanded a huge audience.  If a politician, even one as powerful as a president, attempted to deprive any of these outlets of access, the politician would surely have to pay.

    Today, the concentration of media power is widely scattered, and a reporter has only so many chits available.  Just ask Dan Froomkin.

  8. If the mindset that pervades newsrooms today had existed 35 years ago, Watergate would have remained, well, a third-rate burglary. Editors today make apriori judgments –- often incorrectly — about how the public will receive a story and that guides their decision on how to play or even cover it. But prejudging public reaction is a coward’s way out and is not an editor’s role to play anyhow.
    There’s a reason you don’t see the Nightly News et al. report developments that shed light on whether the US committed war crimes in carrying out torture on detainees. They operate in fear. They’re afraid the message will rub off on the messenger, and they will be vilified for straying too far from the tacit agreement with viewers that America is incapable of doing despicable things. If I had a dime for every “Making a Difference” story NBC News has done, I could start my own network. See, “Making a Difference” pabulum conforms to the vanilla expectation that viewers want “good” reaffirming news about themselves and their country. To get edgy is to invite criticism, and we can’t have that.
    Remember in the movie “All the President’s Men” where Ben Bradlee tells Woodstein they better be right exposing the trend line for their early stories because most people couldn’t care less about Watergate? Wouldn’t happen today. Today’s editor would call off the story, having first decided most Americans would find it divisive and unsettling.

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