Wash. Post ombudsman slams "Mouthpiece Theater": "There was so much wrong ... it's hard to know where to begin"
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From Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander's August 9 column, "Foot-in-Mouth theater"
The decision to pull the plug stemmed from a July 31 segment playing off President Obama's Rose Garden beer chat about race with black Harvard scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley, the white officer who arrested him on disorderly conduct charges that were later dropped. In their skit, Milbank and Cillizza envisioned beer brands that politicians might be served. For "Mad Bitch" beer, an image of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared. A predictable uproar ensued.
There was so much wrong with "Mouthpiece Theater" and the way The Post handled the controversy that it's hard to know where to begin. But there was also something very right about it. More on that later.
The basic concept was flawed. Milbank might have pulled it off as a solo act. His Washington Sketch column can be biting and funny, and his occasional accompanying videos are creative and entertaining. It's his job to voice opinions. But Cillizza is different. He writes straight news on The Fix, his popular Post politics blog, and his stories appear on the news pages. Teaming with Milbank created a branding problem for him and The Post. It left readers confused about his true role -- reporter, commentator or comic? -- and about The Post's standards. Cillizza acknowledged this "somewhat discordant marriage" on The Fix after "Mouthpiece Theater" was killed.
Second, satirical humor is risky. Clinton aside, there was mention of Gates requesting a "Big Black Stout" and Crowley ordering a "White Rascal." Some critics charged misogyny and racial insensitivity. It's important to remember that this was meant as comedy. And Milbank and Cillizza poked fun at themselves by hoisting "two cans of Jackass Oatmeal Stout." But allusions to race and gender, however innocent or evenhanded, invite trouble. What's funny to some is hurtful to others. The Post's Stylebook is clear: "Avoid ethnic labels and stereotypes such as hard-drinking Irishman, tempestuous Latins or Chinese fire drill."
Third, the lack of quality control was disturbing. "There was no systematic approach for viewing the content before it went up," Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli told me last week. "Mouthpiece Theater" was intended to be edgy. Scripts were reviewed, but not all images. The absence of final vetting invited disaster. Late this week, a new system was put in place. According to an internal note, key managers have been assigned to review all videos for "fairness and taste." Questionable videos get sent to higher-level managers. "If in doubt, run it up the flagpole," the note says. "Remember the no-surprises rule."
Finally, the apology. If the video was deemed unsuitable, an unequivocal apology was in order. Instead, Post communications director Kris Coratti issued a statement saying only that "a satirical piece that lampooned people of all stripes" had been removed because part of the video "went too far." Cillizza apologized, but briefly, to his followers on Twitter. The Post has since carried apologies from Milbank and Cillizza.
- The Washington Post