Comments by Washington Post editors Leonard Downie and John Harris suggest that the public debate among Post employees over Dan Froomkin's online "White House Briefing" column has been driven by Republican complaints about Froomkin.
In the course of the public debate among Washington Post employees over Dan Froomkin's online "White House Briefing" column, Post executive editor Leonard Downie and national political editor John Harris have made public comments that suggest the controversy was sparked not by reader confusion over Froomkin's role but rather by complaints from conservatives and the Bush administration.
Downie has said that his goal is to "make sure people in the [Bush] administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin's column." Harris has said that he has "heard from Republicans" that they think Froomkin is "unfair," and indicated that these complaints play a role in his desire to make "clear who Dan is and who he is not regarding his relationship with the newsroom."
Perhaps most tellingly, when Harris was pressed to give an example of the "liberal prism" through which Harris claimed Froomkin writes, Harris referred to a months-old post by an obscure "conservative blogger," whose argument Harris said "does not seem far-fetched." But the "conservative blogger" is actually Patrick Ruffini, a longtime Republican operative who was webmaster for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign and who is currently e-campaign director for the Republican National Committee. When asked why he identified Ruffini merely as a "conservative blogger" rather than as a partisan political operative who has held senior positions in the Bush campaign and the RNC, Harris first claimed that Ruffini "wasn't at the time working for the Republicans," despite the fact that Ruffini was paid $10,000 by the RNC just a month earlier. Harris has refused to comment on the Ruffini matter further.
Explaining the impetus behind efforts to clarify Froomkin's role, Downie indicated in an interview with Editor & Publisher that his primary concern was how the Bush administration views Froomkin's column:
"We want to make sure people in the [Bush] administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin's column because it contains opinion," Downie told E&P. "And that readers of the Web site understand that, too."
But "people in the administration" are presumably sophisticated enough consumers of news to recognize the difference between "news coverage by White House reporters" and Froomkin's column; after all, they deal with the Post's three White House reporters on a regular basis. In fact, Harris's Post colleague, White House reporter Peter Baker made exactly that point in an online chat:
Peter Baker: Can't say any White House staffer has ever mentioned Dan's column to me, at least not that I recall. They're pretty sophisticated over at the White House and understand he's not a reporter. I think the concern on the part of our ombudswoman and political editor is about readers more generally, including some in the political class who may not be as closely attuned to how this works as the White House. John Harris has told us that even some of his normally savvy contacts have been confused over this.
Why, then, does Downie "want to make sure people in the [Bush] administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin's column"? Is it because the White House is genuinely confused about who is and who is not a White House reporter for The Washington Post -- a far-fetched notion that has been rebutted by one of the Post's own White House reporters? Or is because the White House has complained about Froomkin? Or some other reason?
John Harris, writing on the Post's blog, offered another explanation for the concern about Froomkin:
The confusion about Dan's column unintentionally creates about the reporter's role has itself become an obstacle to our work.
Harris gave no examples or explanation of how Froomkin's column has "become an obstacle" to the Post White House reporters' work, leaving readers to wonder if the "obstacle" is White House anger at the Post for employing Froomkin. Baker -- who works for Harris -- was asked about Harris's claim during an online chat. Baker was urged to "give your readers an example of how Froomkin's column has impeded your ability to report on the Bush administration." Baker's "response" didn't address the matter:
Peter Baker: Okay, lot of questions on this topic today, so let's go ahead and get into it. John's point is only one of clarity. Let's make sure there's no confusion. There shouldn't be any debate about that. We don't put Richard Cohen or George Will on the front page, we put them on the op-ed page where everyone understands what they write is based on their own opinions. The web site is less clear simply because we don't have the traditional design of the newspaper with a front page and an op-ed page.
In an interview with blogger and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, Harris confirmed that he has received complaints about Froomkin from Republicans:
Q: Have officials from the White House complained to you or to Post political reporters about Froomkin's column?
John Harris: They have never complained in a formal way to me, but I have heard from Republicans in informal ways making clear they think his work is tendentious and unfair. I do not have to agree with them in every instance that it is tendentious and unfair for me to be concerned about making clear who Dan is and who he is not regarding his relationship with the newsroom.
Rosen noted that neither Harris nor Post ombudsman Deborah Howell -- who in her December 11 Post column wrote that "[p]olitical reporters at The Post don't like" Froomkin's column, "which is highly opinionated and liberal" -- had offered a single example to support their contention that Froomkin, in Harris's words, presents commentary through a "liberal prism":
Q: You also said, "I perceive a good bit of his commentary on the news as coming through a liberal prism -- or at least not trying very hard to avoid such perceptions." But you don't give any examples or links to past columns, and Deborah Howell, who also made this point, doesn't give any examples, so it's hard for readers to judge what these observations are based on. Could you help me out here? What issues does WHB tend to view through a liberal prism? Can you point to columns that you had in mind? You also say that it may be true that Froomkin would do the column the same way if Kerry had won the '04 election; but if that's so, doesn't that undercut the notion of a liberal prism?
John Harris: How Dan would be writing about a Kerry administration is obviously an imponderable. Does Dan present a liberal worldview? Not always, but cumulatively I think a great many people would say yes -- enough that I don't want them thinking he works for the news side of the Post.
Without agreeing with the views of this conservative blogger who took on Froomkin, I would say his argument does not seem far-fetched to me.
As J. Bradford DeLong noted on his weblog, Harris's use of the phrase "this conservative blogger" is highly misleading. DeLong wrote:
Who is the "conservative blogger" that John Harris cites? His name is Patrick Ruffini. More interesting, Patrick Ruffini is eCampaign Director at the Republican National Committee.
Shouldn't John Harris have told Jay Rosen that Patrick Ruffini is not some grassroots "conservative blogger" outraged at Froomkin's bias but rather a Republican operative engaged in working the ref?
Ruffini also served as webmaster for the Bush-Cheney '04 presidential campaign and previously worked at the Republican National Committee and at the 2000 Republican National Convention. His blog, as DeLong noted, is somewhat obscure -- and the post Harris linked to is nine months old.
Ruffini's anti-Froomkin argument -- which "does not seem far-fetched" to John Harris -- begins with the headline "Dan Froomkin, Second-Rate Hack" and proceeds predictably from there, calling Froomkin a "trite Democratic partisan" and his work "second-rate hackery."
As evidence of Froomkin's supposed partisanship, Ruffini offers examples like this seemingly innocuous March 25 Froomkin headline: "Bush's Approval Takes a Tumble." And this Froomkin passage from March 10:
President Bush takes his Social Security show on the road again today and if past is prologue he will be surrounded by supporters, showered with praise and cheered like a winner.
But outside the bubble, there are more signs of trouble.
DeLong later asked Harris about his use of Ruffini to substantiate his contention that Froomkin presents his commentary "through a liberal prism":
Q: I read you telling Jay Rosen that Dan Froomkin critic Patrick Ruffini was a grassroots conservative weblogger. And my jaw dropped because he is eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee. A matter not of conservative grassroots complaints about liberal bias but rather Bush-can-do-no-wrong paid Republican operatives working the ref. So why did you characterize Ruffini in this way?
A: He wasn't at the time working for the Republicans, he wasn't when he wrote that piece [about Froomkin last March] ...
Harris didn't say how he knew whether Ruffini was "working for the Republicans" in March 2005. But Ruffini was paid $10,000 by the Republican National Committee on February 24, 2005, for "political consulting," and has held a variety of positions with the RNC and the Bush campaign in recent years, which seems to suggest he would be more accurately described as a Republican operative than a "conservative blogger."
Harris later refused to answer DeLong's questions about the Ruffini matter:
Q: Can you give any examples -- other than Republican National Committee eCampaign Director Patrick Ruffini -- of people who are seriously confused about Dan Froomkin's role at WPNI?
A: I cannot comment for the record because I've promised I won't comment on this.
Q: Did you, when you sent your answers to Jay Rosen yesterday, know that your "grassroots conservative weblogger" Patrickk Ruffini had been a Republican campaign operative in 2004?
A: I cannot comment for the record because I've promised that I won't comment on this.
Q: Did you, when you sent your answers to Jay Rosen yesterday, know that your "grassroots conservative weblogger" Patrick Ruffini was now eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee?
A: I cannot comment for the record because I've promised that I won't comment on this.
During a December 15 online chat, Harris was asked about his refusal to comment on his use of Ruffini, and his description of Ruffini as merely a "conservative blogger":
Sterling, Va.: When will you fess up to what exactly you know/knew about Patrick Ruffini and when exactly you knew it?
Your unwillingness to comment makes the WP look -really bad- in light of the [Post assistant managing editor Bob] Woodward mess.
Or won't the White House permit you to comment?
John F. Harris: I said I was not going to return much to the Froomkin matter today, but I'm going to take this one because it bothers me. Also because many other questions I'm not posting are on a similar theme.
I did refuse to answer questions posed by a blogger named Brad Delong asking whether I knew that one of the people on record complaining about the confusion over White House Briefing was affiliated with Republicans.
As a journalist, I hate not answering questions, even from (in this case) someone who clearly was coming from a point of view quite hostile to me. But I had jointly decided with colleagues that I had responded enough to the blogosphere, so I took a pass.
I'll address the matter here.
But Harris didn't "address the matter here." Instead, he completely ignored the Ruffini incident in his response.