Marcus Brauchli

Post Editor Profiled in CJR

The Columbia Journalism Review has a detailed portrait of The Washington Post’s Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli.  It’s no puff piece.

Brauchli knows how to read a spreadsheet and how to serve the needs of some online readers. But the Post also needs a leader who is articulate, imaginative, and inspirational, and some of his troops are restless. A reporter with a sterling reputation wonders: “How much longer is Don going to stand for this? When will he say: ‘this is not working—we need a different person?’ ”

Newspapers’ Problem: A 30-Something Nurse

An open letter to The Washington Post:

I met the problem newspapers like The Washington Post face.  She is a 30-ish admissions nurse at Inova Hospital.

I was sitting in her office clutching The Post and the Wall Street Journal, my hands gray with newsprint.  She noticed and volunteered, “I stopped my subscription recently because the paper was all yesterday’s news.”  She confirmed to me that she gets her news online.

The most obvious way to profit from readers like her is to give her information she can’t readily get elsewhere or charge for online content.  Maybe you put it in newsprint before going online with it, if you think newsprint is your future. 

I suggest you might save both your newsprint and online real estate for stories that readers like her care about.  Dan Balz’s article about a “pep rally”  is a case in point.  I understand that The Post’s reputation has been built on its reporting of politics, but that’s no longer helpful for two reasons.

One, Politico, Huffington Post, blogs, etc. give us more and faster. 

Two, politics has become so predictable and offensive.  Writing an article that’s nothing more than dueling talking points probably holds little interest for most of your readers.  Exactly how many of them care to hear the partisan tit-for-tat about what might happen a year from now?  And even “Republicans acknowledge that events could change the political landscape before next November.”  In March 2007, a year before Obama’s breakthrough victories in the primaries, who would have bet on his being president?  Still, let’s assume such navel gazing matters to political insiders.  Count them all.  I’m sure there are thousands.  Are there enough to save The Post

Now consider Shear and Eggen’s story this morning.  There is no news there except the coordinated effort by healthcare opponents to tie the recent mammogram study to “healthcare rationing.”  And The Post dutifully obliged to help that effort with front page placement.  The lede has no news hook:  “opponents stepped up efforts to define the legislation as big-government ambition run amok that will interfere with intimate medical decisions and threaten the pocketbooks of average taxpayers.”  Is that news?  Increased taxes had never been mentioned before yesterday?  “Stepped up efforts”?  I was unaware opponents were holding their powder before yesterday.  The story is “fair and balanced,” if that’s your criteria for good journalism.  But is this story of any value to my admissions nurse?  It certainly helped “radio show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News host Glenn Beck,” who again seem to act as The Post’s assignment editors.

I might argue with at least one point in the article:  “Obama administration officials [say the] U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which issued the [mammogram] guidelines, has no power to affect coverage decisions by insurance companies.”  In fact, insurance companies could use the results of the task force as a rationale to cut coverage for mammograms for women under 50.

But my complaint is not about any partisan slant or arguable point.  Nor is it with any of these reporters.  My problem is their talents are going to waste because of bad decisions about what content readers want.  That ultimately rests with Mr. Brauchli.  Maybe he needs a push from the national editors. 

Maybe readers want more critical analysis of the big issues of our day, which I seem to get more of in Post columns than I do in daily stories.  Or maybe it’s a curriculum change being considered by the local school board.  I don’t know, but surely it isn’t what The Post has done for decades.  That’s over.  You’ve lost that war, at least for your newsprint edition.  And I would argue that getting the story about the Republican governors’ conference on your web site faster isn’t the answer, either.

A Call for Brauchli to Resign

As Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli tries to minimize the damage from the salon affairs, calls are beginning for his departure.

As managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, he had allowed Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s new owner, to push him around — and ultimately out the door — in contravention of the editorial-independence framework that the News Corp. (NWS) owner had agreed to. Rather than sound the alarm, Brauchli held his tongue, his amiable silence purchased by $3 million (or more) of Murdoch’s money.

…This is serious. This isn’t about journalistic judgment; it’s about integrity. Brauchli was given a chance to take responsibility, and he responded by falling back on the exact sort of obfuscation and hair-splitting that newspapers like his exist to demolish. And he’s still doing it: In a chat with Post readers today, Brauchli faulted himself for failing to see to it that the salons were marketed correctly, but said nothing about his own role in propagating the "misunderstanding." No doubt he’s a fine journalist in many regards, but the top editor of an institution like The Washington Post — one of a handful of great American newspapers, and the first line of defense against government perfidy — has to be more than just a fine journalist. He has to be a paragon.

Brauchli will probably survive this episode, if only because his boss, at whose pleasure he serves, shares his culpability. But he should offer his resignation.

What Does Off-the Record Mean?

What we say it means, seems to be the answer from Marcus Brauchli, editor of The Washington Post, who was challenged today in his online chat about what he knew, when he knew it and how does he describe what he knew in connection with the flap that continues to haunt The Post.

When the political paper of record was caught selling access for anonymity, Brauchli tried to claim ignorance.  He said at the time that he didn’t know the salon sessions (pronounced sa-lahn se-shahn, I presume) were “off the record.”  According to a “correction” at the New York Times, he did.

On Sept. 12, an article in The Times reported that Charles Pelton, the marketing executive at the center of the plans, had resigned from The Post. That article, referring again to Mr. Brauchli’s comments at the time, reported that he said he had not understood that the dinners would be off the record.

However, in a subsequent letter to Mr. Pelton — which was sent to The Times by Mr. Pelton’s lawyer — Mr. Brauchli now says that he did indeed know that the dinners were being promoted as “off the record,” and that he and Mr. Pelton had discussed that issue.

During an online discussion, a reader took him to task, accusing Brauchli of lying.  Brauchli objected to that characterization.

When these events were planned, we intended that the information from them would inform and shape our coverage, without attribution. That is not, under our rules, off the record. They were later promoted as "off the record," and I knew that before July 2. As I have said repeatedly since then, I failed to reconcile the language and the intentions, which I should have done. The notion that I lied to the New York Times "hoping not to get caught" is absurd.

What does “information from them would inform and shape our coverage, without attribution” mean?  Off the record, I think most journalists would agree, is that which can inform the coverage but without informing us.  In other words, when information is given off the record you can’t give that information to readers, whether you identify the source or not. But certainly if a reporter believes the information to be true, she is not going to write something that contradicts it.  Rather, most reporters will use that information to get other sources to corroborate it on the record.

Brauchli seems to be splitting hairs.  I’ll look forward to hearing others’ views on this.

Brauchli’s Troops Advance on Liberals

A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that he thought the newspaper was tone deaf to conservatism.  He cited both the ACORN story about the prostitution imposters and the firing of Van Jones after allegations that he once thought Bush knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks.  Alexander said The Post ignored the stories for too long.

One explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don’t pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints.

It "can’t be discounted," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms."

"They just don’t see the resonance of these issues. They don’t hear about them as fast [and] they’re not naturally watching as much," he added.

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he worries "that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."

To guard against it, he said, "I challenge our reporters and editors with great frequency to look at what is going on across the political spectrum . . . at the extremes, among the rabble-rousers, as well as among policymakers." He said he pressed the National desk this week to provide more ACORN coverage.

Conservatives are getting their payoff from Brauchli.  Today we have two stories, one about the labor union SEIC.  The planned attacks on SEIC were discussed last week on the Rachel Maddow show.

Now, both SEIU and ACORN – they find themselves under attack, both from Republicans, as we documented on last night‘s show, painted a bull‘s-eye on ACORN as soon as ACORN started registering large numbers of likely Democratic voters and from corporate interests who aren‘t crazy about things like minimum wage hikes, corporate interest that‘s gin up suspicions of groups they don‘t like by funding PR efforts to destroy those groups, PR efforts run by guys like Rick Berman, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist who we talked about on this show before. 

Brauchli, perhaps afraid as are many journalists of being accused of being liberally biased, assigned a reporter to follow the SEIC story, no mOrly Taitzatter how thin it might be.

But at least you could make an argument that there was some news value there.  The Style section has a front page story and big photo about Orly Taitz, the woman obsessed with proving Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii.  The photo shows her as a dentist, giving her argument a patina of credibility.  It’s one thing to make the right wing echo machine your assignment editor; it’s quite another to give legitimacy to an issue with no credibility.  The Post expended nearly 2,500 words on this discredited woman.

It’s little wonder that The Post is going under.  Its top editors are cowards.  Perhaps they should heed the advice of one judge who had to deal with a frivolous lawsuit she brought before his court.

In September, U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land dismissed a Georgia case that Taitz brought on behalf of a military doctor, Connie Rhodes, which held that Rhodes should be spared deployment to Iraq because Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be commander in chief. More than just rejecting it, he excoriated it.

"Unlike in Alice in Wonderland, simply saying something is so does not make it so," Land wrote scathingly in his order dismissing the action. Singling out Taitz for criticism, he accused her of using the legal system to further a political agenda.

But no, Brauchli and his malleable ilk will continue to prostrate themselves to the echo machine.

The doubters have put themselves on the public’s radar. Eight in 10 Americans in a July Pew poll said that they had heard "a lot" or "a little" about the contention that Obama was not born in the United States and is ineligible for the presidency.

Hearing relentlessly about a charge, even if it’s been disproven, is enough for some in the media to reverberate it.  They also must bear some responsibility for what they enable.

At a minimum, organizations who monitor extremist groups say that the fantasy of Obama’s ineligibility is now a central tenet. "The birther conspiracy itself is now totally widespread among military and paramilitary [militia] groups and new, what we would call quote-unquote ‘patriot’ groups, which are groups that are virulently anti-government," says Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In oh so many ways, Brauchli played right into her hands.

And although she criticizes the mainstream media, she calls after the interview to see when this article will run. So she can flag it on her Web site.