John Harris and Jim Brady Get Into It About "White House Briefing." Dan Froomkin Replies.

Froomkin's column is popular; it isn't going away. (Users do have some power in the equation.) John Harris knows that. He told me he is not on any campaign to sink the column.
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Yesterday I interviewed two key players in a dispute at the Washington Post over Dan Froomkin's Web column, White House Briefing. National politics editor John Harris, and's executive editor Jim Brady explain what's going on. Then Froomkin talks back. Huffington Post writers Marty Kaplan and Jane Hamsher have already spoken.

Today the Post's Joel Achenbach, with a devoted read/write following, weighs in via his Achenblog. This thickens the texture of things. Achenbach describes some of what lies behind the seemingly "small" events in The Froomkin Foofaraw (his term.)

The background is here and here and here. Deborah Howell's ombudsman column started it. Then Froomkin replied, and readers responded (785 comments as of post time). Harris replied to Froomkin's readers and got just as many comments (725 at posting.)

I promised one of the participants that I would add some words of caution. All were aware that there's high interest in these events among online readers and writers. They said there may be a dispute, but there isn't any crisis over Froomkin's White House Briefing. His column is popular; it isn't going away. (Users do have some power in the equation.) John Harris knows that. He told me he is not on any campaign to sink the column. He's concerned about truth-in-labeling, but not in a state of alarm about it. "On the list of things I worry about in my job as political editor at the Post, Froomkin is not at the top."

I asked Harris and Brady similar questions, then gave Froomkin a chance to reply. I confirmed with Brady that Froomkin's column is typically among the top ten content pages at I tried to get better numbers, but they're trade secrets.

* Q & A with John Harris, national politics editor, Washington Post, and Jay Rosen, PressThink.

Q: What sort of complaints or reactions have the political writers received (and from whom) that would lead them to think that White House Briefing is harming their credibility?

John Harris: I don't keep a running log, but I regularly run across people who think Dan is one of our White House reporters. One of them was a very news-saavy source of mine who actually runs campaigns. That tells me there is a large chunk of readers--I'm not saying most but a lot--who are not clear who he is and that he is writing as a commentator and not a White House reporter.

The ombudsman says she regularly gets comments on the theme of how can you pretend to objectivity when your White House reporter writes "insert Froomkin quote here."

The question is has the website done enough to address such confusion? They are doing better. Most of the time (but with some slips) he is presented as an "opinion columnist." But I think the title "White House Briefing" (which, as Dan acknowledges, is really a pretty minor issue) invites confusion.

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.

Q: You say, "The confusion about Dan's column unintentionally creates about the reporter's role has itself become an obstacle to our work." What kind of obstacle do you mean?

John Harris: As you surely can appreciate in your position, there are many people--especially conservatives but increasingly many liberals as well--who have no regard for the tradition of objective journalism and view much of our work as an ideological weapon in the guise of neutral reporting. I profoundly disagree with this view, but this view is a reality and I believe we have to push back against it and do our work as best we can.

To the extent that some people believe Dan represents the voice and values of the Washington Post newsroom, that seems to me to be leading with our chin. Again, since many people seem to lose this point: I'm not trying to shut Dan down, just make sure we are presenting his work in a way that does not invite confusion. To the extent he presents a distinct ideological orientation in his column, we should make sure we offer other voices.

This issue is really the heart of it. I would agree with Dan that his words in response to the ombudsman--about demanding answers, crying foul on "disingenous talking points," and so on--do not represent ideological values. They would seem to me to represent basic journalistic values, and democratic values. This is probably why my comments caused such a stir: People bridled at what they interpreted as my view that challenging the White House on evasions, misstatements, or contradictions is evidence of "liberalism." By no means is that my view.

So my reservations about "White House Briefing" are not in theory but in practice. It seems to me that if you read his column over time he is presenting a pretty standard liberal critique of Bush. That is fine for a columnist or blogger but in my view would not be appropriate at all for a news reporter.

Dan has not yet responded to my question of whether it would be okay with him if his column appeared exactly as he writes it under the byline of Jim VandeHei, Peter Baker, or Mike Fletcher, our three White House reporters. You are a press critic: Would you be comfortable with that?

Again, I know most readers are not idiots and get the idea that we are sponsoring a blogger. But we know there is confusion on the point. And even a lot of conservatives who get the idea of what Dan is would say, "Yes, of course it figures that the Washington Post would sponsor a liberal blogger."

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.

Q: What else do you think it's important for me and readers to understand about this episode?

John Harris: What irked me about Froomkin's reply to the ombudsman was his pompous suggestion that he is a lonely truth-teller at the Washington Post and the way he held himself up as a high priest and arbiter of good journalism:

"The journalists who cover Washington and the White House should be holding the president accountable. When they do, I bear witness to their work. And the answer is for more of them to do so -- not for me to be dismissed as highly opinionated and liberal because I do."

Many readers responding to his blog--the ones that prompted my response--hailed what Dan does as courageous reporting and denounced other reporters as stenographers. To be blunt: that is total bullshit. First, Dan is not principally a reporter. He is a commentator on what other people report. I took his comment to be by implication a smear on Washington Post reporters who work hard every damn day to do precisely the kind of tough-minded, accountability reporting he says he admires.

I'm not trying to make this a bigger matter than it is. What we are really discussing is the title and presentation of "White House Briefing" and whether he should be complemented by another voice. I responded to your questions at some length because they touch on issues about the web and traditional news organizations that go beyond this episode.

Thanks, John Harris. We want to make sure we understand, so... Some excerpts from an e-mail he sent to Jim Brady explaining the discomfort with Froomkin's column.

* John Harris to Jim Brady Re: White House Briefing

Even so, the responses rallying to Dan's defense and denouncing the Washington Post newspaper were troubling to me. A great many of them showed little understanding of how we do our work as reporters and editors, and of the distinctions we make between news and commentary. Many of them displayed a common attitude these days--that every article must be either a weapon or a shield in the great ideological arguments of the moment.

The very idea of independent reporting, in which a reporter is trying to cover news and institutions without an agenda--in other words, our professional code--is under widespread assault. That is why I have been up on a horse about Froomkin in ways that probably seem disproportionate to you.

It's not an overstatement to say that our generation of reporters and editors is trying to vindicate the entire tradition of ideologically neutral news in a web-driven age in which most information is presented through argument. Certainly the Bush White House would be happy to have this tradition die--it makes it easier for them to dismiss all reporting they don't like as the work of liberal critics.

He's entitled to his opinion, and he's entitled to be proud of what is obviously a devoted audience. But you know how I feel--his column, under its current title and display, does dilute the Washington Post's reputation, and more serious care should be given to its editing and presentation. -- JH

* Q & A with Jim Brady, executive editor,, and Jay Rosen, PressThink

Q: How did you first become aware of the political reporters' concerns, and what did you understand them to be about?

Jim Brady: I became aware of their concerns right after I began this job in January. The Post's political staff has always been up front about their concerns over Dan's column. I have been equally up front in saying that White House Briefing is an integral part of the site and that we have no intention of killing it. It's built a tremendous audience, it serves as an informative roundup on what news organizations are saying about the White House and it's written with a strong voice and a wry sense of humor. Dan's column, to me, takes advantage of the Internet's ability to link and the Web's appetite for voice. This isn't anti-Post; it's one of many ways The Post organization is adapting to a new medium with enthusiasm and vigor.

One concern the newspaper raised early on was that Dan's column was treated as a news column, when they felt it was an opinion column. I happen to agree with that assessment -- though I know Dan does not -- so we have been labeling it as an opinion column since the summer. Beyond that, The Post's main concern is the name "White House Briefing," which they feel implies that Dan is a White House reporter for The Washington Post, which he is not. I felt labeling WHB as an opinion column, and continuing to use the tagline "special to" under Dan's byline did enough to separate it from the paper's news content. But there's obviously a disagreement there, and I'm certainly willing to keep talking to John to get to the heart of the matter.

Q: Which arguments of John Harris and his staff did you find most persuasive, and which did you not share, or see differently?

Jim Brady: I agree with John that where Dan's column resides philosophically on the site has not always been clear. It was promoted as a news column/analysis for more than a year, until I decided to put it under an Opinion label over the summer. I also think John's comments in Deborah's column on Sunday and his response to Dan on on Monday have been misconstrued by many of those who have commented publicly. They're accusing John of saying that no Washington Post reporter would dare criticize the White House; that's not at all what he said. His point is that The Post has a very clear line of demarcation between news content and editorial page content, and that he believes Dan's column creates confusion in that area.

I'm not as sold on the second point, but again, I'm certainly willing to hear him out. But he's right to say that Jim VandeHei would not be able to write -- in the news pages -- what Dan writes daily for the Web site, since Jim's not an opinion writer. But E.J. Dionne could write what Dan writes, as could Richard Cohen or anyone else on The Post's editorial page. So John's not saying The Post can't criticize the White House, but that when it does, that criticism needs to live in the editorial pages, not in its the news pages.

Q: Howell and Harris both seem to charge Froomkin with writing from an ideological and left-leaning point of view. They do not give readers any examples. Froomkin denies it entirely. He says he is engaged in accountability journalism, and he was prepared to do exactly the same thing had John Kerry been elected. Harris says this may be true: "It might be the case that he would be writing similarly about John Kerry if he were president." If so, then the charge of being liberal falls apart, and Froomkin's description makes more sense. Do you think of Froomkin's White House Briefing as somehow "liberal" or left-leaning? Or do you think he would be doing the same kind of column, asking the same kind of questions, highlighting the same kind of work, if a Democrat were in office?

Jim Brady: Having read Dan's columns for the past year, I do believe that it's left-leaning. Other don't agree, including Dan. I know he says that he'd have been just as tough on John Kerry, but since we have no way of knowing that, I have to rely on what's in front of me to decide how to classify the column. I chose the latter. Don't get me wrong, I think Dan writes a terrific column. It's a great read, it's built a huge following and Dan's done a tremendous job interacting with his audience. But I do believe it's an opinion column. Honestly, I don't want to start pulling "examples," since I don't want it to seem like I'm bashing Dan. But having read it every day for the past year, I feel comfortable with the decision to move in into Opinion.

Q: Howell says Brady is "considering changing the column title and supplementing it with a conservative blogger." What do you want the title to reflect that it is not refecting now?

Jim Brady: We have not really discussed the name in any depth, either internally or with the paper. As I said before, I'm willing to have a discussion about it with the newspaper. But I don't know where we'll come out. The issue is not what the title doesn't reflect, it's more the confusion that's caused by use of the words "White House." But it's too early to tell where we'll come out.

Q: Could you elaborate on your thinking about possibly adding a conservative blogger? Does that mean you have accepted the view of Howell and Harris that White House Briefing is tough on Bush because Froomkin is a liberal?

Jim Brady: Actually, the desire to bring on a conservative blogger has never been related to Dan. Ever since we launched our new Opinions area back in August, we've been trying to recruit someone from the right to help anchor that page. We do have a fair amount of online-only opinion columnists, but we don't have one who clearly brings a conservative perspective on the issues of the day. For the sake of civic debate and assuring that the entire political spectrum is represented on's opinion page, we feel like adding someone from the right makes sense. But we're not trying to find someone to rebut Dan; we're looking for a different voice altogether.

Q: What else do you think it's important for readers to understand about this episode?

Jim Brady: What worries me is when I see headlines that suggest there's a huge battle between the newspaper and the Web site. It's just not the case. Even with the national political staff--despite the obvious tension surrounding Dan's column--we've made huge progress in the past six months. We recently hired Chris Cillizza to write a political blog for us, and to make sure he was able to be as effective as possible, we put him in The Post newsroom to interact with the national political staff. And "The Fix" is a huge hit. We recently started a Post political live discussion that runs every weekday at 11am ET. Last week, we launched a congressional voting database going back to 1991, the first in a series of political databases we're looking to create. So I do worry that one issue like this is being used to suggest there's a war going on between the two newsrooms. There isn't.

* Dan Froomkin responds: "My job is to watch the White House like a hawk."

First of all, let me say that I don’t like the fact that my readers are using me as cudgel to smack around The Post’s political staff. I think The Post’s political coverage is the best in the business. I’m proud to be ever-so-remotely associated with them. My column is largely a blog, and like my fellow bloggers, I would be at a loss without the news stories arduously pieced together by political reporters who, let’s remember, unlike me or bloggers, actually need to maintain their White House sources as they go. Talk about a highwire act.

Noting my support for holding the president accountable, John Harris wrote on “The reporters on the Post's White House and political teams every day push through many obstacles and frustrations to do precisely this kind of accountability reporting--as I'm sure Dan would agree.” I certainly do. The Post political staff’s beef with my column, as reported by the ombudsman, is primarily a labeling issue. They just want it to be clear that I’m not one of their White House reporters. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I just happen to think it’s already clear to most readers that I’m a columnist, not a reporter.

I'm Not Taking a Political Stand

I am a bit frustrated that because my job is to hold the White House accountable, I’m accused of being biased. Being a columnist allows me to inject a lot more voice and personal observations into my work than I could if I were a reporter, but it doesn’t mean I’m taking a political stand. Should I also be critiquing the Democrats? There aren’t any in the White House. And my job is to watch the White House like a hawk. It’s also a job that the American public has counted on The Washington Post for during these past 30 years and that it appears a large number of readers from around the country and the world now come to for as well.

This current tempest isn't a clash of cultures, Jay, it's just growing pains. Please remember that I was the editor of for three years before I started this column. In fact, I started working at the Web site in 1997, as a senior producer for politics, after 10 years as a daily newspaper reporter. The Washington Post newsroom has come a long way since 1997 towards embracing the Web and what it means to journalism -- it just still has a long way to go.

The Appetite for Voice

To the extent that something good can come of all this, I hope it’s that the increased visibility for my column will call attention to its success as a new journalistic form, taking advantage of the Internet's ability to link and the Web's appetite for voice. The links, for instance, allow readers to assess my credibility on their own. My voice has helped create a large community of devoted, regular readers. This isn't anti-Post; this is neo-Post; it's one of many ways The Post organization is adapting to a new medium with enthusiasm and vigor.

And despite some of the fears of my wonderful readers, the column is not in danger. I could not ask for more support than I have received from the highest levels of The Post and -- including Don Graham, Len Downie, Web site publisher Caroline Little and executive editor Jim Brady.

Finally, I have been absolutely blown away by the expressions of support from readers, in their online comments and by e-mail, and from the blogging community. I am deeply moved and deeply appreciative and I wish I could thank everyone individually. If I ever had any doubts that this was worth the effort, they are gone.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University, and writes the weblog
, where you can find additional reactions and commentary on the Froomkin flap (just scroll down to "After Matter.")

UPDATE: Uh oh. Long-form blogger, academic economist and pissed-off press critic Brad DeLong phoned John Harris and interviewed him about one moment in my Q and A, where I was trying to get some specifics... Read the results. Not pretty. DeLong thinks Harris fell for an RNC ploy, or worse, by using "conservative blogger" Pat Ruffini as illustration. Brad's post about it at TPM Cafe is actually clearer. Here's a lot more about Ruffini from Tapped.

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