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WaPo's Wobbly Balancing Act

What's bothersome is that Jim Brady, the Post's online editor, thought that someone like Domenech was a match for Froomkin.
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The blogosphere has been buzzing in the two days since The Washington Post announced the start of its new blog, Red America, which is being written by Ben Domenech, co-founder of the conservative blog RedState.org and, well, we'll get to his other credentials in a moment.

It is widely believed that Domenech was brought on in order to "balance" Dan Froomkin, who writes the Post online's daily White House Briefing. Last December questions were raised about whether Froomkin's writing demonstrated a liberal slant and, in addition to giving Froomkin the label of an opinion columnist, the editors of the Post's website decided to seek out a conservative blogger to, in their view, even things up a bit. Hence Red America, whether the Post's online editors will publicly admit it or not.

Froomkin has a distinctive voice, to be sure, but whether it was (a) a liberal voice and (b) needed to be offset is a serious question that raises a host of concerns about the state of journalism today and how it must adapt to -- and insulate itself from -- new pressures from the media critics on both the liberal and conservative sides of the blogosphere.

Let's set aside the fact that, for the most part, Froomkin's blog is simply a daily roundup of news stories about what the White House is up to. What makes the White House Briefing unique is its unabashed devotion to core journalistic values: transparency, accuracy, and accountability. Froomkin's agenda has never been anything more than to pull back the curtain on the White House by closely scrutinizing coverage of the administration and by using his experience as a seasoned reporter to cut through the spin and non-stop campaigning that has reached dizzying heights under the Bush administration. Last December, when conservative critics of Froomkin were at their most crazed, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen adopted Froomkin's perspective in order to present the following excellent defense of what it is that he does:

Froomkin has an argument. His (in my paraphrase) is: You actually don't think I'm liberal; what you mean is that I am anti-Bush. But you're wrong. I am not anti-Bush, but I do have a kind of agenda as a writer and observer, and it often places me in conflict with this White House. I am for "discourse accountability" in presidents. I try to insist that the president engage in real dialogue, and refrain from demagoguery. I think speeches should be fact-checked, and statements intensely scrutinized. When presidents refuse to answer their critics they do democracy a disservice. When they refuse even to be questioned they pretend they're kings and this we cannot allow.

Critics have seized upon Domenech's credentials in order to demonstrate what a poor pick this was for the Post. On this point, people can and should look closely at his bio, which clearly reveals someone who has devoted his entire (if short) life to partisan journalism and politics -- working as the Bush administration's "youngest political appointee," as a contributing editor at The National Review Online, as speechwriter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and Senator John Cornyn (both hacks, but I digress), and for the conservative Regnery Publishing house. Other critics have been digging around in order to figure out what sorts of outrageous things Domenech has written and done in the past (Josh Marshall even identified a potential connection to Jack Abramoff). Paul McLeary at CJR Daily took Domenech to task for, among other things, the intellectually sloppy claim in Domenech's inaugural post that his views represent that of the majority of Americans. (For some odd reason, no one has really taken a stab at Domenech's personal website, which traffics mostly in posting poetry and writing excerpts from the likes of C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, but which also appears to have some unintentionally hilarious original work as well.)

Froomkin, by contrast, has spent 18 years in serious, nonpartisan journalism: His bio reveals that he has worked at the Winston-Salem Journal, the Miami Herald and the Orange County Register -- working his way up, like a real reporter, to the Post in 1997. He also serves as deputy editor of NiemanWatchdog.org, which Froomkin describes as "a new Web site from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University that seeks to encourage more informed reporting by soliciting probing questions from experts." To say that these are not the credentials of Domenech -- a partisan, inexperienced non-journalist (sorry, NRO) -- is to put the point far too mildly.

It is this contrast in biography and experience that, to me, highlights the very serious problem here. It is not that Domenech is strident, partisan, and perhaps intellectually sloppy. Nor is it that he writes terrible poetry. The Post is free to hire writers who are as smart or stupid as they like, and in fact, I suspect many of his critics would have had no problem at all if the Post had hired a similarly strident, partisan, and intellectually sloppy liberal blogger (and of course, there are quite a few of them, intellectually sloppy and all).

What's bothersome is that Jim Brady, the Post's online editor, thought that someone like Domenech was a match for Froomkin -- intellectually and professionally. Brady (and whoever else was involved in the decisionmaking) seems to have no idea what it is that Froomkin actually does in his writing, and, quite apart from the foolishness of hiring Domenech in the first place, it is a remarkable slap in the face to Froomkin himself, who has thus far been gracious enough to his employer not to enter into the fray. In fact, I would go so far as to say that George Will and Charles Krauthammer should be upset too: The hiring of Domenech also says a lot about what Brady thinks fresh conservative thinking looks like.

Of course, it is now trite to say that the internet has dramatically changed journalism. But it remains true. These days, newspaper editors must be carefully attuned to the manufactured outrage that permeates lay -- and indeed some professional -- press criticism. Liberals and conservatives alike are now constantly angling to have their views represented and promoted in the mainstream media, and it is only going to get much worse from here on out (in fact, see here for what appears to be the partisan roots of the initial conservative outrage over Froomkin).

But in the midst of all this, we cannot lose sight of what it means to represent the central values around which good journalism is based. To think that what Froomkin does was ever in need of being balanced -- that's the real travesty here.