Jun
26
2009

Why I Couldn't Say What Dan Froomkin Said Reporters Should Do

I wrote a short item on Dan Froomkin's firing for FAIR's radio show CounterSpin today:

One of the bright spots at the Washington Post media enterprise was Dan Froomkin's column, "White House Watch," for WashingtonPost.com. It often struck us that Froomkin had a whole different attitude–skeptical of those in power, and critical of their journalistic enablers–than most of his colleagues at the Post Co. So it was perhaps not too surprising to hear that Froomkin, one of the Post's most popular online writers, had been fired–not long after his column was placed under the authority of editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who's one of the journalists who best exemplifies the Post's dominant ethic of service to authority.

Those who had accepted the premise that the purpose of journalism was to advance the agenda of official Washington were understandably resentful of Froomkin, who was a constant reminder that that was not, in fact, the only way to report the news. Post ombud Deborah Howell wrote a column back in 2005 complaining that Froomkin was "highly opinionated and liberal"–hilariously quoting the Post's then-national political editor John Harris as saying that Froomkin's column "dilutes our only asset–our credibility."

Let's be clear–it's not that they don't like you injecting opinion into the news at the Washington Post; in fact, they do that so much that economist Dean Baker refers to them as "Fox on 15th Street." But they have to be the right opinions–if, like Post columnist Dana Milbank, you think single-payer advocates are pathetic and ridiculous, that's an opinion the Post Co. is happy to showcase. If your opinion is, like Froomkin's, that torture performed by the U.S. government ought to be called "torture," well, that might be putting at risk what the Washington Post calls "credibility."

I was struck in writing this item by what I couldn't do, which is quote Froomkin's powerful statement about the importance of journalists pointing out when officials aren't telling the truth–because Froomkin repeatedly refers to this key journalistic function as "calling bullshit"–and if we had quoted that on the air, the stations that run our show would risk being fined by the FCC. (I could have translated that to "calling BS," but somehow euphemizing Froomkin's unvarnished call for journalistic forthrightness didn't feel right.) Just a reminder that the petty censorship policies of the FCC do have political consequences.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.