20 June 2009

Who Will Watch the White House?

Editors at The Washington Post this week decided to discontinue one of its best-read — and most controversial — blogs, “White House Watch,” and to terminate the contract of its author, Dan Froomkin. This is an alarming turn of events. Froomkin’s blog, a daily round-up of news reporting and analysis by other writers, accompanied by Froomkin’s own journalism, was relentless in its pursuit of accountability, not only for those in the Bush and Obama Administrations but also for those in the White House press corps.

Long before most of his colleagues, Froomkin sounded warnings on issues such as the buildup to the war in Iraq and the use of “extreme interrogation” (which the Post still refuses to describe as “torture” — thus affirming, inadvertently or not, the Bush Administration’s assertion that torture was not used). In recent weeks, Froomkin has scrutinized the disconnect between Obama’s public statements, both in the campaign and in office, on issues such as government secrecy, civil rights, and security. Though he’s liberal, he never made any secret of that: readers can make their own judgments because they always know where he stands. And he has shown no inclination to play anyone’s patsy.

For this reader, Froomkin’s blog has been a vital resource for the kind of information I need to remain a responsible American citizen while living abroad. If my country’s leaders are not being honest, I need to know that. It is the purpose of ethical journalism to question, investigate, and expose, and to represent the first and most constant step in the ongoing process of public accountability. When an administration acts on false pretexts or lies outright to the American people, it’s the duty of good reporters to speak out.

Gleaning material from dozens of publications and official documents, Froomkin regularly has done so — but he has also exposed just how often the Post’s reporters merely accept the White House positions at face value, even in matters of life and death, war and peace. The stakes don’t change merely because the leadership changes, and the risks are just as great when reporters fawn over Obama as when they jumped on Bush’s bandwagon to Iraq. The nation can’t ever afford a chorus of cosseted parrots on the White House beat.

Thus, Froomkin’s blog discomfited both the Administration and the press corps. By railing against the cozy symbiosis between official spin and complacent reporting (“I’ll give you access if you cooperate” / “I’ll run your statements if you cooperate”), he found few friends on either side. Even the Post’s ombudsman dissed him, in the Post’s own pages, after which the editorial board changed the name of his blog from “White House Briefing” (which they claimed sounded too impartial) to “White House Watch.”

The board now asserts that Froomkin’s readership has dropped off since Obama took office — though they have provided no figures to support that, much less any explanation why that would justify terminating a tough, independent column. (One that is, moreover, eminently readable and presumably cheap to produce.) The board’s decision speaks ill of its judgment, and of its commitment to good journalism.

“White House Watch” will continue for a few more weeks; if you are not already a reader, I urge you to become one. If you like what you see, write a letter of protest. The editors need to have a clear sense of what they’re losing.

After Froomkin leaves, I will not boycott the Post. I cannot afford to do so. For all its faults, the paper still provides too much valuable information to be disregarded. But I will make a point of following Froomkin to his next assignment — and I urge you to do that, too.

NOTES: Froomkin is also deputy editor at Nieman Watchdog, a newsletter of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University that raises “Questions the Press Should Ask.” It’s an impressive site, and Froomkin will continue to contribute to it.

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