Sunday, January 22, 2006


Deborah Howell - Ombudswoman or Stenographer?

Here's my take on the WaPo ombudswoman fiasco. It's a response to Jay Rosen, who calls for restraint and civility from bloggers on the HuffPo.

I sing the praises of digby in this comment, but it's about more than that.

Here's an article for context and background, from firedoglake.

Here's my take on Rosen's advice for bloggers to worry about the costs of pissing off the WaPo. In a nutshell, it's pretty nutless. Here goes...

"Mr. Rosen, here's a story you might want to take to the roundtable with the Post. Bought a second computer for Christmas and put it in the kitchen. Couldn't wait to read the post instead of the biased rag that is pretty typical of my spot here in "flyover country." After a few days of reading the Post, expecting to be informed by the institution that dug out the truth about Nixon, I hear the OMBUDSMAN spouting GOP talking points and wanting to change the name of Froomkin's blog because a so-called "grassroots" complaint about its bias. Turns out the truth is the complaint came from a high-profile GOP operative, meaning what Howell thought of as grassroots was really astroturf.

Next, the ombudsman of a paper I couldn't wait to read online not only doesn't come clean about being an, (inadvertant or not) tool of the GOP machine, but invites further controversy when she misstates facts and blames the democratic party for a scandal that is so far tied exclusively to a Bush "pioneer."

When confronted by this fact, the paper shuts down comments and the ombudsman comes out swinging, saying she will continue to "speak her mind."

I couldn't wait to read the Post and then I find out its just as constricted by the two (contradictory) controlling principles of print journalism, (1) avoid the liberal bias label, and (2) state the facts so as to avoid breaking rule #1.

The Post doesn't lose a thing when I skip their bookmark on my screen and go straight to firedoglake or digby. But I was ready to write them a check, still craving paper over pixels. Now I'll write Digby the check I would have written them, hoping he'll become a professional who doesn't worry about costs the way you advise.

Whether this roundtable the Post is calling for and that you're moderating turns out to be an attempt to listen or to placate depends on who's included. Thus far, it doesn't look promising. For example, rather than bring in a trueblue blogger like Digby, they invite a "Rhinestone Cowboy" professor (there's been a load of compromising on the road to your horizon?) who advises us, on HuffPo of all places, that "[d]riving up the internal costs of opening outward is not smart politics for those who want two-way newspapers that speak, listen, hear and get heard."

Here's a headline for you, Mr. Rosen: WE ARE NO LONGER DEPENDENT ON THEM! If Russert Watch is about getting Tim to apologize, it's a waste of time 'cause it'll never happen. Sure we want the Post to "hear and get heard" but when we start compromising when they cut our mikes O'Reilly style and give us ombudspersons who lie and then threaten to keep "speaking their mind" we need to twist the knife (hypothetically speaking Mr. FBI agent!) until they get the message.

Make sure they get this message and maybe you'll fulfill your role as an advisor to the MSM and an advocate for bloggers: Because blogs give us access to (temporarily?) amateur journalists who blow the professionals away, they're the ones who should be worried about costs, not us! They can laugh at us for writing in our pajamas, but this is the laughter of the emperor, just before he's told that he has no clothes. The jokes on them when the amateurs exceed the professionals.

What you seem to be saying, in a nutshell, is that even though the emperor is buck naked, let's break it to him gently, so he doesn't get too embarrassed. It might cost us too much to point out the obvious, and he might cut our precious mainstream media mike!

Get this through your (and their) head. When you spin the truth, and worry about the "cost" of speaking it, your credibility becomes the real cost. When Woodward worries more about access and book deals than his reputation, he sells it, and us, out. As he continues his "spin" to stay in the club and maintain access, Katherine Graham and Murrow spins in their graves, at a time when we need checks on a president's unprecedented grab for power.

To paraphrase another powerful woman, worrying about the cost of speaking the truth is not cajones, or even "smart politics, it's cowardice. Bloggers, fresh off taking down that stenographer Howell, have shown that they (alone?) have what it takes to takes to take on the powerful. If this means taking on the currently castrated, liberal bias-avoiding MSM, along the way, then so be it!

Like the MSM she embodies, Ms. Howell still sits on her throne, but her contract is about all she has left. Her reputation became a "cost" of trying not to piss off the powerful, while attempting to patronize the pajama-ed. Whether the Post is willing to let its reputation become a "cost" of this scandal remains to be seen. Cutting the reader's mikes wasn't the most promising start.

There's a rule in politics that you "have to dance with the one what brung ya." Mr. Rosen, you seem to tell us to imitate Ms. Howell when you tell us to worry about the "cost" of speaking the truth? Isn't that what she did, paying the price for it?

Unless bloggers remember, as they get more powerful, that "what brung them" was a willingness to point out the emperor's nakedness, no matter what the cost, our "dance," and our power, will be about as brief as Ms. Howell's contract, and Bush's second term.

I'm scared. The machine is powerful, the opposition rag-tag and split. But your call to worry about "costs" sounds like an effort to castrate one of our most powerful weapons. You might be worried about what the WaPo thinks of you, but if bloggers start doing this, the cost is one we can't afford to pay, not at a time like this. Bloggers must proclaim, and remain, "not for sale." That's what brought us here."

What do you think of my comment? Leave me one below!

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