When is the Washington Post not the Washington Post?

It's not a trick question. Not really.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 13, 2005 6:34PM (EST)

We need to come clean about something. Although we write here every day about the foibles and follies of the Bush administration, we realize that some of you may be confused. We call our spot on the Web "War Room," and we're afraid that those words might leave our readers thinking that we're actually the generals and other military commanders in charge of operations in Iraq.

We're not, OK?

And if you don't think we really need to set that straight, then perhaps you might have a word with Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell. In her column over the weekend, Howell lamented the fact that readers don't always make a distinction between what's in the printed version of the Washington Post and what appears on washingtonpost.com, a semi-separate entity owned by Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive. And Exhibit A, Howell says, is Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing" column at washingtonpost.com. "Political reporters at the Post don't like" the "highly opinionated and liberal" column, Howell says, and they're "afraid some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter." Howell quotes the Post's national political editor, John Harris, as worrying that the title of Froomkin's column "dilutes our only asset -- our credibility." And Howell says that Harris is right: "Some readers do think Froomkin is a White House reporter." '

If by "readers," Howell means people who read column titles but nothing else, she's probably got a point. But any "readers" who take the time to read even a few words of Froomkin's work would realize that his bloggy column isn't a "here I am in the briefing room with Scott McClellan" product. Day in and day out, Froomkin takes in and dissects media coverage of the White House, praising reporters who get it right, nudging the ones who aren't doing their jobs -- as he did in a piece for Salon last year -- and often breaking stories of his own.

That's why the "readers" we know consider Froomkin's column an essential part of their day. But in an interview with Editor & Publisher today, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. seems to suggest that the Post is concerned about what certain other "readers" think. "We want to make sure people in the [Bush] administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin's column because it contains opinion," Downie said. "And that readers of the Web site understand that, too."

There's probably no harm in labeling Froomkin's column as "opinion," even if it's only White House staffers who find themselves confused, but it's ridiculous to dismiss it as "liberal." As Froomkin himself explains, his only agenda is accountability. "I believe that the president of the United States, no matter what his party, should be subject to the most intense journalistic scrutiny imaginable," he writes in a response to Howell's column posted at washingtonpost.com. "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."

Howell's solution? She says that washingtonpost.com should change the name of Froomkin's column. The site's executive editor, Jim Brady, tells E&P that he's not going to do that, but he tells Howell that he's thinking about adding a conservative blogger for balance.

We've got a different idea. If reporters and editors at the Post are truly concerned that washingtonpost.com is undermining their credibility -- and really, given the recent revelations about Bob Woodward, isn't it the other way around? -- then perhaps it's time to change something other than the name of "White House Briefing." Call us crazy, but if the owners of the Washington Post don't want people thinking that a Web site represents the work of the Washington Post, then maybe they shouldn't call that Web site washingtonpost.com.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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