In yet another sign of how online media outlets are strengthening as their older establishment predecessors are struggling to survive, The Huffington Post has hired Dan Froomkin to be its Washington Bureau Chief and regular columnist/blogger. Froomkin will oversee a staff of
four five reporters and an Assistant Editor, guide The Huffington Post's Washington reporting, and write at least two posts per week to be featured on its main page and Politics page. I learned last night of the hiring and spoke to both Arianna Huffington and Froomkin this morning.
Under still-unclear circumstances, which executives refuse to discuss even with their own Ombudsman, Froomkin was fired by The Washington Post a little more than two weeks ago after writing an online column for almost six years that was one of that newspaper's most popular. Almost immediately upon the reporting of Froomkin's firing, screenwriter Nora Ephron, an Editor-at-Large for The Huffington Post, emailed Huffington with a one-line note: "I hope we're hiring him." Within hours, Huffington called Froomkin, met with him in Washington last week, and a deal was finalized this week. That was just one of numerous overtures Froomkin received from various media outlets interested in hiring him (Salon was one such outlet expressing preliminary interest, but both Froomkin and Salon believed that much of what I do here already overlaps with much of the work he does).
Though the precise reasons for Froomkin's firing by The Post remain unclear, there's no question that his penchant for aggressively criticizing establishment media behavior escalated tensions. In recent months, The Post spiked columns of his that contained pointed media critiques. In the wake of his firing, Post defenders misleadingly focused on (and then rebutted) the obvious strawman argument that Froomkin was fired for being "liberal." But that, in fact, was something virtually nobody claimed. Instead, it was Froomkin's practice of exposing the corrupt practices of establishment journalists (both by his words and deeds) that made him such a unique presence at The Post. Pioneering press critic Bob Somerby put it this way:
Dan Froomkin criticizes the press corps. In the press corps, if you’re a liberal, that just isn’t done. . . . If there’s one thing you’ll never see [E.J.] Dionne or [Eugene] Robinson do, it’s criticize their cohort—the coven, the clan. . . But in the mainstream press corps, liberals don’t discuss the mainstream press. That’s the price of getting those (very good) jobs. It’s also the price of holding them.
Indeed, nothing eliminates the possibility of establishment journalist jobs more quickly or decisively than criticizing the establishment media as being too sycophantic to political power, manipulated by the Right, and, in general, slothfully devoted to doing nothing other than uncritically repeating what "both sides" say (by stark contrast, the tired right-wing grievance about The Liberal Media is not just permitted but welcomed; Bill Kristol spent years depicting The New York Times as an anti-American, Terrorist-loving beacon of left-wing bias, only to be hired by them as a full-time columnist, while right-wing polemicists who voice similarly trite claims about the media -- Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, Bill Bennett -- are routinely heard in the very venues they attack). As Brad DeLong documented in a thorough retrospective on Froomkin's firing, the first attempt at The Post to remove Froomkin from his status as "reporter" was driven by right-wing complaints that the content of his column was inappropriate for a reporter.
Huffington says that it is Froomkin's views on the media that, for her, is his primary appeal. The key to vibrant, successful journalism, she said, is "getting away from the notion that truth is found by splitting the difference between the two sides, that there is always truth to both sides." Huffington argues that establishment journalism is failing due to "the idea that good journalism is about presenting both sides without a voice -- without any passion." The outlets that continue to adhere to that "obsolete" model "are paying a price." Froomkin -- who has written extensively about how passion-free, "both-sides-are-equally-valid" journalism is the primary affliction of the profession -- echoes that view: "The key challenge is to present an alternative to the 'splitting the difference' culture that has infested traditional media."
While this pairing is, in some ways, a natural one (even the Post Ombudsman suggested that "Web sites like The Huffington Post or Politico would seem a perfect fit"), there are also potential sources of tension. As a practitioner of what he calls "accountability journalism" -- "explaining how Washington works; pulling no punches" -- Froomkin has been a vehement critic of the Obama administration for the last several months, while The Huffington Post frequently trumpeted (some might say "cheerleading") the Obama campaign and even his presidency (though it has become mildly more critical of Obama in recent months; its screaming, red headline today: "White House May Cave on Public Option"). Will Froomkin's harsh criticisms of Obama alienate an Obama-loving HuffPost readership?
And given the central importance of Arianna Huffington's personal relationships with key media figures and those in power, will Froomkin's unrestrained criticisms of many of those same people undermine a key aspect of The Huffington Post's business and promotional strategies? Both Huffington and Froomkin insist that he will have full editorial freedom, though that commitment is often more easily embraced in theory than in practice.
For all the self-serving talk about how political journalism is dying, it is striking how new and online media outlets continue to thrive. Yesterday, Josh Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo -- which began as a one-person blog -- announced a major investment from Netscape founder Marc Andreesen that is allowing it to double its reporting staff. And now today, a columnist fired by an old, struggling establishment outlet claiming "business reasons" as a motive is not only almost immediately hired by a new media entity, but was inundated with expressions of interest and even other offers from an electic mix of reporting outlets.
Clearly, journalism itself is not dying. What is dying -- and rightfully so -- is the staid, establishment-serving, passion-free, access-desperate, mindless stenographic model to which establishment journalism rigidly adheres. As The Post's Ombudsman reported from personal experience, Froomkin's firing left "an army of angry followers" and "an outcry from a loyal audience." People are obviously hungry for the type of real journalism Froomkin practices. The Huffington Post immediately capitalized on the Post's short-sighted and myopic decision to fire one of their most (and one of their very few) vibrant, passionate and innovative journalists. In this episode lies many insights about the real reasons establishment journalism is struggling severely.
UPDATE: Media Matters' Jamison Foser uses pictures to convey "what The Washington Post is up to these days." With leadership like Fred Hiatt and the nepotism-benefiting Graham family, it's really no wonder that -- with a couple of individual exceptions -- it's become such a sad spectacle. Nora Ephron said this morning: "I used to read Dan Froomkin religiously -- I thought he was one of the best things at the Washington Post. I was bewildered when he was fired." At least it freed up money to produce embarrassing vaudeville videos from Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza. When they're not selling access to lobbyists and printing John Bolton Op-Eds urging some new war on the latest Enemy, that is what "the Post is up to these days."