What the next editor of the Washington Post (or the New York Times) should tell reporters

America's three most important daily papers face a massive inflection point: It's a chance to redeem journalism

By Dan Froomkin
January 31, 2021 11:00AM (UTC)
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The Washington Post headquarters building, on K Street in Washington, D.C. (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

The newly announced resignation of Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, the abrupt stepping-down of Los Angeles Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine in December, and the highly anticipated departure of New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet (one hopes imminently) combine to create an epic moment of reckoning for these highly influential news organizations.

A new generation of leaders is coming! And they have a lot of urgent repair work ahead of them. That includes abandoning the failed, anachronistic notions of objectivity under which they have operated for so long, recognizing and rejecting establishment whiteness, and finding dramatically more effective ways to create an informed electorate.

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Nowhere are those challenges more critical than when it comes to reporting about politics and government. So as my way of helping out, I've written a speech for the next boss to give to their political staffs. It goes like this:

Hi!

It's so nice to be here. I'm looking forward to working with all of you amazing reporters and editors. You've all shown you're capable of incredible work, and I respect you enormously.

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But at the same time, my arrival here is an inflection point.

It's impossible to look out on the current state of political discourse in this country and think that we are succeeding in our core mission of creating an informed electorate. 

It's impossible to look out at the looming and in some cases existential challenges facing our republic and our globe — among them the pandemic, climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the rise of disinformation and ethnic nationalism — and think that it's OK for us to just keep doing what we've been doing. 

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So let me tell you a bit about what we need to do differently.

First of all, we're going to rebrand you. Effective today, you are no longer political reporters (and editors); you are government reporters (and editors). That's an important distinction, because it frees you to cover what is happening in Washington in the context of whether it is serving the people well, rather than which party is winning.

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Historically, we have allowed our political journalism to be framed by the two parties. That has always created huge distortions, but never like it does today. Two-party framing limits us to covering what the leaders of those two sides consider in their interests. And because it is appropriately not our job to take sides in partisan politics, we have felt an obligation to treat them both more or less equally.

Both parties are corrupted by money, which has badly perverted the debate for a long time. But one party, you have certainly noticed, has over the last decade or two descended into a froth of racism, grievance and reality-denial. Asking you to triangulate between today's Democrats and today's Republicans is effectively asking you to lobotomize yourself. I'm against that. 

Defining our job as "not taking sides between the two parties" has also empowered bad-faith critics to accuse us of bias when we are simply calling out the truth. We will not take sides with one political party or the other, ever. But we will proudly, enthusiastically, take the side of wide-ranging, fact-based debate.

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While we shouldn't pretend we know the answers, we should just stop pretending we don't know what the problems are. Indeed, your main job now is to publicly identify those problems, consider diverse views respectfully, ask hard questions of people on every side, demand evidence, explore intent and write up what you've learned. Who is proposing intelligent solutions? Who is blocking them? And why?

And rather than obsess on bipartisanship, we should recognize that the solutions we need — and, indeed, the American common ground — sometimes lie outside the current Democratic-Republican axis, rather than at its middle, which opens up a world of interesting political-journalism avenues.

Political journalism as we have practiced it also too often emphasizes strategy over substance. It focuses on minor, incremental changes rather than the distance from the desirable or necessary goal. It obfuscates rather than clarifies the actual problems and the potential solutions. 

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Who's winning today's messaging wars is a story that may get you a lot of tweets, but in the greater scheme of things it means nothing. It adds no value. It's a distraction from what matters to the public. It also distracts you from more important work.

Tiresomely chronicling who's up and who's down actually ends up normalizing the status quo. I ask you to consider taking as a baseline the view that there is urgent need for dramatic, powerful action from Washington, not just when it comes to the pandemic and the economic collapse, but regarding climate change and pollution, racial inequities, the broken immigration system, affordable health care, collapsing infrastructure, toxic monopolies and more.

Then you get to help set the national agenda, based on what your reporting leads you to conclude that the people want, need and deserve. 

Learning from our mistakes

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Let's also consider the biggest mistakes we have made over the last two decades, and learn from them. 

The most important lesson of the Bush/Cheney years is that we should never assume government officials are telling us the truth, especially when it comes to matters involving war and national security. This is hardly an original lesson, and yet nonetheless it bears repeating. We should be particularly skeptical if they claim that secrecy precludes them from showing us concrete, persuasive evidence. The government routinely uses secrecy to protect itself, not the people.

One major lesson from the Obama years is: Don't become complacent just because the president appears to know what he's doing. The White House is a bubble, no matter its occupant. Power not only corrupts; it distorts, it distances, it detaches. The president and his staff must be constantly questioned, challenged and exposed to reality outside the bubble. Critics must be heard. Transparency must be enforced. The press is uniquely capable of making that happen. 

The big lesson from the 2016 election was not that we were out of touch with real people. It was that we had ignored — and, indeed, contributed to — a massive, viral outbreak of know-nothingism whose co-morbidities included white supremacy, white grievance, disinformation spread through the media and social media, mental illness, and, yes, some legitimate disillusionment about an uncaring and unresponsive government dominated by elites. We in the media helped by offering a divisive megalomaniac free and often unfiltered attention, by normalizing the radical extremism of the modern-day Republican Party, and by blowing Democratic failings wildly out of proportion to create false equivalence.

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Faced — and indeed shocked — by Trump's victory, we should have risen to the challenge and jumped to an emergency footing. We should have gone not back to work as usual, but to war — not a war against Trump but against lies, incipient authoritarianism and white supremacy. We should have corrected misinformation and advocated for the truth as emphatically and effectively as Fox News and the rest of the right-wing propaganda ecosystem armed its audience with misinformation.

So, yeah, let's not make those mistakes again. 

Luckily, the enthusiasm and skills that brought you into the news business in the first place are exactly what's needed right now. My goal is not to squelch you. It is to encourage you to use your exceptional abilities to observe, analyze and communicate to help the public understand the news and put it in context.

Sometimes, that will just entail remembering — maybe even just remembering the other stories you yourself have written. Much of the incremental news coming out of Washington these days makes no sense to readers unless they are familiar with the larger narrative. And we can't assume they are. We can't assume they understand basic civics. We can't even assume they appreciate the difference between verifiable facts and baseless lies.

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Habits developed in an era of loyal readers and limited space no longer apply — not when people land on our stories from who-knows-where and we can offer background and verification, through our writing and through supplementary links. What has been the unstated subtext of so many of our stories — that politics bends to the powerful, that bigotry blights so many American lives, that climate catastrophe is imminent — needs to be clear and obvious going forward. It needs to be in the headline.

Here's how we're going to start: I want each of you to write a "beat note," in which you describe at a high level what you see happening on your beat, what major questions you're trying to answer, who the key players are, who seems to be operating in good faith and bad faith, what pressures they are under, and what you think the biggest challenges are ahead. Then we'll publish them. We'll link to them from your author pages so people will know where you're coming from. We'll encourage your editors, your colleagues and the readers — along with an economically and racially diverse advisory board I'm putting together — to interrogate those memos. We'll encourage you to engage in conversation about those memos. And you'll revise and update them going forward.

On whiteness

So let's talk about economic and racial diversity. 

I look out at our profession, and I don't see much of it. 

Over time, that has to change. And it will — but not overnight.

What we need to do, in the meantime, is recognize the effects of that: Namely, that we have for a long time now operated in an atmosphere of establishment whiteness, where whiteness and white values are considered the norm. 

This has corrupted what the previous generation of leaders considered "objective" journalism. Even if you value being "detached" or "above it all" — which, for the record, I do not — you are neither of those things if you haven't recognized, not to mention rejected, white privilege and presumptions.

We in this business write and report, by default, from a position of whiteness. Our sources are too often white and male. Our presumed readers — the ones we worry about not offending — are white, male, affluent, and centrist (as if centrism were still a thing.)

We too often think of whiteness as neutral. What we have all witnessed so vividly in the last four years is what nonwhite people have experienced for decades: It is not. Whiteness can no longer be invisible in this newsroom. It must be acknowledged, studied and questioned. Nonwhite voices must be raised up and valued.

In the meantime, here's what you can start doing differently in your daily work right now: Visualize an audience that is diverse — politically, racially, socioeconomically, demographically, geographically and in terms of gender and sexual orientation. Make a project of diversifying your sources. Question your blind spots. Recognize racism and call it out. Solicit criticism from people you respect.  

Instead of trying to triangulate based on what you think you should be writing, or what your editors expect from you, or what you might get dinged for on Twitter, root everything you do in basic moral, journalistic principles, like fair play, civil liberty, free speech, truth in government and a humane society. You might call that "moral clarity." 

And a few other things

From now on, I'm the bad cop when it comes to dishy sources who want to talk to you anonymously. When you tell your sources, "My boss won't let me quote you unless you speak to me on the record," that's me. 

Granting anonymity is a two-way contract and should only come in return for delivering accurate information of great value to the public. In its ideal form, it protects sources who tell secrets and would otherwise face retribution from the bosses who don't want the public to know the truth.

But publishing what anonymous sources say is essentially vouching for their credibility, because readers have no way of judging it on their own. It also means the sources can avoid accountability of any kind for what they say, including if they tell us lies.

So here are some new rules:

  • No anonymous sourcing unless you and your editor agree that the information is vital to an important story and otherwise unattainable, and you are either satisfied of your source's altruistic motives or prepared to describe their more venal ones to your readers.
  • Warn such sources that if they lie to you, you will out them.

I'm also abolishing the fact-checking department. Or rather, I'm turning everyone into a fact-checker. Fact-checks shouldn't be segregated. If a lie is important, that's a news story. If an entire political party is engaged in gaslighting, that's a news story. 

Even more important, we should pursue consequences for lying, because right now there are none beyond a "fact check" that nobody reads. That means interrupting known liars when they are repeating a known lie. That means demanding retractions, publicly and repeatedly. That means denying serial liars the opportunity to use the media — particularly live media — to spread their lies. That means whenever you quote a serial liar, even if they are not provably lying at the time, you warn readers that they lie a lot. That means openly distinguishing in your reporting between people who, regardless of their political views, can be counted on to act in good faith from those who can be counted on to act in bad faith.

This is crucial to our mission and our economic survival. In a world with no consequences for lying, fact-based journalism has little value.

So in summary, I am not telling you what to think. I am asking you to think for yourselves. I'm asking you to interrogate some of your presumptions, to be certain – but then to tell the truth as you see it.

Any questions? I'm sorry, what was that? Oh, I've been fired? Already?


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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