Flailing Washington Post gets a new leader at last — with no time to lose

New editor Sally Buzbee is a promising choice — but the Post's recent reporting on Republicans has been dismal

By Dan Froomkin
Published May 24, 2021 5:40AM (EDT)
Jeff Bezos and Sally Buzbee (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jeff Bezos and Sally Buzbee (Photo illustration by Salon/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 Washington Post and its readers ducked a bullet when owner Jeff Bezos picked Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee to lead the Post newsroom earlier this month. He could have picked a toady, a dinosaur or yet another white guy.

By contrast, Buzbee is an outspoken editor with impeccable credentials in the traditional journalism industry. She's a potential change agent, certainly compared to the insiders who were said to be in competition for the job. And she's a woman, wresting control of the newsroom from a long line of white men and hearkening back to the glory days of the indomitable Post owner and publisher Katharine Graham.

But what's not at all clear is whether Buzbee has the foresight and fortitude necessary to make the long-overdue changes that her successor refused to even consider.

Marty Baron, who stepped down in February to chill and write a book, was a deeply flawed editor. He never came to terms with how deficient the Post was at calling out Donald Trump's lies and never realized that "not taking sides" shouldn't apply when one side opposes truth and democracy. (He was also condescending and dismissive about calls for genuine diversity in the newsroom.)

Buzbee's most urgent and important challenge will be to establish clear, honest and principled ways of covering a major political party that is increasingly devoted to subverting the electoral process, spreading disinformation, appealing to bigotry and sabotaging effective governance.

This is also true of leaders of every other major news organization in America. But it is particularly essential for the leader of the Washington Post, whose internationally recognized brand is Washington and Watergate and journalism that imposes consequences in response to anti-democratic behavior.

Let me be clear: This is not just me talking. Smart, seasoned journalists whose jobs happen to allow them to express opinions have been getting more and more adamant that the normal ways of covering politics — invoking neutrality, positing two equal sides, suspending disbelief — are at this point themselves hurting democracy.

The Post's own media columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan wrote that "the most important thing about Buzbee is not her gender. It has much more to do with how she'll manage the journalistic challenges of this fraught moment in American history." She wrote:

A longtime Post subscriber in Virginia, one of my regular correspondents, had something to say about that in a recent email about the appointment: "Does she understand — really understand — that . . . the United States is on track to become functionally an authoritarian White Christian nationalist state in the very near future? And if the answer is 'Yes,' what is she prepared to do about it?"

"Right now," he added, "nothing else signifies."

Playing off the Post's own a-bit-too-earnest slogan, adopted in early 2017, newly-minted Post opinion columnist Perry Bacon Jr. wrote: "Perhaps democracy dies faster in darkness. But it could also die slowly in the light, as all of us watched but didn't do enough to save it."

Meanwhile, Greg Sargent's newsy, two-fisted, more-than-daily online Post opinion column relentlessly calls out his news colleagues for falling for Republican scams. "We're getting lulled into treating the GOP's ongoing radicalization against democracy as a normal feature of our politics," he wrote in March.

He wrote this week about how "neutral media … unwittingly enable GOP spin" — most recently by taking even a tiny bit seriously the preposterous excuses Republicans are making for their opposition to a bipartisan congressional investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

My prescription is outlined here and  here and here and, generally speaking, in everything I write for Press Watch. In a nutshell: Journalism requires you to take sides when one side is the truth and the other is a lie; reporters should forcefully call out threats to core democratic values; and editors should focus on who is proposing intelligent solutions, who is blocking them, and why.

Inheritor of chaos

Jack Shafer couldn't be more wrong.

In his open letter of welcome to Buzbee, the Politico media columnist wrote that she had "inherited a franchise spinning with so much positive momentum and cred that you needn't do much in the short term but activate the cruise control, tap the brakes to negotiate corners and avoid scraping the guardrails to be considered a success."

(His similarly unsound advice was to nearly double the size of the newsroom, steal the New York Times' crossword editor and work harder to "offend the left.")

In reality, Buzbee is taking over a staff in free fall.

It's not just that the newsroom desperately needs clarity and integrity regarding its political coverage and has suffered terribly from Baron's listlessness on diversity issues and arrogant disregard for dissent.

It turns out that, for all his faults, Baron was apparently single-handedly holding the place together.

Under the interim leadership of managing editor Cameron Barr, Washington Post reporters and editors have engaged in a steady stream of trust-corroding journalism — dramatically punctuated by a disastrously wrong front-page story that it still refuses to retract or explain.

That story, originally headlined "FBI warned Giuliani, key Trump ally in Senate of Russian disinformation campaign targeting Biden" was prominently featured on the Post's home page on April 28 and atop the print front page on April 29.

The Post reported, unequivocally, in the first paragraph:

The FBI warned Rudolph W. Giuliani in late 2019 that he was the target of a Russian influence operation aimed at circulating falsehoods intended to damage President Biden politically ahead of last year's election, according to people familiar with the matter.

Three days later, the story was retitled "FBI was aware prominent Americans, including Giuliani, were targeted by Russian influence operation." And it carried a correction:

An earlier version of this story, published Thursday, incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation. That version also said the FBI had provided a similar warning to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which he has since disputed. This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings.

In other words, the headline and the lead of the story were completely wrong.

Journalistic best practice when you get a big story this wrong is to run a retraction: a new story, prominently placed, that includes a thorough explanation, apology and lessons learned. Rewriting a three-day-old story and appending an awkward, half-assed correction is not even vaguely OK.

And this particular screw-up cut right to the heart of the Post's trust relationship with readers. It seems like every day the Post runs stories vaguely sourced to "people familiar with the matter" or something similar, expecting us to believe that what they are saying is true.

As I wrote in my primer on anonymous sources, "publishing what anonymous sources say is essentially vouching for their credibility, because readers have no way of judging it on their own."

In this case, readers need and deserve to know: Did Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris and Tom Hamburger's sources mislead them? If so, why? How? Will there be any repercussions? Why did the reporters consider them credible in the first place? How thoroughly did the reporters question them? How hard did they press for their sources to go on the record so they could be held accountable? Is the Post reconsidering its policies?

Or: Were the sources not really so "familiar with the matter" in the first place? That would  actually be even more troubling — that Post reporters take rumors, or second- and third-hard reports, launder them with anonymity and put them forth as authoritative.

Also: Was the story rushed due to some sort of misbegotten pressure to  counter the New York Times' scoop-filled reporting on the bigger, real, fact-based Giuliani story of the day, which was that the FBI had raided his house at dawn and seized cellphones and computers?

This should have been considered a significant journalistic scandal, with a public autopsy. Instead, pretty much only the Post's own brave media writers followed it up — and even they got stonewalled.

Two days after the correction was appended, Post media reporter Paul Farhi tried to explain it. He took the low road by spreading the blame among two other news organizations as well — the New York Times and NBC News, which scrambled to "match" the Post's reporting. But it wasn't his fault that Post editors told him nothing, leaving him to speculate that "government sources" had perhaps provided "incorrect information."

A day later, Post media critic Eric Wemple reported out a shameful statement from Post executive Kris Coratti downplaying the error as an "incorrect detail" that "it is now believed" was not accurate.

That is not the way a functional newsroom admits a major error. A public reckoning is still due. This is a case of cowardly editors covering up for their own poor practices.

As it turns out, the Baron interregnum has been rife with fairly high-profile management failures.

Smack in the middle of a national debate about whether to give a platform to politicians spreading the Big Lie, the Post began heavily marketing a live interview with unrepentant insurrection leader Sen. Josh Hawley, to discuss "breaking up big tech, antitrust reform and the post-Trump era."

And as if they had nothing better to do, the Post's managing editors sent out a disrespectful, clueless and schoolmarmy memo to staffers about what rallies they are and are not allowed to attend, and what T-shirts they are and are not allowed to wear. Apparently, for instance, it's OK to "participate in a celebration at BLM plaza but not a protest there."

But it's really the reporting that matters, of course.

And there, over the last several months, there have been many examples of inexcusable gutlessness obscuring important truths about the current state of political affairs.

Post reporters routinely cast radical Republican intransigence and extremist anti-democratic behavior as just so much partisan squabbling. Despite the party's unprecedented rejection of reality, Post reporters have routinely treated Republican talking points like story assignments and adopted Republican framing as neutral.

Yes, that happened under Baron, too — and yes, the Post still does some tremendous journalism — but it's been worse since he left. Without a leader, the political staff seems to have defaulted to asking themselves, as media critic Eric Boehlert put it, "What are Republicans angry about today?" They normalize words and deeds that should send them running to sound the alarm.

For instance, long after there should be any hesitation by journalists to describe Republican voter suppression measures as dangerously anti-democratic, you have Amy Gardner describing Florida's voter-suppressing legislation as "a measure critics said would make it harder for millions of voters to cast ballots in the Sunshine State."

In an article about the Arizona recount, Rosalind S. Helderman and Josh Dawsey wrote that "former president Donald Trump has seized on a new avenue to try to call the [election] outcome into question" — a ridiculously euphemistic and inadequate way of saying that Trump continues to undermine confidence in the election-counting process and lay the groundwork for stealing elections in the future, with Republican Party leaders obliging in indefensible ways.

It's not that the GOP is advocating racist policies. No, what's really going on, according to Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Mike DeBonis, is that the "ongoing debate over the role of racism in America … has sometimes left them struggling to articulate a clear position." By the way, here's an example they themselves provided of a Republican "struggling": Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., saying, "They should feel gratitude, but they feel contempt."

Rather than confront right-wing media attempts to stoke anti-immigrant hysteria about the border, Post reporters have routinely hyped the "crisis," uncritically quoting bogus Republican accusations that Biden was has made it worse and was taken "off guard" — while actually undercovering Biden's  continuation of cruel Trump-era policies (for that, read Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O'Toole's essential coverage.)

Every new thing  is a potential crisis for Biden. In the article "Biden says that fuel is 'beginning to flow,' as administration struggles to limit political damage from gas shortage," Sean Sullivan cast a brief glitch as some sort of Jimmy Carter moment.

Three days later, Matt Viser and Sullivan expanded on this critique, writing that "As Biden and his aides seek to project steadiness, many Republicans are offering an alternative interpretation: The world is increasingly engulfed in chaos on Biden's watch as gas prices surge, crime rates rise, border crossings grow and the costs of consumer goods threaten to spike."

They literally left it to the reader to choose between the two: "The dueling political messages have created a Rorschach test for voters in upcoming elections: Do they see Biden as an agent of competence or chaos?"

As I noted last month, when Biden was asked if he supported moving the All-Star game out of Atlanta — he said he did — Washington Post White House bureau chief Ashley Parker cried foul. Not because of the answer, but because he didn't duck the question.

Dan Diamond and Fenit Nirappil looked at a short-lived rise in COVID infections despite Biden's "railing" about Trump's negligence and wrote a front-pager headlined "Infections Climb on Biden's Watch."

Republican intransigence is not Republican intransigence, it's an existential crisis for America. So in the article "In Biden's infrastructure moonshot, a big question: Can the nation still achieve its highest ambitions?" Michael Laris and Ian Duncan wrote that "the question in 2021 is whether the nation still can make good on its aspirations."

That's not the question.

An article by Dan Balz about U.S. population data was racist and nativist and reactionary, casting slower population growth as a danger, rather than as an opportunity to welcome more immigrants.

The Post eagerly latched onto the disputable Republican claim that employers can't find workers because the workers are happier collecting Biden's unemployment supplement, rather than because the employers aren't paying enough.

Fact-checking is a joke at a time like this. (As Post opinion columnist Paul Waldman noted, it depends on people having shame, and Republicans no longer have any.) But it's even more of a joke when "four Pinocchios" from Glenn Kessler gets a really rollicking headline like "Stefanik defends election falsehoods told on Jan. 6."

This particular problem predates the Barron departure, but it is inexcusable that Washington's dominant local paper has utterly failed to report out the biggest mystery underlying the biggest local story of the decade, namely: Why didn't the Capitol Police prepare for the onslaught it knew was coming? Was it racism or collusion or both?

Similarly, how do you whiff on a big story like this? A federal judge issued a hugely significant ruling in the early afternoon of May 4, concluding that former Attorney General Bill Barr's "summary" of the Mueller report was intentionally deceptive, especially about there being no grounds for prosecutors to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. It was quickly written up in the New York Times, but didn't make it onto the Post website until the afternoon of the next day.

Yet not only did the Post run a news-free, clickbait report from Mar-a-Lago by Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey, it paid to promote it on Twitter

Articles about Democrats predictably (sometimes laughably) portray them as in disarray. Sean Sullivan, writing about a series of competitive Democratic primaries, described "struggle" and "division." One critical reader also saw a troubling contrast between Sullivan's description of a Black, gay candidate as "already lashing out," while one white candidate "cuts a striking figure" and another white candidate is "a clean-cut former Marine."

And yes, of course Biden was wrong to assert that Republicans would come around, but that's no excuse for Matt Viser to ask with faux naivete: What if he was wrong about the Republican Party? What if it has, in fact, changed in more fundamental ways than he contemplated? And if it has, what does that mean for his presidency?"

If the goal is to adopt a view somewhere above the partisan skirmishes, the Post fails at that, too. More often, the point of view of some stories is essentially Republican. Tory Newmyer and Aaron Gregg set out to write about how the notoriously conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce is making modest overtures to Democrats during a massive infrastructure push, at a moment when some corporate leaders have publicly opposed Republican voter suppression and some Republican leaders are demonizing corporations. The least surprising result is that some Republicans are really upset. But the framing of their story — "Chamber of Commerce draws fire after a risky bet on Democrats" — is so blatantly from the Republican perspective that the headline doesn't even bother to explain where the "fire" is coming from.

Here's hoping

The Washington Post is a newspaper in desperate need of bold leadership. Look, I grew up reading the Post. I spent 12 years working my heart out there. My critique comes out of love. The paper was dying when Jeff Bezos bought it, and his money gave it a future again, restored its amazing potential. I will always root for its success.

Sally Buzbee could be just what the newsroom needs. At the AP, she took bold stands against misinformation, and the normally staid wire service's language describing some Trump moves was on occasion surprisingly unhedged.

After Israeli jets destroyed a high-rise in Gaza that housed an AP bureau last week, Buzbee publicly cast doubt on the military's rationale that Hamas also operated there, and demanded an independent investigation. But just on Wednesday, the AP Albuquerque bureau fired a news associate who had been harassed by Republicans for her prior support of Palestinian rights, apparently because of this tweet. (Which is actually brilliant, appropriate, constructive and utterly defensible.)

Busby has appropriately championed facts. "We have an enormous responsibility as American journalists to stand up for facts, whatever those facts are," she said last year. But the way she defines being unbiased and "not taking sides" worries me. She told CNN's Brian Stelter recently that "we don't want to turn people off by using so much emotion that they won't look at the veracity of the factual information."

I think that view has been proven wrong over and over again. And I know it's long past time the Washington Post got a little more emotional about conveying the veracity of the factual information. I hope Buzbee gets that. I'm rooting for her.


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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