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"Calling bullshit," accountability journalism, the WaPo's Dan Froomkin, and Atlantic Yards

The big political journalism story this week is the firing of Dan Froomkin, the "White House Watch" blogger for the Washington Post. Note the hundreds of critical comments in response to the blog by the WaPo's ombudsman.

I'll point below to quotes from and about Froomkin in Glenn Greenwald's Salon piece headlined The Washington Post, Dan Froomkin and the establishment media.

The key quotes, to me, are Froomkin (a journalism colleague in college) saying that a journalist's job is to "call bullshit" and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen describing Froomkin as an "accountability journalist."

The same challenges arise for the Atlantic Yards story.
  • Did any of the journalists at the May 29 state Senate oversight hearing believe Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) Marisa Lago when she claimed that the Atlantic Yards project had not changed? 
  • Did they believe New York City Economic Development Corporation President Seth Pinsky's claims about new revenues?
  • Did reporters believe Forest City Ratner's claims that railyard work stopped because of litigation?
  • Have sports reporters believed Brett Yormark's ever-changing assertions about the arena opening date?
The list goes on.

Froomkin: the need for "calling bullshit"

Froomkin observes:
"Mainstream-media political journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, but not because of the Internet, or even Comedy Central. The threat comes from inside. It comes from journalists being afraid to do what journalists were put on this green earth to do. . . .

"Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

"It also resonates with readers and viewers a lot more than passionless stenography. I’m not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue in so many newsrooms — why, in fact, it’s so often consciously avoided. There are lots of possible reasons.

There’s the increased corporate stultification of our industry, to the point where rocking the boat is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There’s the intense pressure to maintain access to insider sources, even as those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive. There’s the fear of being labeled partisan if one’s bullshit-calling isn’t meted out in precisely equal increments along the political spectrum.

"If mainstream-media political journalists don’t start calling bullshit more often, then we do risk losing our primacy — if not to the comedians then to the bloggers.

"I still believe that no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling than a well-informed beat reporter - whatever their beat. We just need to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship – or whatever it is – out of the way."


Greenwald comments:
Why was Froomkin deemed "liberal," inappropriate and biased? Because he pointed out that the Bush administration's claims were false and their policies radical -- i.e., he wrote what was factually true. But that -- writing what is factually true and pointing out false statements from those in political power -- is the number one sin in establishment journalism.

The Jay Rosen interview: an "accountability journalist"

Also, Greenwald interviewed Rosen, who writes the media blog PressThink and also Twitters a whole lot.

Some excerpts follow.

GG: That what he was doing was acting adversarially to the party in power, which is what a reporter is supposed to do, and that happened to be a Republican administration spouting lots of lies, and he said, if it had been a Kerry administration that won in 2004, another Democratic administration, he would be doing exactly the same thing. And John Harris, in your interview with him, said, well, I - he sort of doubted it, so I guess we can't know for sure until it happens, but he seems to have a liberal viewpoint to me.

Now, as it turns out, there haven't been very many more vigorous and persistent critics of Barack Obama since the inauguration than Dan Froomkin on many, many counts. He has constantly identified reasoning coming from the White House that he thinks is inconsistent or unpersuasive, or even misleading


JR: And the truth is, that the Washington press corps, and the people at the White House themselves, helped to normalize Bush; they normalized a radical move. They didn't know what to do in the case of an outlier. All the things they would have had to do to respond, they failed to do. And Froomkin was reminding them of that. And that is ultimately why he was let go.

JR: Because he's not a liberal columnist. That was a complete lie, a description that sticks to him by Harris, the national staff, and ultimately by Fred Hiatt. He's an accountability journalist who practices his craft at the level that the Web makes possible.

GG: What's the difference between those two things? A liberal columnist and an accountability journalist?

JR: An accountability journalist is comparing what the President is doing to commonly held norms that are the basic values of journalism. Truthfulness, a standard of civility, and honor, and accountability of the government to the people, and to the public record - all of these things that are part of the cardinal virtues of journalism. And Froomkin was able, because he was outside the conventions of news writing as a daily beat thing, and of news analysis as it has come to be practiced, because he had looser constraints on him, was able to get more of the story of Bush into his column than they were working in the trap they had created for themselves. That's the resentment that was coming from Harris.

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