Six Reasons that the Washington Post Is Much Weaker as an Information Source Now than It Was Two Days Ago

It is–I confess–very rare that I learn anything save the multiple forms of error from *Washington Post* stories: what’s true in them is rarely new to me, and what’s new to me in them is rarely true. But here are six very good stories over the past six months that taught me things: 1) June 8, 2009:>Dan Froomkin: How Cheney Bent DOJ to His Will: Three newly-disclosed Justice Department e-mails thoroughly vindicate the most cynical suspicions about how former vice president Dick Cheney bent ostensibly independent Justice Department lawyers to his will and forced them to manufacture legal cover for his torture policies…. They reveal Cheney’s extraordinary influence over then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales and key lieutenants…. Comey describes an exchange with Ted Ullyot, then Gonzales’s chief of staff: “I told him that the people who were applying pressure now would not be there when the s— hit the fan. Rather, they would simply say they had only asked for an opinion.”…>The e-mails date back to DOJ’s second round of finding legal rationalizations for torture. By 2005, the department had renounced the original August 1, 2002, “torture memo” from the OLC, the CIA’s office of inspector general had questioned the legality and effectiveness of the techniques being used at the CIA’s secret prisons, and the CIA had abandoned waterboarding — but not many other extreme measures. Cheney’s quest to restore the necessary legal cover resulted in three new memos, which were among those declassified and released in April by the Obama administration. The first memo concluded that brutal interrogation techniques including waterboarding did not individually violate the federal criminal prohibition against torture. The second memo concluded that even the combined use of those techniques didn’t violate that particular statute. Those two memos were issued on May 10, 2005. The third memo, dated May 25, managed to conclude that the techniques didn’t even violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture’s prohibition of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”>The previously undisclosed e-mails from Comey were Web-published on Saturday by the New York Times. But Scott Shane and David Johnston chose to focus on a minor point — that Comey and other lawyers, even while expressing their grave concerns about the interrogation methods in question, had approved the first memo…. [T]he e-mails were probably leaked to the Times in a “pre-emptive strike” on an upcoming report from the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility. That report is said to harshly criticize former OLC lawyers John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury for their role in approving torture. The message their defenders clearly wanted to send — and which the Times conveyed — was that even those DOJ officials who had thus far “escaped criticism because they raised questions about interrogation and the law” agreed with at least some of the rationales put forth by Yoo et. al.>But the actual e-mails, in which Comey documents his various conversations on the matter, don’t really support that message. Rather, they paint a portrait of a hopeless rear-guard action by Comey and others against Cheney and his willing lackeys…. In his April 27 e-mail, Comey describes telling Gonzales directly about his “grave reservations” about the second memo. Gonzales’s response? “The AG explained that he was under great pressure from the Vice President to complete both memos, and that the President had even raised it last week, apparently at the VP’s request and the AG had promised they would be ready early this week.”… Comey concludes: “People may think it strange to hear me say I miss John Ashcroft, but as intimidated as he could be by the WH, when it came to crunch-time, he stood up, even from an intensive care hospital bed. That backbone is gone.” And by his May 31 e-mail, his wistful regrets have turned into barely contained fury…2) June 3, 2009:>Dan Froomkin: Celebrity Journalism at the White House: What would you do if you — and your 32 camera crews — were granted unparalleled access to the White House for a day? And then you had two full hours of prime-time TV to fill? There are many mysteries you might try to explore. How does President Obama actually make decisions? What if anything changes his mind? What blows his cool? How does he settle disputes among his advisers? Who is the last one to whisper in his ear? How does he treat his staff? How furious is the competition for his attention? Who wins? Why is he so sure, so confident, that thinking big is the solution to every problem? How do he and his staff really feel about the mess Bush left them? How does the former constitutional law professor reconcile his devotion to civil liberties with a handful of recent decisions that have horrified civil libertarians? Does he have second thoughts?>But sadly those were not the sorts of things that seemed to interest anchor Brian Williams and the more than two dozen NBC News producers responsible for the “Inside the Obama White House” special showing last night and tonight, a show that treats Obama like a celebrity rather than a president…. [W]hat seems to fascinate Williams the most is what everyone is eating. There are, it turns out, apples and M&Ms all over the White House. In fact, the show devotes a whole montage to people pouring, throwing and consuming M&Ms. And the high point of the day, the centerpiece of the hour-long show last night, what Williams calls Obama’s “brief shining moment,” is a hokey, obviously staged burger run to Five Guys. The cameras literally languish over greasy paper bags full of french fries.>It’s the kind of substanceless fawning that leads some to conclude that the press is soft on Obama. But this show wasn’t about his politics or his policies. It was a celebration and amplification of the star power of the presidency in general, and of this president in particular. Simply showing him eating a burger they apparently consider great television. And tonight, we’re promised an interview with Bo the dog…3) May 26, 2009:>Dan Froomkin: Why “playing it safe” is killing American newspapersb: We’re all in a state of despair these days over our inability to monetize our journalism online the way we’ve been used to doing in print. A big part of the problem is that we’re doing a really poor job of connecting buyers and sellers on our newspaper Web sites…. But some of our shortcomings are purely journalistic. We… are still fundamentally failing to deliver the value of our newsroom to Internet users. Our reporters and editors are curious, passionate, and voracious discoverers and devourers of information; talented storytellers; and smart people with excellent bullshit detectors. As long as human beings are curious about each other and clamor for trusted information, there’s a place for us out there. The Internet hasn’t changed that. In fact it’s increased the market for what we’ve got: The Internet highly values people who know things, who can find things out, who can distinguish between what’s important and what’s not, who can distinguish between what’s true and what’s not, and who can communicate succinctly and effectively.>But we’re hiding much of our newsrooms’ value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations…. [T]he dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story… is mostly a throwback… a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community….>The Internet doesn’t work on a daily schedule. But even more importantly, it abhors the absence of voice…. If we were to start an online newspaper from scratch today, we’d recognize that toneless, small-bore news stories are not the way to build a large audience…. One option might be to imitate cable TV…. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values…. We stifle some of our best stories with a wet blanket of pseudo-neutrality. We edit out tone. We banish anything smacking of activism. We don’t telegraph our own enthusiasm for what it is we’re doing. We vaguely assume the readers will understand how valuable a service we’re providing for them — but evidently, many of them don’t….>Making political decisions through triangulation – trying to stake out a safe middle ground between the two political parties — is still making a political decision. It’s just often a not very good one. Those who argue that truth-telling has become too political for us to engage in need to reexamine why they are in this business…. That seven in 10 Americans at one point believed that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks is a profound indictment of our reluctance to champion the truth when it is under attack…. The high priests of the church-state separation may take offense, but the fact is that there’s long been a confusing continuum in journalism ranging from straight news to opinion. And I suspect our hairsplitting distinctions have been lost on our readers. In the Internet age, the answer is not censoring ourselves in the name of obscure in-house rules, or trying to put inscrutable labels on everything. The answer is for us to call things as we seen them, and be up front about it….>[L]et’s allow the folks on the “news” side to give members of the public the kind of analysis they’re craving. That means putting things in their proper context. It means not being afraid to explain that one position on an issue is better supported by the facts than the other, when that’s the case. It also allows for the advocating of basic human and journalistic values. I don’t think that conveying outrage over nondisclosure of public records — or children going hungry, or torture — disqualifies someone from calling themselves a news reporter…4) April 14, 2009:>Dan Froomkin: Obama Connects Most of the Dots: ware that many Americans are wondering how all his different economic programs and policies fit together, President Obama today tried to connect the dots. He explained why he believes each of his various short-term economic initiatives is a critical element of the economic recovery, how his ambitious long-term budget proposals are essential to building an economy that won’t crash like this one did, and that, although some initiatives are already producing glimmers of hope, most of the hard work still lies ahead….>He strongly rebutted the criticism, largely from Republicans, that he shouldn’t be spending so much either now or in the long term. He noted how it is economic common sense that “the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending.” And, in an analogy that resonated particularly well with an audience heavy on college students, he talked about the need to invest in the future. “Look, just as a cash-strapped family may cut back on all kinds of luxuries but will still insist on spending money to get their children through college — will refuse to have their kids drop out of college and go to work in some fast food place, even though that might bring in some income in the short term, because they’re thinking about the long term — so we as a country have to make current choices with an eye to the future.”…>But he failed to persuasively rebut the most urgent critique of his economic policies…. Obama raised it on his own, noting that some critics think he has “been too timid” about shoring up the banking system. “This is essentially the nationalization argument that some of you may have heard. And the argument says that the federal government should have already preemptively stepped in and taken over major financial institutions the way that the FDIC currently intervenes in smaller banks and that our failure — my administration’s failure — to do so is yet another example of Washington coddling Wall Street: ‘Why aren’t you tougher on the banks?'”>But his answer was vague and unconvincing: “So let me be clear. The reason we have not taken this step has nothing to do with any ideological or political judgment we’ve made about government involvement in banks. It’s certainly not because of any concern we have for the management and shareholders whose actions helped to cause this mess. Rather, it’s because we believe that preemptive government takeovers are likely to end up costing taxpayers even more in the end, and because it’s more likely to undermine than create confidence.”>Obama’s belief has never been in question. It’s the reasoning behind that belief that we’ve been missing, as well as the source of his faith in the judgment of economic advisers. But he once again left us all in the dark on that count…5) March 30, 2009:>Dan Froomkin: Bush’s Torture Rationale Debunked: Abu Zubaida was the alpha and omega of the Bush administration’s argument for torture. That’s why Sunday’s front-page Washington Post story by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick is such a blow to the last remaining torture apologists. Finn and Warrick reported that “not a single significant plot was foiled” as a result of Zubaida’s brutal treatment — and that, quite to the contrary, his false confessions “triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms.”>Zubaida was the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House. Then he was President George W. Bush’s Exhibit A in defense of the “enhanced interrogation” procedures that constituted torture…. But as author Ron Suskind reported almost three years ago — and as The Post now confirms — almost all the key assertions the Bush administration made about Zubaida were wrong. Zubaida wasn’t a major al Qaeda figure. He wasn’t holding back critical information. His torture didn’t produce valuable intelligence — and it certainly didn’t save lives. All the calculations the Bush White House claims to have made in its decision to abandon long-held moral and legal strictures against abusive interrogation turn out to have been profoundly flawed, not just on a moral basis but on a coldly practical one as well.>Indeed, the Post article raises the even further disquieting possibility that intentional cruelty was part of the White House’s motive. The most charitable interpretation at this point of the decision to torture is that it was a well-intentioned overreaction of people under enormous stress whose only interest was in protecting the people of the United States. But there’s always been one big problem with that theory: While torture works on TV, knowledgeable intelligence professionals and trained interrogators know that in the real world, it’s actually ineffective and even counterproductive. The only thing it’s really good as it getting false confessions. So why do it? Some social psychologists (see, for instance, Kevin M. Carlsmith on NiemanWatchdog.org) have speculated that the real motivation for torture is retribution. And now someone with first-hand knowledge is suggesting that was a factor in Zubaida’s case. Quoting a “former Justice Department official closely involved in the early investigation of Abu Zubaida,” Finn and Warwick write that the pressure on CIA interrogators “from upper levels of the government was ‘tremendous,’ driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates…. “‘They couldn’t stand the idea that there wasn’t anything new,’ the official said. ‘They’d say, “You aren’t working hard enough.” There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution — a feeling that ‘He’s going to talk, and if he doesn’t talk, we’ll do whatever.'”‘…>Author and investigative reporter Suskind first exposed the rampant fallacies of the administration’s Zubaida narrative in his explosive June 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine. See my June 20, 2006 column for a summary. But mainstream news organizations, unable to match Suskind’s sources, largely refused to acknowledge his reporting. Indeed, in September 2006, when the White House for the first time publicly acknowledged the existence of a secret CIA detention and interrogation program, Bush had no qualms about putting Zubaida front and center. In a major speech, he proudly described how Zubaida — “a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden” — was questioned using the CIA’s new “alternative set of procedures” and then “‘began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives.” All lies and euphemisms. But all reported pretty much straight at the time by a mainstream media that, if it noted Suskind’s reporting at all, did so as an afterthought…6) January 12, 2009:>Dan Froomkin: Bush’s Last Press Conference: Bush responded most angrily to Washington Post reporter Michael Abramowitz’s observation that members of the incoming Obama administration have spoken extensively about the need to restore America’s moral standing in the world. “I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged,” Bush said. (Even though it has, dreadfully. See, for instance, this Pew Global Attitudes Project report.) “It may be damaged amongst some of the elite. But people still understand America stands for freedom; that America is a country that provides such great hope,” Bush continued, before launching into a defensive tirade heavy on 9/11 references….>He continued to prove unable to admit any serious mistakes on his part. As before, he expressed regret for his cowboy rhetoric and said he should have pursued immigration before Social Security restructuring. But while he acknowledged disappointments, he avoided responsibility. “Abu Ghraib, obviously, was a huge disappointment, during the presidency. You know, not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment,” he said. “I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were — things didn’t go according to plan, let’s put it that way…. Look, I have often said that history will look back and determine that which could have been done better or, you know, mistakes I made.”…>One thing Bush hadn’t shared previously was his thinking about Hurricane Katrina, which up until the financial crisis was seen as his biggest domestic failure. “I’ve thought long and hard about Katrina; you know, could I have done something differently,” he said. Like what? “[L]ike land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge.” But the problem with the archetypal photo of Bush peering out at the catastrophic damage from his 747 was not that he didn’t land — it was how the photo symbolized his overall lack of concern and the inadequacy of the federal response. Later in the press conference, Bush grew angry defending that federal response. “Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed,” he said. But this is not exactly a controversial conclusion. A 2006 report from House Republicans concluded that leaders from Bush on down disregarded ample warning of the threat posed by Katrina and did not execute emergency plans or share information that could have saved lives. And the White House’s own report acknowledged that the response was botched because federal officials were confused, poorly prepared and communicated badly…—-**UP:DATE:** Dan Froomkin emails:>I would like to make a minor point. Of the six Post items [in the last six months] you generously list as being valuable to you, two of them were notably not in the Post. The second one was actually spiked by my editors (and yes, you can say that if you want) so I ran it on NiemanWatchdog and Huffpo instead. The third, I admit, I never even pitched to the Post, It ran over at the Nieman Journalism Lab Web site.It is… interesting… that the *Washington Post* do not want to publish this kind of report on the hall-of-mirrors that is the White House press corps:>[A]nchor Brian Williams and the more than two dozen NBC News producers responsible for the “Inside the Obama White House” special…. a show that treats Obama like a celebrity rather than a president…. [W]hat seems to fascinate Williams the most is what everyone is eating… a whole montage to people pouring, throwing and consuming M&Ms…. [T]he centerpiece of the hour-long show last night, what Williams calls Obama’s “brief shining moment,” is a hokey, obviously staged burger run to Five Guys. The cameras literally languish over greasy paper bags full of french fries…If you read the *Post*, think hard about what the editors are spiking and not showing you. Just saying…

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