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March 23, 2006

Commissar Domenech

-- by John Emerson

Ben Domenech is not a journalist. He's a moderately fluent writer, though prone to plagiarism, but he's been hired because, like Jonah Goldberg of the LA Times, he's a loyal and combative Republican operative with excellent connections. (This is how people were hired to reconstruct Iraq, and how Homeland Security and Fema were staffed and led).

Domenech does not work for the Washington Post. He works for the Party. He'll collect his Post pay for now, but he has every reason to expect that one way or another the Party will take care of him for the rest of his life.

This isn't completely new. A lot of established journalists earn a substantial part of their income by giving highly-paid speeches to ideological groups. What's new is Domenech's complete lack of qualifications. He's like a Soviet political commissar, or like the gangsters planted in union locals by the national offices of mobbed-up unions.

What we can expect him to do is to keep an eye on the real journalists at the Post. That's what he's been doing all along: he trashed Froomkin just a couple of weeks ago. Supposedly he's been hired to balance Froomkin, but that's phony. Froomkin is not a Democratic Party operative, and Froomkin, unlike Domenech, is an actual journalist.

When the facts hurt the Republicans, they accuse anyone who reports the facts of being biased. Domenech will be the on-site man to do that at the Post.

The Post didn't blunder. The Post was responding to organized outside pressures -- some of them public in the blogosphere and elsewhere, and some of them from behind the scenes. The Times and the Post have been knuckling under for some time now. Examples include coverage of the Clinton impeachment, coverage of the Gore-Bush race, and coverage of the runup to the Iraq war. There's no longer any reason to believe that either the Times or the Post will ever resist this pressure, or even to be sure that they really want to.

No one wants to put the heat on Sulzberger or Graham, because jobs at the Times and the Post are still the best in the biz, and no one is willing to burn any bridges. Those two guys wield a powerful carrot.

Increasingly, the Party is the media, and the Party is the State.

P.S. Ezra Klein has objected to my singling him out. In fact, Ezra is not an especially bad case, and this particular instance is not an especially terrible example of what I'm talking about. But in a toxic profession like present-day journalism, "reasonableness" puts you at risk. More in the extended entry.

Ezra:

First of all, it's me. Dave may or may not agree with me.

Second, I have a history with Tapped. A year or two ago Somerby and I had a messy triangular spat with someone there who made a silly slighting remark about his work. (I'm out of touch with Somerby, and I'm only speaking for myself now.)

Anyone hoping for a journalistic career will be tempted to pull punches for reasons of collegiality, and also to protect sources. I've seen even Alterman do that, and I believe that Alterman has made a considerable career sacrifice by choosing the political and journalistic course he has taken. He's just barely major-media even now, and he wrote somewhere about watching his conservative and mainstream colleagues pull down comfy think-tank positions while he was still living like a student.

Judy Miller is a scarier case yet. When she first went to Washington she was working for The Progressive, the weeniest of the weeny-liberal magazines. And I do believe that I've seen people move up from TAP to bigger media, and as I remember I thought that they had been taking an unnecessarily mild and "reasonable" tone right before they did that.

If the journalistic profession were healthy, there'd be nothing wrong with this kind of prudence. But it's deathly sick and terribly corrupt. If you look again at my STF piece, my real targets were Sulzburger and Graham. They have to be regarded as central to the corruption of print journalism, yet no one ever goes after them except me. I've been trying to convince DeLong to do so, and he won't. Even Somerby seemed to be willing to let the buck stop with individual reporters, even though a persisent, widespread problem has to be a management problem.

Sulzburger and Graham are still the kingmakers, both in the world of print journalism and in the political world. We're all still hoping for them to fix things, like Russian peasants hoping for to get past the "corrupt ministers" and speak directly to the Czar.

By temperament, choice, personal history, and circumstance I am pretty much stuck with the outsider perspective, and I think that this perspective is always a necessary part of the mix -- never more so than now. So I watch the up-and-coming people in the field closely from my particular point of view.

In my STF piece I did give my reasons why the Domenech hiring should be taken seriously. I thought your dismissal of the problem was one more example of the liberal tendency to finesse things away with clever rationalizations. And it had a flavor of the kind of in-crowd collegiality and unwillingness to make a stink, or step outside the rules of what's cool to say, that caused many Democrats to favor George Packer's misguided book over all the various people who could be regarded as peaceniks and outside the pale of decent society.

This is a general theme of mine. You are far from the worst offender, but it's pretty hard to make a general point without occasionally naming an individuals.

John Emerson

PS. After rereading your letter: I did not accuse you of dishonesty. I accused you of anticipatory socialization, excessive and inappropriate discretion, mistaken prudence, and misplaced collegiality in a toxic profession.

Posted by John Emerson at March 23, 2006 5:47 PM

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