Former WSJ executive Marcus Brauchli has agreed to take over the Washington Post:
The Post's New Executive Editor Once Headed Wall Street Journal: Brauchli's challenge is particularly acute because he has never lived in Washington, a city with a unique culture and customs, and he has not dealt with local news.... Brauchli said The Post must straddle its dual roles as "the best source of information" for local news while providing a "definitive" account of national politics and policy.... "My mantra has been, we are not defined by medium, we are defined by our approach to journalism. If The Washington Post, which has a very strong brand, can reach people who want sound, thoughtful, balanced journalism -- free of cant, free of slant -- they will come to The Post in print, online, on mobile phones, expecting those qualities."
This is, I think, a huge mistake for him and his reputation. For the Post as it is today is not for "people who want sound, thoughtful, balanced journalism -- free of cant, free of slant." In fact, the opposite.
To see this, all you have to look at is page A1 of this morning's paper--at the article by Perry Bacon, Jr., who has already written what the Columbia Journalism Review judged the worst article of the 2008 campaign. The headline of the article is:
The echo of Paul Krugman's 2000 joke:
If Bush said that the world was flat, the headline on the news analysis [the next day] would read 'Shape of Earth: Views Differ'
is clear. But nobody at the Washington Post gets the joke.
And the substance of the article is as bad as the headline. Let's turn the microphone over to Hilzoy:
Obsidian Wings: Candidates Diverge: This is a very puzzling article. Here's the lede:
Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are both proposing dramatic changes to Social Security, taking on the financially fragile "third rail of American politics" that Congress and recent presidents have been unable to repair."
Here's Matt Yglesias' comment on it:
This is a great lead except for the fact that Obama is not proposing dramatic changes to Social Security. Well, there's also the fact that the projected deficits for Social Security are smaller and more manageable than those projected for the other entitlement programs (Medicare and Medicaid) and that the non-entitlement portion of the budget is running a huge deficit right now. Under the circumstances, Social Security would seem to be the least financial fragile aspect of the federal budget. And one more thing -- to say "that Congress and recent presidents have been unable to repair" Social Security implies that recent presidents and Congresses have been trying to repair it when, in fact, George W. Bush's Social Security proposals were, like John McCain's, aimed at phasing the program out. I think I'm afraid to read past the lede of that particular story...
I, however, am willing to rush in where even Matt fears to tread: The story continues:
McCain's aides said he favors a bipartisan approach and is open to working with Congress on finding a solution to the long-term solvency of the New Deal-era program, indicating he could support an array of ideas such as raising the retirement age, reducing scheduled increases in benefits and allowing younger workers to put money they currently pay for Social Security taxes into personal savings accounts. President Bush floated a similar idea for private accounts in 2005, but polls found it had little public support.
Obama has been even more specific. The Democrat from Illinois has proposed raising taxes on upper-income Americans to address projected shortfalls in Social Security.... Under current law, income up to $102,000 a year is taxed for Social Security, and Obama would create a "doughnut hole" by not imposing new Social Security taxes on income between $102,000 and $250,000. His aides said income exceeding $250,000 would be taxed at a rate of 2 percent to 4 percent.... Experts predict that proposal would make up less than half of the $4.3 trillion shortfall Social Security is expected to face over the next 75 years."
There follows a lengthy discussion of Obama's proposal.... [E]ven though the article's headline is "Candidates Diverge on How to Save Social Security", only one candidate's proposals are seriously discussed.... [H]ere's the entire discussion of McCain's plans:
McCain supported [private] accounts in 2005 and has spoken positively about them in his campaign, but aides emphasize that he would seek consensus on the issue. "John McCain is committed to honoring the promise of Social Security and believes that his bipartisan record will serve him well as he works across the aisle to ensure the long-term solvency of the program," said Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman. Aides said McCain would not support a tax increase to address the solvency of the program, but they did not give further details. Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, described McCain's plan as a "decision to repackage President Bush's failed and flawed plan to privatize Social Security." Maya MacGuineas, a budget expert at the New America Foundation who advised McCain on Social Security in 2000, said of his proposal: "In terms of details, there is so much to be filled in.""
Not very substantive... reason is obvious: McCain does not... have... a "plan" for fixing Social Security.
Personally, I don't think that fixing Social Security is a particularly urgent problem. But McCain seems to. Moreover, yesterday, McCain promised (pdf) to balance the budget by the end of his first term. This promise met with considerable skepticism: McCain has proposed a whole bunch of costly tax cuts and spending proposals, and next to nothing about how he would pay for them. One of the few things he did say (pdf), however, was that "In the long-term, the only way to keep the budget balanced is successful reform of the large spending pressures in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid." (p. 4). One might have hoped, therefore, that he would have said something about what, exactly, he intends to do to "reform" Social Security (or, for that matter, Medicare or Medicaid), and how this will help to balance the budget. No such luck....
John McCain will fight to save the future of Social Security, and he believes that we may meet our obligations to the retirees of today and the future without raising taxes...
There are... two ways to put Social Security on a firmer financial footing, supposing one thinks that needs to be done. One is to raise taxes; the other is to cut benefits.... McCain says he does not think he will need to raise taxes. That leaves benefit cuts.... I would be more than happy to concede that I am wrong: that McCain has plans for raising revenues or cutting [other] spending that I haven't taken into account. But in order to do that, I'd have to see some concrete proposals from him. And the truth is: there aren't any.... And that, in the final analysis, is why the Post article looks as odd as it does. One candidate has proposed something quite specific: taxing income over $250,000 a year at 2-4%. The Post therefore asks various experts what they think of this, and gets a variety of opinions. Another candidate -- oddly enough, the one who has put a lot more weight on "reforming" Social Security -- offers nothing more than the claim that he will "fight to save Social Security", that he will "reach across the aisle", and that he will "act".... Imagine that you are talking to John McCain, and you're burning to hear about his plan to save Social Security. What does it involve? "Action." How will he save Social Security? By "reaching across the aisle". What will he do to save it? "John McCain will fight". Now you know all about John McCain's plan to fix Social Security.
Needless to say, none of this is in Perry Bacon's article.
Matthew Yglesias has had enough of the Washington Post:
Matthew Yglesias: Southpaw asks:
There's been a lot of talk about the unbalanced media environment in this election, and how it benefits McCain. What should Democrats actually do to counteract that advantage? (aside from opting out of the public financing system and running a buttload of paid media.)
I think that what Democrats should do is the same as what ordinary citizens should do -- support good media, punish bad media. If you subscribe to The Washington Post stop, and explain to them in a detailed letter why you're stopping. Subscribe to The American Prospect, and The Nation, and Mother Jones...
At a lunch of eight people I was at last week--former cabinet secretaries, newspaper executives, deans, et cetera--somebody (not me) asked what learning-about-the-world reason there was to read the Washington Post. There was silence. Then, after a while, somebody said "the Style section." And then there was more silence.
My call for people to nominate reliable reporters--those whose bylines tell you that you can trust the truth, the importance, and the relevance of the matters asserted by the reporter--working for the print Washington Post has come up with:
Walter Pincus, Daniel Froomkin (who doesn't work for the print edition), Joel Achenbach, Dana Priest, Barton Gellman, Gene Weingarten, Philip Carter (who doesn't work for the print edition), and William Arkin (who doesn't work for the print edition). UPDATE: Steven Pearlstein.
That's it. Those are the only nominations I have received.
The rest... Well, the presumption now is that they are like Perry Bacon, Jr.: either in the tank to please their sources or their editors, or unqualified to cover the material they are writing about. It is a great mystery why the Post has come to this pass--why we lament "why oh why can't we have a better press corps?" But it is a fact that we have.
And this fact, I think, makes Marcus Brauchli's task impossible. There is no base of reader credibility and no ethic of journalistic responsibility in the newsroom to build upon.