WaPo Drifts Further Leftward in Pursuit of Blog Strategy

May 5th, 2010 12:47 PM
The Washington Post is making the transition from a powerhouse liberal newspaper to a network of powerhouse liberal blogs. While the paper's Old Guard is worried that the move will tarnish the Post's supposed reputation for political neutrality, it should be seen more as a embrace of the agenda the Post has evinced for years.

"Traditionalists," wrote Politico today, "worry that the Post is sacrificing a hard-won brand and hallowed news values." One such "traditionalist," Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review, said a more openly-liberal approach to reporting, mostly done online in the form of various blogs, would be "a danger to the brand."

To the extent that the Post still pretends to be objective -- and to the extent that its readers believe that claim -- then yes, an opinion blog-centric approach is tarnishing the brand. But for those who acknowledge the Post' consistently liberal approach to the news, the only change is the way that that news is delivered.

And that element is changing quite dramatically. Politico reported:
The once-cautious Washington Post has begun to invest heavily in the liberal blogosphere, transforming its online presence – through a combination of accident and design – into a competitor of the Huffington Post and TalkingPointsMemo as much as the New York Times.

The Post’s foray into the new media world received some unfavorable attention last weekend when its latest hire, Dave Weigel, who covers conservatives, referred to gay marriage foes as “bigots.” But the resulting controversy brought into relief a larger shift: The Post now hosts three of the strongest liberal blogs on the Internet, and draws a disproportionate share of its traffic and buzz from them, a significant change for a traditional newspaper that has struggled to remake itself.

Besides Weigel, who came from the liberal Washington Independent, the Post also has Ezra Klein, hired last May from the American Prospect to bring his brand of deliberately wonky policy writing to its website; and Greg Sargent, who the paper said Tuesday will soon move to the Post itself after coming from TPM to run a political blog for the Post-owned website, WhoRunsGov.com, as well as two editors recently hired from the Huffington Post to handle online aggregation and social networking.

The Post retains a number of lefties on its blogging staff -- Sargent and Klein being the most prominent -- but Politico spends a significant portion of its piece trying to decipher Weigel's political views. He seems to defy a clear label. Weigel is a registered Republican, calls himself a libertarian and claims he voted for Ron Paul in the 2008 Republican primaries. But he also says he has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election.

As Hugh Hewitt writes,

If the Post wants to regularly attract center-right readers, it will have to steal away one of the brightest young stars of the conservative firmament…

Weigel is very interesting and a good edition [sic] to their virtual masthead.  He's just not a conservative.

This begs the question: why would the Post hire a single blogger with at best ambiguously conservative views, while it hires bloggers with stellar liberal credentials to cover the political left?

The answer, of course, is that even in the new media world, the Post looks to retain its liberal slant.

There is nothing inherently wrong with reporting the news via commentary. But the Post needs to stop pretending it has a "smorgasbord" of views, as National Editor Kevin Merida told Politico. It just has a smorgasbord of liberal views.

The Post's apparent desire to pursue the more openly-liberal approach to reporting aligns with similar moves by other center-left news organizations, most prominently MSNBC. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune over the weekend, MSNBC President Phil Griffin said the cable network would be pursuing a more opinion-centric approach to the news in an effort to replicate the success of Fox News.

Politico reported that the Post's new strategy seems to "have less to do with ideology than the impulse of every media company to try new things in a changing environment, in which it is widely viewed as having lost a step to online publications – including POLITICO. Filling analytical and ideological space that POLITICO and others do not could be a way of jumping ahead."

Yes, the Post has ascertained -- correctly, in this blogger's view -- that commentary is a way to keep the paper afloat. But Politico is wrong in claiming the new strategy is not ideological. The Post is trying to carve out lefty brand loyalty by offering liberals commentary that supports their views. It has everything to do with ideology. In fairness, it is not clear whether the Post is intentionally catering exclusively to liberals, or is simply so addled with liberal bias that it cannot even comprehend how to attract conservatives.

Griffin offered financial viability as a reason for MSNBC's new opinion-centric approach to the news. The Post is doing the same. It is virtually impossible for cable channels and newspapers to compete on the hard-news playing field with the tremendous convenience, accessibility, and customizability of new media. A possible answer is to report the news through the lens of commentary.

The Post can retain its "objective" label even while giving bloggers a larger role in reporting. But that would require the paper actually hire a conservative blogger (maybe even more than one). The paper touts the importance and value of its bloggers, but what it really seems to value is their liberal politics.

One Post reporter, Alec MacGillis, told Politico that "the rest of us could take some lessons from [Klein’s] success in realizing how much readers value the voice of earned, fully reported authority, beyond the usual 'he said-she said.’ ” How, exactly, is Klein an "earned, fully reported authority"? He is not an academic, his political experience consists of a job on the Howard Dean campaign, and he has written for the American Prospect and the Post. He is a talented liberal writer, and that seems to satisfy the Post's standards.

Ed Driscoll reminds us that just after the 2008 election, the late Deborah Howell, then the Post's Ombudsman, guessed that

most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don't even want to be quoted by name in a memo…

Are there ways to tackle [the perception of liberal bias]? More conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two…

The Post and other news media can work harder on eliminating even the perception of bias while never giving up the willingness to follow stories that will inevitably tick off some readers.
Howell's advice apparently fell on deaf ears. In shifting its focus from its liberal newspaper to its liberal blogs, the Post is changing the way it delivers news, but the same politics will still pervade its blogs. The staff that the paper has hired to populate its website demonstrate that the Post has no interest in moderating its liberal approach to the news.