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It's Time to Stop the Media's Republican Affirmative Action Program


Ben Domenech's rapid resignation last week from the Washington Post's Republican blog, Red America, amid accusations of plagiarism is one more sign that major media outlets have to reconsider their Republican affirmative action programs.

I know it's pretty hilarious to think about right-wingers pushing FOR affirmative action, but how else can you explain the Post's hiring a guy like Domenech in the first place?

A special interest group (in this case Republicans rabidly supportive of President Bush) so severely hectored an esteemed national newspaper about the perceived unfairness of its political blog that the paper created a vehicle specifically for that group to spout off (Red America) and lowered its hiring standards to bring in someone reflecting that group's point of view (Domenech). Now instead of Bush Republicans, substitute the term African-Americans, or Latinos, or Jews, or homosexuals, and you can see how this situation might be addressed under different circumstances.

When New York Times embarrassment Jayson Blair was pilloried for fabricating news stories while hoovering lines of cocaine in his Brooklyn apartment, the media simultaneously engaged in a loud conversation about the role affirmative action played in Blair's hiring. I see no reason why we shouldn't be doing the same ruminating now about how the hell the Post got involved with Domenech and why it felt the need to create Red America.

Although the Post refuses to admit it, the newspaper's ostensible purpose for hiring Domenech to launch Red America was to balance its White House Briefing blog written by columnist Dan Froomkin. So Jim Brady, head of Washingtonpost.com, brought in Domenech, a 24-year-old Republican activist and the youngest Bush administration political appointee, son of President Bush's liaison with the Interior Department, co-founder of the partisan Republican website RedState, and editor at the conservative publishing house Regnery. He's also a college dropout, having left William & Mary to work for the president, with little professional writing experience.

Forget for a second how Post editors could've missed Domenech's in-your-face plagiarism (though there is a lesson here for all you budding journalists: if you're going to rip off someone to further your career, don't pick a prominent writer like P.J. O'Rourke) and just look at the guy's resume. How could Post editors see a young conservative political hack as reasonable balance to an experienced columnist like Dan Froomkin?

I'm sitting here looking at Froomkin's resume. After graduating from Yale in 1985, he spent a decade as a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, Miami Herald and Orange County Register. He was co-creator of the website for Education Week. And then, in 1997, the Post hired him to help run the political section of the newspaper's fledgling website. At Washingtonpost.com he headed coverage of President Clinton's impeachment, and served as Metro Editor and Editor before launching White House Briefing.

What's missing from his resume? A single job at a partisan organization, that's what. Regardless of his political leanings, it's clear from his professional background that Froomkin views the world as a journalist, not a political operative. There's a huge difference, and I should know, since I've spent time on both sides of this fence.

From 1990 to 1991, before I started my career as a journalist, I worked as a communications aide to Jim Florio, the former governor of New Jersey. As a politician Florio was a creature of the old-school Democratic machine, but he was advised by a group of liberal ideologues who tried to shove through the state legislature a large tax increase and a radical reworking New Jersey's school funding program. Needless to say, the plans met extreme resistance from Republicans and Florio was out of office in one term, albeit after a very tight election. Still, he's regarded as one of the least popular governors in the state's history.

But while Florio's team was filled with young lefty activists, there was an enormous difference between the Democratic political partisans and the journalists covering the statehouse. The politicos, particularly the true-blue drink-the-Kool-Aid-types, were a rabid species, constantly complaining that Democrats were getting screwed while looking for ways to screw the Republicans. The statehouse press corps, meanwhile, was a much more skeptical bunch. While it may be true that reporters tend to lean to the left politically, the real bias in journalism is toward the easy negative "gotcha" story. So although many of the writers covering us were generally sympathetic to what we were trying to do, they wouldn't hesitate to nail us in the nuts if they could.

Although Republican like to link Democrats and the liberal media, that's essentially what separates a left-leaning journalist from a Democratic political partisan. In the case of Dan Froomkin, all you really need to know is that during the Monica Lewinsky scandal he headed a section of the Washingtonpost.com that ran polls questioning whether President Clinton should be impeached for getting head from an intern. At the time of the impeachment I completely disagreed with everything Congress was doing and thought it was damaging the country. And yet if I was in Froomkin's position I'd have done the same thing he did - because for better or worse that's journalism, the business we've chosen for our careers.

Can you imagine President Bush doing anything that would prompt someone like Ben Domenech to conduct a poll questioning whether he should be impeached? Of course not, because a political partisan never would do that. People like Domenech enter journalism to further a political cause, not because they're interested in asking provocative questions and trying to get at the truth. There's an entire industry set up to cater to this political mindset. It's the reason Dick Cheney requires that every television be tuned to Fox News when he travels. These folks can't stand to hear anything other than the party line.

Now I happen to be one of those media people who still believes there's a place in journalism for opinion and a place for the "reality-based community" that tries to state what's right and what's wrong. The problem is when it comes to opinion it's no longer a fair fight. The media is so cowed by its own liberal leanings that it's bending over backward to appease conservatives.

Whether it's the Sunday morning talk shows, the cable news shoutfests, or the opinion sections of the nation's newspapers, the so-called liberal media consistently puts strident conservative partisans against measured, though left-leaning, journalists, and describes the exchange as balanced. By doing this, media executives believe they're ridding their coverage of dreaded bias. But in the process they've created an entirely new kind of journalism. Let's call it "fair and balanced." Is that slogan taken already?