The accidental employee.

The accidental employee.

The accidental employee.

Media criticism.
Jan. 19 2005 7:06 PM

The Accidental Employee

Now that I work for Donald Graham and the Washington Post Company …

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

As you may know, Microsoft Corp. just traded Slate and an operating system to be named later (probably Microsoft Bob) to the Washington Post Co. for a mound of cash estimated by industry sources at somewhere between $15 million and $20 million.

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In its acquisition, the Post Co. accidentally acquired me, Slate's media critic, as an employee. Dart throwers, armchair ethicists, and critics of media consolidation everywhere are certain to believe that this new relationship will plunge me into a conflict-of-interestnightmare filled with broken glass and poisonous spiders. How can Jack Shafer gnaw the hand that pays him!?

The dart throwers have a point. It's not like I can write a press column and ignore Donald Graham and his company's media menu, which includes the Washington Post, the Everett (Wash.) Herald, various community papers, the free Express tabloid, Newsweek, TV stations, an online division (to which Slatebelongs), a cable TV system, and co-ownership in a news wire. If I want to go off-menu, there's the company's Kaplan education unit to nibble on. Kaplan's stellar profits have prompted the Post Co. to bill itself as a "diversified media and education company."

As I anticipated, my editor, Jacob Weisberg, and Donald Graham have sanctioned me to barb and grill the Washington Post and its corporate cousins as often and as cruelly as I wish. The biggest problem I'll face as a Post Co. employee will not be finding the nerve to slam the company's properties, but rather restraining myself from overcriticizing them to prove I didn't leave my cojones behind at Microsoft. Prior to the Slate acquisition by the Post Co., its properties were only a couple of square blocks on my media beat. But now that I work for Dad—I mean Don—if the Post bollixes some story and I don't cluck my tongue at the same volume as the other media critics, I'm sure the " Letters Sent to Romenesko" page will document the disparity. It shall be my cross to bear.

Back in the days of William Randolph Hearst and Col. Robert McCormick's mogulry, journalists couldn't hope to criticize their corporate cousins, but in the last three or so decades, those informal strictures have fallen. Reporters at the Boston Globe don't cut the New York Times extra slack, and vice versa, just because they share a CEO; Post reporters extend no special treatment to stories published by Newsweek. The rising tide of ombudsmania, which has now engulfed even the vainglorious New York Times, offers another sign of the media's growing tolerance of criticism. At the Los Angeles Times,Slatefounder Michael Kinsley has started a new column called " Outside the Tent," where non-staffers are invited to pummel the paper.

Of course, the enlightenment trend I posit isn't so universal that journalists are encouraged to spend their afternoons in crit-sessions of their bosses. For instance, the Sinclair Broadcast Group fired Washington Bureau Chief Jon Leiberman when he denounced company plans to air a controversial John Kerry documentary during the last weeks of the campaign. Nor are journalists encouraged to write critically of their publication in its pages.Slate only rarely wrote about itself when Microsoft owned it, and I don't see that changing now that we work on the Graham farm. But my two decades as a press critic have convinced me that the media, while far from perfect, has become more accountable and open than almost any institution in the United States.

Why is this? I think it has to do with journalists' unique relationship with their bosses. Journalists aren't team players like employees at Halliburton, Boeing, or your average corporation. At those places, workers can't get their job done without securing the cooperation of other employees, hence, the culture tends to glorify the organization over the individual. But journalists, even journalists at big media, operate more like sole proprietors than corporate drones: The workers typing news stories at adjoining cubicles aren't comrades, they're competitors! Journalists work to read their byline in the newspaper, not to advance the greater glory of the Daily Bugle. As long as the number of column inches in the next day's newspaper remains finite, anybody else working on a story—inside the paper or outside—is the enemy. This explains why it's so easy for a reporter to pick up and move to another newspaper overnight: He was working for himself all along.

A reporter's primary loyalty is to the story, not owners or editors or other reporters. Nothing excites him more than to top a story published by someone else, even somebody at his own paper. This mad-dog individualism makes it easy for outsiders to learn the inner workings of newsrooms. Often all you have to do is call and ask. Journalists love to slag their editors, leak about their colleagues, and ridicule owners. Their inability to keep company secrets is almost congenital. It may sound corny, but they're motivated to advance what they believe is the truth. And with the advent of the "democracy wall" of Romenesko, no executive editor can compose an internal memo of any substance and not find it posted there within minutes. Modern newspapers and broadcast networks may look like moated castles, but they're really glass houses.

Even before the enlightenment began its spread to other media enterprises, I found the Post Co. unusually responsive to outside critics. Prior to signing on with Slate in the summer of 1996, I edited an alternative weekly in Washington, D.C., for 10 years. One of our beats at Washington City Paper—and I do mean beats—was the Post and the Post Co. Although we gave it to them hard, fair, and frequent, I can't remember either Post Publisher Graham or Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. ever ducking a phone call from me or my staff for a news story or press column. I believe Graham and Downie's openness stemmed from their ample self-confidence and basic honesty. For the record, I had less luck getting matriarch Katharine Graham to talk. Once I approached her at a reception with a question about a newly published biography of her, and she sprinted for the door. I had no idea a 76-year-old woman could move that fast.

So, now that I work for Don Graham, I regard him as family, welcome to borrow my car or $50 whenever he's in a pinch. But everything outside the Slate circle will remain fair game for my jabs. I hereby deputize my readers and regular correspondents to keep me honest. You know the e-mail address: pressbox@hotmail.com.

******

Strictly speaking, Microsoft Bob isn't an operating system, but you've gotta admit that it makes a better punch line than "Windows 2.0." While we're on the subject of Bob, did you know that Melinda French managed the Bob project, and that after Bob bombed she became Melinda French Gates, and that she just joined the Washington Post Co. board of directors? Shall I ever escape my Microsoft overseers? For an excruciating tour of Bob, see this video. (E-mail sent to pressbox@hotmail.com may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)