The Washington Post supports edgy journalism. Until it doesn't.

Media criticism.
Aug. 6 2009 6:48 PM

Will Marcus Brauchli Please Grow a Spine?

The Washington Post executive editor grovels before the paper's critics in the Mad Bitch controversy.

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Givhan got in trouble again in 2007 with an article about Hillary Clinton exposing a little cleavage on the Senate floor. Ombudsman Howell noted that Givhan had also attracted criticism in 2005 for her unflattering remarks about the attire of John Roberts' wife and children. Howell confessed minor misgivings about the cleavage piece and dismissed all charges.

Other "inappropriate" moments dropped at the Post ombudsman's door by angry readers: A 2001 article (paid) by Kevin Merida about an obviously senile Sen. Strom Thurmond; Givhan (again) in 2000, ripping apart Katherine Harris' palette and trowel makeup technique (paid); the depiction of Elian Gonzalez being crucified in a April 7, 2000, Style article ("The photograph is highly inappropriate, especially so near the Easter season. It's outrageous," one reader wrote to the ombudsman); Tom Shales' 2004 cutting remarks (paid) about Mel "The Passion of the Christ" Gibson; and the indignation of readers who recoiled at the picture of a noosed Saddam Hussein above the fold on Page One.

It's not like the Post doesn't attend to its perpetually affronted, endlessly insulted, and eternally aggrieved readers. Besides the ombudsman column, the paper maintains an entire page in the Saturday edition called "Free for All" that publishes the howls of injured and wounded readers from all walks of life. Even the most innoucous Post piece serves as fodder for these folks.

Rather than bowing to the protesters, Brauchli should have stood up for the offensive duo behind "Mouthpiece Theater," Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza. I wished he'd cribbed from something Eugene Robinson wrote in 2001, when he headed Style. Robinson, currently a Post columnist, sent these remarks to the ombudsman following a mass freak-out by readers over some now-forgotten offensive article: Robinson wrote (paid):

I do not want my writers, especially my critics, to think that they have to be temperate in their views. I want them to take chances, lots of chances; I want them to push the envelope every day and in every way. That's the only way that a section like Style can remain fresh, innovative, surprising. And yes, sometimes exasperating. Of course I want Style's writers to be fair, accurate, authoritative. But the last thing I want is for them to pull a punch or take the safe-but-boring route because they are worried that they'll get publicly raked over the coals. That's a recipe for a dull section, and Style should never be dull.

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Brauchli's spinelessness informs Post writers that when the sanctimonious bray, he'll fold. It tells them, don't take chances. Don't surprise. Don't push the envelope. Pull punches. Don't raise hell. Don't offend anybody. Help make the Post so plodding, gray, and safe that the Consumer Product Safety Commission will heap awards on it.

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Women, Action & the Media isn't satisfied with Brauchli's groveling. They want more. Hey! That's totally unfair! Where is my letter of protest from WAM? Please send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Let me offend you via Twitter as I choke down a pint of Arrogant Bastard Ale. Where's Ben Bradlee when you need him? (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word spinelessness in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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