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.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

When Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli canceled the Post's Web video feature "Mouthpiece Theater" on Wednesday, his goal was simple: mollify those who were outraged by the July 31 episode that suggested that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton be served a bottle of Mad Bitch beer.

But Brauchli's surrender to the offended telegraphs this message to his reporters and editors: We support edgy journalism completely—until we don't, and at that point we'll ship you to the tailor and have you fitted with gags.

In Howard Kurtz's Post story about the capitulation, Brauchli attempts to blame the new-fangled Web for the offending video. "We did not have an effective system for vetting videos and other multimedia content," he said. This dodge might wash if the Post had gone online yesterday. But the paper has been on the Web for 13 years, during which it has published loads of potentially controversial content. This sort of excuse-making sounds more like a government bureaucrat defending his corner office than the editor of Washington Post.

Blaming poor vetting for the "serious lapse" that was the Mad Bitch video also opens Brauchli to the charge that he's talking out of both sides of his mouth. Since becoming the top editor at the Post,he's presided over the reduction of its total number of conventional newsroom vetters—i.e., reducing the size of the copy-editing staff and eliminating levels of editing at the newspaper. (Incidentally, I support that initiative.) In the new print regime, reporters are supposed to take greater responsibility for what they produce and not expect somebody to clean up after them. Does Brauchli really expect us to believe that he'll be pitching new safety nets on the Web side at the same time that he's trimming them at the paper?

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When Brauchli tells Kurtz that the bitch joke is "really beneath us and not something we should engage in," either he's betraying how little he knows about what goes into the Post or he's playing stupid. The Post overflows with the objectionable, the offensive, the unacceptable, and the transgressive. It's what newspapers do, people!

If you don't believe me, launch a Nexis session and search for "Washington Post and ombudsman and inappropriate." A series of Post ombudsman columns will cascade by, pointing to Post cartoons, articles, columns, headlines, and photographs characterized by readers as outrageous violations of good taste or societal norms. Yes, despite full vetting by the protectors of propriety, the print Post routinely offends readers to their very core!

Cartoons, one would think, have been around long enough for the establishment of an effective vetting system, yet readers routinely take ugly umbrage at the drawings. Readers complained to Ombudsman Deborah Howell about this dig at the late Jerry Falwell by Berkeley Breathed and this "Mother Goose and Grimm" jab at Jews. When Tom Toles drew a hospital bed attended by a "Dr. Rumsfeld" to make a point about the state of the U.S. military, livid vets and the Pentagon brass gave Howell an earful.

During her turn as the Post's fashion critic, Robin Givhan was hauled before the ombudsman's court for her "lapses" so many times she stored a toothbrush and a change of clothes there. In 2005, readers objected to Givhan's critique of Vice President Dick Cheney's attire at a Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial. Other dignitaries were dressed as if attending a state funeral. Here's what Givhan wrote:

The vice president, however, was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower. Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they are sent away to camp. And indeed, the vice president looked like an awkward boy amid the well-dressed adults.

"Mean, petty, irrelevant and ignorant," sniffed one reader of the piece to then-Ombudsman Michael Getler. Disrespectful to those of us who lost family in the Holocaust, griped others, who regarded it a "cheap shot" and "inappropriate" and "diminishing the power and solemnity of the occasion." Getler called the subject "fair game." Later, the article was part of the assortment that won Givhan, the queen of mean, a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

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.

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.

******

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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