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  • Mary McNeil

You are sorely missed

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

I recently finished reading Margaret Sullivan's Newsroom Confidential; a great book—entertaining, honest and important in today's media environment. Sullivan will be hugely missed by Washington Post readers, as I fear is the strong hand of former executive editor Marty Baron. If you're not aware of how much they are missed, just read a recent WaPo article from October 22, "Inside the successes, missteps and failures of Biden's early presidency" by Ashley Parker, Tyler Pager and Michael Scherer. Where to begin?

Cover of Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan
Margaret Sullivan's excellent memoir

Parker and her colleagues have written a truly hair-raising story about the "roller coaster ride" of Biden's first two years of the presidency. Surely, HBO will be calling next.

As a WaPo reader, former journalist, and the author of a biography about Wallace Carroll—an overlooked giant of 20th-century journalism—I was, I must admit, a bit appalled over the lack of depth of Parker's and her colleagues' reporting. They effectively violate what used to be considered the basic principles of good journalism. Where's Marty?

First is the importance of context. Parker ledes with the messy U.S. pullout from Afghanistan--but fails to make any reference to the "why" behind the pull-out, the number of American soldiers who have died or been wounded there, the amounts of American dollars spent there over the years, etc. By leading with what was an admittedly tortuous pullout, she reminds the reader only of this. Is that fair reporting? Hmm, I'm not sure. Rule #1: context matters.

Second is the use of hyperbolic language in what should be a solid (and thus somewhat measured) news story. A few quotes: "the frenzied mobs at the airport, the desperate Afghans clinging to planes... that brought the White House to a 'grinding halt.'" Biden's presidency is "complicated and contradictory, with remarkable achievements and enormous disappointment..." Biden finds himself "stuck in a bubble" due to his own insularity, with only his closest advisers allowed in for discussion. Wallace Carroll, along with famed journalist James Reston, hated these "Christ how the wind blew" stories and refused to call anything "unprecedented." Rule #2: words matter; they can inflame and mislead. Choose them carefully.

Cover of Century's Witness by Mary McNeil
My biography of Wallace Carroll

Third, and finally, good reporters take into consideration the effect their stories will have on the reader. They are not written in a vacuum. Framing a story in such a way as to downplay achievements while dramatically highlighting failures has consequences. Does Parker believe the Afghan pullout trumped (pun not intended) all else in Biden's two years as president? Apparently so. Does she really want to undermine the administration so strongly? Does she recognize the risks of the alternative? Rule #3: understand and be responsible for the effect of what you write.

I'd like to say that Parker and her editors have fallen prey to what Sullivan calls "false equivalency" in reporting on Biden's administration so negatively, a practice in which journalists who have been critical of one party feel that they must also be critical of the other party in more or less the same way. But I fear it doesn't even go that far. The story is too shallow, too based on "anonymous" sources (as many as 80!, but do we know who they are?) and too full of gossipy innuendo.

But, hey, who cares when HBO may be calling? And Parker's tens of thousands of Twitter followers will probably only see the first sentence anyway. Parker and the Washington Post can do better.



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