Behind the Rahm Emanuel ‘conspiracy’

Readers sometimes suspect Post journalists of conspiring to boost or bash the reputations of people in public life. In reality, any large newsroom is so chaotic that there are days when you wonder if editors and reporters could organize a one-car caravan.

The myth and reality have been on display in recent weeks over The Post’s coverage of whether White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is helping or hurting President Obama.

It began Feb. 21 with an op-ed column by Dana Milbank, who countered calls for Obama to sack Emanuel. Milbank forcefully argued that the president suffered first-year political losses because he ignored Emanuel’s advice.

More than a week later, a 2,300-word front-page story by reporter Jason Horowitz embraced Milbank’s thesis. It said a “contrarian narrative is emerging” that Emanuel is “a force of political reason within the White House and could have helped the administration avoid its current bind if the president had heeded his advice.”

That prompted reader complaints and blogosphere chatter that The Post, having been “spun” by Emanuel’s camp, decided to institutionally support the embattled chief of staff through Milbank’s column and the Horowitz story.

But if there was a newsroom conspiracy, legendary Post political journalist David Broder didn’t get the memo. In a Thursday op-ed, he ridiculed Milbank’s column as “remarkable fiction” and said Horowitz had written “a purported news story.” Together, he wrote, they “sounded, for all the world, like the kind of orchestrated leaks that often precede a forced resignation in Washington.”

Horowitz told me that his story “had already started taking shape” before Milbank’s column appeared and dismissed the notion of coordination. “We did not confer,” he said. Milbank said the same, adding that he knew Horowitz was working on an Emanuel profile but didn’t know its content.

As a columnist, it’s Milbank’s job to offer a point of view. And it’s fine for Broder to use his column to assert that Milbank is off base. Differing views, well argued, are what make opinion pages stimulating.

But a news story is different. It needs to inform in a way that is balanced, authoritative and transparent to readers.

Horowitz told me the thesis for his story emerged from neutral, broad reportorial inquiry. As he talked to a wide range of informed people before Milbank’s column appeared, he said, many debunked the Emanuel-is-the-problem view. “It wasn’t just a few isolated people,” he said, adding that many offered “a new view.” That, and his anecdotal account of Emanuel’s activities, formed “the news value of it.”

Broder disagreed. “There was no news in it,” he insisted to me. “You should expect to find news on the front page of the newspaper.”

I think Broder is partially right. The Horowitz story deserved to be in The Post. While offering no major revelations, it did flesh out the thesis. But Milbank’s column already had sparked days of discussion in political circles and among the public. Displaying Horowitz’s story at the top of the front page elevated its significance despite a late-to-the-game feel.

A greater problem, I think, was its heavy reliance on anonymous quotes. At least a dozen people were quoted by name, showing depth of reporting. But there were more than a half dozen others quoted anonymously, comprising more than a quarter of the story’s length. Most supported Emanuel. The story could have stood on its own without them.

Readers properly complain about The Post’s overuse of anonymous sources. They’re often unavoidable, and Horowitz said he granted anonymity only after failing to persuade sources to speak on the record. But assertions offered with impunity erode credibility, especially when politically savvy readers suspect that Emanuel supporters are trying to spin The Post.

In the first two months of this year, more than 70 Post stories have relied on anonymous quotes. Based on archival research, that’s well ahead of the pace for last year. Simply put, too many appear in The Post.

Broder said he was troubled by the number of anonymous sources in Horowitz’s story. “I think it’s a general problem at this paper,” he said, adding “it’s a particular problem when it involves a matter of policy or personnel and readers are left in the dark about who’s talking.”

But Broder’s column criticizing Milbank and Horowitz contained a beefy section that anonymously reported “what others in the White House think is going on” with Emanuel.

“I’m not pure about it,” Broder readily acknowledged. “I did it myself.”

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on March 7, 2010.

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