Politico Suspends White House Reporter for Comments About Romney Only Being Comfortable With “White Folks”: Drawing the Journalistic Line
One of the fascinating — and depressing –trends to watch is how in America’s political and media culture the more glib, cutting and mocking you can be, the more attention it gets. And just as politicians talk in sound bites, some analysts when some reporters get on ideological cable shows they seemingly will talk in sound bites It’s often a good career move.
But not always.
The Politico has suspended Joe Williams, Politico’s White House Correspondent, for comments he made on made the remarks on Martin Bashir’s MSNBC show suggesting that GOP nominee-to-be Mitt Romney is most comfortable with “white folks.” He had also done some Tweets on his private Twitter feed which included a comment about Mitt Romney’s penis.
Here’s the memo from the founding editors of the website, which started on the web and has morphed into one of the most popular and authoritative voices on politics in terms of political journalistic content reportage:
“Regrettably, an unacceptable number of Joe Williams’s public statements on cable and Twitter have called into question his commitment to this responsibility,” POLITICO’s founding editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei wrote in a memo to the staff. “His comment about Governor Romney earlier today on MSNBC fell short of our standards for fairness and judgment in an especially unfortunate way.”
“Joe has acknowledged that his appearance reflected a poor choice of words,” the continued. “This appearance came in the context of other remarks on Twitter that, cumulatively, require us to make clear that our standards are serious, and so are the consequences for disregarding them. This is true for all POLITICO journalists, including an experienced and well-respected voice like Joe Williams.”
“Following discussion of this matter with editors, Joe has been suspended while we review the matter,” they wrote.
Media watcher Jim Romenesko’s post perfectly frames the dilemma facing “The Politico”:
Politico reporter Joe Williams went on Martin Bashir’s MSNBC show on Thursday and, according to Breitbart.com, “all but called Mitt Romney a racist.” The site posted several of Williams’ tweets, including the one below. (His Twitter account is now protected.)
“This is our MSM,” Breitbart.com’s John Nolte wrote on his post about Williams. “This is Politico. This is why God created Andrew Breitbart.
When I was attending the Medill School of Journalism I once asked a professor about politics and journalists. He said it was very important that reporter “remain overtly nonpartisan” — which meant reporters like most Americans were fully entitled to vote and hold their views but when they were doing their jobs gathering information they were not there to wear their politics on their sleeves or even do anything that could be remotely construed as such. And, above all, they had to do their jobs as fairly as possible for the reports they produced and how the public perceived how they operated.
The current media culture rewards those that increasingly step into the partisan or ideological line. (And let’s not talk about blogs. Blogs are now more like op-ed sites).
I always point to Chris Matthews, who was (and is) a SUPERB writer (his two books on JFK are excellent as — as he himself nauseatingly stressed over and over for months as he almost turned his show “Hardball” into “BUY MY BOOK Hardball.”). Once he got his chance on TV he evolved from a tough reporter whose political position could be discerned to a tough op-ed writer/reporter with an unabashed viewpoint whose personality often became as much of the broadcast as his topics or guests.
Tucker Carlson who I wrote about here was a highly promising up and coming, serious young conservative writer. But his image took a hit when he became a co-partisan-spinner on CNN’s Crossfire and had his seriousness dismembered by Jon Stewart. Carlson how gets lots of attention hits due to the controversies surrounding his site, The Daily Caller — a site that does have some good writers and editors. But Carlson is in no way shape or form a serious, thoughtful conservative analyst to anyone except perhaps himself, his family and those who get his paychecks. If you try to seriously argue that reporters have a right to interrupt Presidents or politicians in mid speech with ideologically-based questions and that people who do that deserve raises you are on the fringe of a)serious journalism b)punditry that deserves reading or serious consideration. It doesn’t help when you suggest Sam Donaldson basically did the same thing — and Donaldson replies that he most assuredly did not.
In the case of The Politico, it’s aspiring to be a destination point on the web for those who want to see solid political reports and opinion written by those who either stand back and gather the news or stand back and analyze. If they want liberal or conservative opinion, they can go elsewhere. This means The Politico must take care that neither it nor its reporters are being perceived as being just another bunch of ideological journalists. The perception (Breitbart saying Williams in effect was accusing Romney of being a “racist”: not quite and typical ideological overreach but some could perceive it that way) is as important as the reality.
I suspect The Politico would have stood by Williams on the Romney comment more solidly if he had not made those Tweets. That suggested a pattern.
There has long been a standard for men and women who are real reporters that separate them from reporters coming from websites that smugly encourage or enable their reporters to shout out questions and interrupt Presidents, or websites or news organizations who don’t constantly remind their paid staff that there is a corporate journalistic product that relies on branding.
The Politico has indicated that if this line is vanishing in many other quarters, it won’t in its publication.
It’s about protecting a brand – and reminding a staff that when they’re being seen or read they are part of that brand and will be perceived as reflecting it.