Through a Gimlet Eye: Studying the Washington Post Kremlinologist-Style

During the Cold War, back when Russian spies typically looked far more like Boris than Natasha, not to mention Anna Chapman, the phrase “Kremlinologist” came into vogue to describe those men who could study photos and snippets of information emerging from behind the Iron Curtain and attempt to determine the current health of the Soviet Union, and who was running the show.


So let’s employ a little Kremlinology to try and ascertain the health of the Washington Post. Or even a little Nixonology — a modern-day equivalent of Woodward and Bernstein (or at least how they were presented to the public in the form of Redford and Hoffman) would have lots of fun tying together all of the strange stories that have circulated recently from the former home of Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham:

  • Newsweek’s Howard Fineman lamenting the legacy media’s industry-wide pro-Democratic presidential candidate group-think immediately after election year 2004, and wondering if it’s caused the industry to lose credibility.
  • The Washington Post’s then ombudswoman, Deborah Howell, lamenting her paper’s office-wide pro-Democratic presidential candidate group-think immediately after election year 2008, and wondering if it’s caused the paper to lose credibility.
  • In the summer of 2006, Newsweek retracted its infamous Koran in the Can story, perhaps permanently damaging the brand’s reputation as a news source.
  • Newsweek goes hard left in late 2008, to the point where the magazine’s name is now paradoxic: it’s an opinion magazine inside the shell of a once more or less centrist news weekly. In the process it slashes its printed circulation in half. “It’s hugely counterintuitive,” Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, tells Howard Kurtz of the magazine’s parent publication, adding, “The staff doesn’t understand it.”

“Newsweek staffers, having suffered through layoffs and the struggle for the title’s future, have to endure yet another loss: their new offices,” Media Week reported in late March of 2010, adding, “Scarcely a year after they moved from their unglamorous Midtown offices to cushier Tribeca digs, staffers were told they would have to pack up again, to relocate uptown.”

  • Newsweek describes small-government activists as “A Surge of Hate;” perhaps the first protest group to receive negative coverage in the history of the magazine or the newspaper that owns it.
  • In the waning days of 2008, the New York Times, Washington Post and NBC’s Tom Brokaw all wanted to see steep additional gas taxes in the midst of a protracted recession. Keep doing your part to boost the economy and relieve the financial burdens on the common man, fellas!
  • Post goes into Alinskyesque “pick the target, personalize the target, freeze the target” during the fall 2009 election cycle, running dozens of stories about Republican candidate for governor of Virginia’s 1989 college thesis.
  • Post goes into Alinskyesque “pick the target, personalize the target, freeze the target” during the fall 2006 election cycle, running over 100 stories about Republican candidate for US Senate from Virginia’s joke about Democratic operative assigned to videotape his every public utterance.

It’s come to this: The Washington Post Style section, for years known as “the sandbox” because it was a playground for sometimes immature writers, has turned into a boxing ring because one of the editors was revolted by a story that came across his desk on deadline.

The company’s newspaper division, which includes The Post and several smaller papers, lost $23.6 million in the quarter, bringing 2009 losses to $166.7 million, compared with losses of $178.3 million through the first nine months of 2008. Like most newspapers, The Post was hit hard by the recession, which further eroded advertising revenue, already in decline for years. … Daily circulation at The Post is down 3.6 percent for the first nine months of the year, and now stands at 600,800. Sunday circulation was down 3.7 percent and is now 840,100.


In an update on Tim Graham’s earlier post about The Washington Post’s flier that circulated to Beltway lobbyists, the Post abruptly canceled its “salon” program to offer “exclusive access” to “Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds” for between $25,000 and $250,000. (View an image of the flier.)

Michael Walsh of Big Journalism recently called the Washington Post “deeply compromised.” Which if anything may be understating the situation: add all of the above stories together, and then add the JournoList scandal on top of all of them, and then imagine what it must be like inside of the Post’s offices every day.

And then imagine how the paper itself would describe such a scandal if it were occurring at, say, Citibank, or the Union Pacific Railroad, or General Motors — at least before that last corporate institution became almost as much a de facto wing of the federal government as the Post itself.

(Artwork at top of this post originally created for my Silicon Graffiti video look at media bias back in May.)



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