The Right's Jennifer Rubin Problem: A Case Study in Info Disadvantage

Conservatives lobbied hard to install one of their own at the Washington Post. But it didn't work out as they imagined it would.

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Anyone hoping to fully understand the self-imposed information disadvantage that hurt the GOP this cycle should spend some time thinking about the particular case of Jennifer Rubin, who blogs at the Washington Post, a publication with a storied history of trying to pacify conservatives with blogging hires. In 2006, sensitive to criticism that it harbored a liberal bias and lacked ideological diversity, the Post hired Ben Domenech, then a 24-year-old contributor to the conservative blog Red State. Its editors were right to see promise in him. All these years later, I am a paying subscriber to his regularly insightful politics newsletter. But at the time, the hire was a debacle for the Post, as the young blogger's work history was quickly revealed to  involve several instances of plagiarism. Domenech resigned within three days of starting to blog for the Post, and worked hard to redeem himself.  

The Post had much better luck with a left-leaning-blogger hire, Ezra Klein, now the presumptive "Dean of Washington Journalism." On his advice, the Post hired tireless political reporter Dave Weigel to cover the conservative movement, prompting complaints from some of its members that he wasn't one of them -- the left gets Klein, why can't the right have one of our own at the paper? It wasn't long before private emails Weigel sent to an off-the-record list-serv of liberal journalists and academics leaked. Amid all the sarcasm and snark were Weigel emails written before he joined the Post that used hyperbolic language to disparage some on the right (like Matt Drudge, who Weigel said should "handle his emotional problems more responsibly and set himself on fire."). In the wake of the controversy, he too resigned, opening up that same blogger's spot. The right demanded that one of their own fill it, and attorney and blogger Jennifer Rubin was hired away from Commentary.

What a send-off she got!

John Podhoretz of Commentary hates me for reasons he won't articulate, but the feeling isn't mutual. He is, at his best, a fine writer, and although I hadn't followed Rubin at Commentary, and assumed I'd disagree with her foreign policy views, I expected good things from her based on his praise. "For the past three years, Jennifer Rubin has set this blog and this website afire with her breadth of knowledge, her love of the intricacies of politics, her passion for ideas and policy, and her commitment to principle," Podhoretz wrote. "The living embodiment of the word 'indefatigable,' Jen has labored daily from her home in suburban Virginia, writing early in the morning and late at night, on computer and Blackberry... never missing a news story, never missing an op-ed column, reading everything and digesting everything and commenting on everything."

His conclusion?

"She is a phenomenon," Podhoretz wrote. "It is a brilliant hire for them and a terrific loss for us."

Conservatives weren't unanimously thrilled by the choice of Rubin. Any hire would've prompted some to call for some other person. But she was broadly acceptable to the right, and marked a huge symbolic victory. An elite newspaper had parted ways with a non-conservative journalist, fielded demands that he be replaced with someone more ideologically friendly to conservatives, and dutifully hired someone with the express intent of keeping conservatives happy (though it's also worth noting that Rubin works for the opinion section, while Weigel reported to the national desk). For that reason, Rubin is an interesting case study. Over at Slate, Weigel has been ably covering the presidential election in roughly the same format as Rubin at the Post. So how did the Post's grant of "ideological preferences" in hiring work? Were conservatives better off with Rubin at the Post? Were they better informed if they read all Rubin and no Weigel rather than the reverse? Did the Post benefit from hiring a real conservative to do opinionated reportage on the election? I submit that everyone got exactly what they'd long asked for... and wound up worse off.

Begin with the Washington Post. Concurrent with Weigel's resignation, its executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, said that while he'd done "excellent work" for the newspaper, "we can't have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work." That standard gives tremendous power to anyone who perceives, even inaccurately, that a journalist is biased, and it's difficult to believe it was ever the operating standard. It also presumably applies to blogger columnists on the "news" side of Post operations but not to columnists on the opinion side, who report elsewhere. Applying it to Rubin is still an instructive beginning.

The perception among media insiders was brutally summed up by Alex Pareene, writing at  Salon. "In Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post currently employs a semi-official Mitt Romney spokesperson," he wrote. "There's not another prominent media figure who is more shameless about acting solely in the best interests of a presidential campaign." He isn't the only one who sees it that way. On two occasions at the Republican National Convention, I heard members of the media joking about Rubin as if everyone knew that she was a shameless shill for Team Romney. During the primaries, even conservatives were complaining. "For the past year, Rubin has done more to hinder the Washington Post in the eyes of conservatives as a place willing to treat conservative views honestly than even hiring Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent, both activist leftists who can, at least, put aside partisanship to occasionally engage in good reporting," Erick Erickson once wrote, adding that Rubin "routinely assails all the Republican candidates but Romney (with the caveat that she will praise non-Romney candidates whose actions benefit Romney)."

Jeffrey Lord wrote in The American Spectator about her "constant contortions" on behalf of Mitt Romney. Said Jonathan Chait at New York magazine The New Republic, "Rubin has appointed herself unofficial spokesperson for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, using her blog to record a daily procession of Romney's wise choices and brilliant triumphs, along with the pathetic failures of all who challenge him." These are mostly opinion journalists who see nothing wrong with being open about supporting a candidate. And they're saying, Whoa, Jennifer Rubin is doing something that goes beyond journalistic support. In political journalism, Rubin is openly regarded as a hack and perhaps a shill by an ideologically diverse subset of her peers. It's brutal.

Do I think she's disingenuous in her journalism?

Before today, I'd have said that her inner thoughts and feelings matter far less than the quality of her work. For whatever reason, it's been lacking in this election cycle. Measured by the accuracy of the information they've been getting from her Washington Post blog, the accurate-information desiring conservative would have been better off with Weigel, not because he correctly predicted the outcome -- he thought Romney would win -- but because Weigel's readers weren't subject to absurd predictions and bad analysis that always skewed in one direction.

An exhaustive review Rubin's work is beyond my patience, but I've read it in real time, and going back a full month into her archives is plenty to confirm that my memory of it accords with what happened. She repeatedly conjured for readers a version of reality that proved decisively wrong. As an opinion journalist myself, I am well aware that we all make mistakes, and there are plenty of folks who got this election wrong without discrediting themselves in the process. On non-Romney subjects, like the Senate races, even Rubin's readers were at least informed. But her Romney-Ryan coverage makes it especially difficult to react charitably to her overall performance.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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