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

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

Mitt Romney full goodbye.jpg

Reuters

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.

Examples are the best way to show you what I mean.

"There are two starkly different views of the race. President Obama's team takes refuge in public state polling and declares it can pull out a close electoral vote win. Mitt Romney's team looks at voter intensity, early voting and Romney's lead among independents and concludes he will win," Rubin wrote at the beginning of a November 1 item. She proceeded to run through all evidence that favored the "Romney view," said nothing about evidence for the "Obama view," and concluded, "there is considerable evidence from both polling of and actual early voting that the political landscape portrayed in a number of state polls showing an Obama lead in swing states doesn't exist. If that improvement in early voting holds up, Democrats should wonder if those state polls in which they have been investing so much hope are even in the 2012 election ballpark." In fact, there was little reason to wonder if they were in the ballpark.

The same day, writing about Iowa, a state that Obama won 52 to 46.5, Rubin literally copied and pasted a Romney campaign memo with a series of explanations for why they were winning the state. "Perhaps Democrats have other figures, and Election Day turnout is still a question mark," she says, "but these data make for a compelling case." The supposedly compelling case included the argument that "the Obama campaign is panicking, and you can see it in the way they are turning out their most reliable, most likely voters long before Election Day. They are using their highest propensity voters to pad their absentee and early vote numbers." It's a neat trick. If Democratic turnout is low during early voting, Rubin cites it as evidence that Republicans are going to win the state, polls be damned, whereas when Democratic early voting turnout is high, it's evidence that they are panicking and are going to lose the election.

Journalists striving to inform don't employ this sort of double-standard.   

On October 31, Rubin wrote, "The media has focused, not surprisingly, on the traditional bellwether state of Ohio. Republicans insist it is a dead heat and that GOP enthusiasm will be the difference on Election Day. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe there are other states that are easier 'gets' than Ohio and would in combination yield as many or more electoral votes. With the boost from the Des Moines Register, Republicans feel they are close to bagging Iowa. (Rep. Paul Ryan will be there later in the week.) They are likewise extremely bullish on Wisconsin. (Romney and Ryan will both be going there this week.) Also in this tier of very gettable states from the Republicans' perspective is Nevada. Jon Ralston reports that Republicans' performance in early voting is much stronger than 2008, putting that state in play as well." As it turns out, Obama won all those other states by a significantly larger margin than he won Ohio.

On October 30, Rubin wrote:

Four years ago the Republican Party was in danger of losing status as a national party, pundits said. It was too white, too southern and too old. The GOP still has a long way to go with minority voters, but after President's Obama four years in office the Republican presidential ticket is appealing to women, voters in blue state strongholds and independents. Consider the following states with Obama's 2008 margin is in parenthesis: Ohio (Obama +4.6), Florida (Obama + 2.8), Pennsylvania (Obama + 10.8), Virginia (Obama 6.3), New Hampshire, Colorado (Obama +9), Wisconsin (Obama 13.9), Iowa (Obama +9.5), Indiana (Obama +1.1), North Carolina (Obama +.3) and Minnesota (Obama +10.3). In the most recent public polling Romney is ahead or within the margin of error in every single one of these.

Put differently, it is possible Obama loses all of them.

For heaven's sake. In the widely mocked Dick Morris prediction, Romney was forecast to win 325 electoral votes. Rubin's was effectively telling her readers it was possible that Romney would get 341 electoral votes!

On October 29, Rubin slyly spun Hurricane Sandy as well-timed for Romney. "The president and Mitt Romney are both suspending campaigning through Tuesday due to Hurricane Sandy, but that doesn't mean there isn't campaign news. To the delight of Romney forces, the map continues to expand, and without the campaign itself spending a dime," she wrote. "If the candidates really are battling it out for Pennsylvania and Minnesota, Romney's chances look bright."

On October 26, she wrote that "Obama is scrambling to try to turn out his base, understanding that amid the insults, sneers and pettiness he lost a great deal of the moderate middle of the electorate, especially women." Meanwhile, over on the news desk, the Washington Post reported in a Wednesday article, "President Obama is winning women, who comprise 53 percent of the overall electorate, by 10 points. If that margin holds, it will be slightly higher than preelection polling suggested but still less than than the losing margin for John McCain (13 points) and George W. Bush (11 points) among women."

On October 24, Rubin warned her readers away from polls. "Where does the presidential race stand? You can look at the polls, but that isn't the best indication of where the race is neck-and-neck or safely in one side's pocket. A GOP insider from Boston said public polling isn't as revealing as other factors, including where ads remain on the air," she wrote. "...The race is still close in many key states, so even a few points shifting in a critical state may make a huge difference. There is no doubt, however, to those close to the race and most familiar with the data used to determine ad buys and travel schedules that they'd rather be in Romney's position than in Obama's. Given truth serum, the Obama camp would readily agree with that handicapping."

Said Rubin on October 22, "Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to put all his eggs in the basket labeled 'Discredit Romney.' Right now, he's the one lacking plausibility as a competent presidential contender." Obama wasn't just losing, he lacked plausibility as someone who could even contend!

That same day, Rubin provided highly questionable debate analysis: "...should Obama try to play the aggressor in the debate, once again he may come across as testy and only compound his problems with female voters and independents. Given his own incompetence in Libya, he's now limited in accusing Romney of not being ready for prime time. And given that al-Qaeda is certainly not extinguished, he will have to tone down his chest-thumping over Osama bin Laden's assassination."

What actually happened? Obama was at his best when aggressive in debates, he somehow managed to win the Libya exchange, and didn't have to alter the way he talked about Osama Bin Laden.

The same item had this interview excerpt:

While the media saw the second debate as an Obama comeback, Gillespie says it actually helped Romney. "It added to his momentum." Is there any danger of overconfidence? Gillespie shoots back, "None."

This is the sort of outside analysis Rubin constantly saw fit to put before her readers. She actually has an incredible talent for writing wrongheaded, misleading analysis carefully enough that it's often either technically attributable to someone other than her or not technically incorrect. She just uncritically passes along the latest talking points of the side that she supports.  

I could go on. Rubin insisted that Obama would have a huge problem with the Jewish vote, that hammering on Benghazi could be his undoing. But you get the idea. At every opportunity, Rubin wrote favorably about Romney and his campaign. And she didn't just get things wrong, sometimes absurdly, she always got them wrong in a way that redounded to Team Romney's benefit. If her goal was striving to inform her right-leaning audience with the truth, she was an abject failure.

Is there any other goal that wouldn't be discrediting?   

As I noted, I'd have hesitated, before now, to go on record speculating that her coverage was disingenuous, rather than attributable to the partisan zeal that has gripped plenty of basically honest pundits. But I nearly spit out my effete acai berry smoothie when I read her campaign post-mortem:

Until October it was the Perils of Pauline campaign. It moved in fits and starts on foreign policy. The message was rarely consistent from day to day. Gobs of ads were aired to no apparent effect. The convention speech was a huge missed opportunity. Romney made a lunge now and then in the direction of immigration reform and an alternative health-care plan without giving those topics the attention they deserved. The communications team was the worst of any presidential campaign I have ever seen -- slow and plodding, never able to capitalize on openings. It was hostile, indifferent and unhelpful to media, conservative and mainstream alike.

That "huge missed opportunity" of a convention speech was covered by Rubin in the Washington Post:

"Mitt Romney accepted the nomination of his party for president with a speech that showed he can rise to an occasion, and let us see a side of him that was compelling and heartbreaking ...When Romney arrived, dramatically walking through the hall, it was a reminder how determined some in the party had been not to like him. No more. He didn't need to toot his own horn. He certainly looked the presidential part. In confident and calm tones, he described the Obama presidency more in sorrow than in anger... He ended to rousing applause.

The speech was succinct and clear, providing a contrast to the president, about whom Romney said had no real plan to revive the economy. It was a mirror image of the speaker: well organized, sentimental, reasoned and optimistic. The irony is the Mitt Romney we've seen on the trail is not complicated or "weird" or lacking warmth or even out of touch. He is, like many men of his generation, somewhat reserved and in a cultural time warp. Tonight, he also showed some mettle and spine... Tonight he took a step in the right direction.

Now she tells us she thought it sucked at the time?

And that, for all the months she was acting as America's most reliable Romney sycophant, she actually thought his campaign was bumbling? Media Matters has more in the same vein. How can this be viewed as anything other than a Rush Limbaugh-style "I'm tired of carrying their water" moment? She didn't say it as brazenly as Limbaugh, but you can't compare her work during the campaign to her post-mortem without concluding that she deliberately misled her readers.

As my colleague James Fallows has just put it, "I can name you five mainstream columnists whose hearts are obviously with the Democrats, and five who are obviously with the Republicans. But I believe that what they're writing or saying reflects what they actually think. I don't know of another staff member of a mainstream news organization who has blithely admitted to telling the public things different from what the journalist actually thought, so as to boost the cause."

"Is the Post entirely comfortable with this?" he asks.

As do I.

In journalism, it doesn't get any more basic than write what you earnestly believe to be true, whether you're on the news desk or the opinion desk -- otherwise you owe your readers the disclosure, "Sometimes I'm going to mislead you in the fashion of a propagandist to sway the election."

At this point, I'm pretty jaded about the willingness of conservative media figures to disrespect the rank-and-file by lying to them, so I recovered quickly from Rubin's post-mortem. By the time I got to her other post-election item of note, I could only laugh at what Bill Clinton would colloquially call her brass.

Says Rubin:

...the Politico-ization of the media (superficial, contrived scandals and invented conflicts) has turned the political dialogue into an endless series of gotcha episodes devoid of substance and sterile in its obsession with horse-race politics and tactics. Devoid of substance and indifferent to policy, the coverage becomes nonstop score-keeping. Who wins? Who benefits? The questions "What should we do?" and "What happened?" get lost in the scramble for more clicks, more eyeballs. The horse-race politics and personality-driven journalism that eschew policy issues can't be eliminated. But we have to go beyond all of it and make decisions.

That involves meatier discussion by our pols and more serious coverage by the press. I fear we have so dummied down the debate in this country we're just not up to it.

I hope I'm wrong.

Careful with that "we," Ms. Rubin. Some of us haven't spent an entire campaign season breathlessly obsessing over every bit of horse race gossip that could be spun into good news for one side! Some of us haven't just seen much of our output proven wrong by real world events. If you were ordered to cover the campaign as you did, please do explain the arrangement. If you chose it yourself, please own it with a singular pronoun. You're not the only journalist to have behaved badly during Election 2012, but I'll be damned if you're going to lecture those members of the media who have been openly mocking your approach for months. 

For the conservative rank-and-file, this should be instructive. If I'd have told them three years ago that during the 2012 election cycle, they could have a staffer at the Washington Post who would invariably write favorably and sympathetically about the Republican nominee, they'd have celebrated. As it turned out, there were some unintended consequences that they suffered -- a dearth of fair-minded coverage during the primaries, a nominee marginally more prone to believing his own bullshit every time it was echoed back to him in the Washington Post, a rank-and-file given information so unreliable that they could no longer assess reality... and for what? A perch at a center-left newspaper doesn't help conservatives persuade anyone of anything if the person holding it is widely perceived as a disingenuous mouthpiece for her favored candidate. What happens is that conservatives themselves are increasingly the only ones who are misled.

Lest there be any confusion, I am not calling for Jennifer Rubin to be fired. I have a better idea, and if anyone writes angry letters to the Post's public editor, let this be the demand appended. What I want is for Rubin to go back through all her blog posts from this whole election cycle, and to append corrections, clarifications, and explanations for all the things she got wrong -- the factual errors, of course, but also anything that egregiously misled her readers. Along with it, she should write an apology to the conservative rank-and-file for failing to level with them, and a forthright item about how exactly she conceives of her editorial duties. I wonder if she'd be bewildered by the notion that she did anything wrong. I wonder if she behaved as her boss, Fred Hiatt, expected. Regardless, redemption and better journalism are but some soul-searching and a forthright apology away.

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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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