Fred Hiatt’s death ends a remarkable period of stability at The Washington Post

Fred Hiatt. Photo (cc) 2014 by CSIS.

The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.

Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.

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I didn’t realize that Hiatt had Boston-area roots until I read the tributes this morning. He grew up in Brookline and graduated from Harvard, where his father was dean of the School of Public Health.

In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote this about Hiatt’s editorial pages:

Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.

Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.

The Post’s opinion section diverged from the Times’ during the Donald Trump era as well. Though Hiatt was staunchly anti-Trump and published many anti-Trump columnists — including conservatives like Max Boot, Michael Gerson and George Will — he also employed pro-Trump pundits like Marc Thiessen (“Three cheers for ‘Let’s Go Brandon'”) and Gary Abernathy (“A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy”).

I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)

Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”

Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.

A harrowing case of sexual assault on campus

This is long but worth it: a deep dive into a case of sexual assault on campus by Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times. If you’ve ever thought that the college form of justice discriminates against men and subjects them to unfounded accusations, here is an example of just the opposite occurring.

For more, here is my friend Kristen Lombardi’s series “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” which she reported for the Center for Public Integrity.

Please feel free to get angry at George Will all over again.

A solid debut by Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour

Not long after Tim Russert’s death, I realized that my aversion to George Stephanopoulos was not nearly as deep-seated as my aversion to David Gregory. So I switched from “Meet the Press” to “This Week” and haven’t looked back. Among other things, “This Week” regular George Will is a great entertainer, and where else other than the New York Times can you get a regular dose of Paul Krugman?

Stephanopoulos, of course, decamped for morning television months ago, never to be seen again — at least not by me. Today, at long last, marked the much-anticipated debut of his permanent replacement, former CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour. I don’t think the occasion warrants a lot of analysis. But surely a little is in order. A few points.

1. I don’t watch “This Week”; rather, I listen to the podcast. So if there were any changes to the set, I wouldn’t know. For what it’s worth, I thought Amanpour, her guests and her panelists all sounded fine.

2. It was a good first week for Amanpour. She had two major gets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. If Amanpour’s questions failed to elicit any major news, neither did she embarrass herself. In any event, with rare exceptions, top government officials are going to say what they’re going to say regardless of what they are asked.

3. Though “This Week” seemed pretty much the same as it always has, Amanpour did shake things up a bit, as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid joined the roundtable from Spain. Over time, I’m hoping that Amanpour turns the entire format upside-down, eschewing political chit-chat for real substance. Perhaps this was one small step in that direction.

4. Jake Tapper deserves kudos for the way he handled “This Week” as a fill-in host the past several months. By taking a few chances (especially by embracing of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s suggestion that he add fact-checking to the show), Tapper demonstrated that there’s still some life left in the old format.

If, for some reason, Amanpour doesn’t work out, or if ABC News decides to use her elsewhere, then Tapper would be a natural — and I think viewers would accept him far more readily than they would have before his stint as a substitute.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A single standard

This Associated Press story is a good example of the mindless way in which Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s stupid remarks about President Obama and race are being compared to those of Trent Lott in 2002. Lott was forced to step down as Senate majority leader after he endorsed Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign 54 years after the fact.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, calls it “a clear double standard” if Democrats do not remove Reid. Good grief.

The difference, plain enough to anyone who wants to engage his or her brain: Reid, though his words were awkward and racially insensitive, was expressing his enthusiasm that an African-American might be elected president. Reid said Obama was electable because he was a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid’s words were unfortunate, to say the least. But Lott, who had long been active in racist politics back home in Mississippi, was essentially saying it was a damn shame those blacks were ever allowed to drink from the non-colored water fountain. Here’s what Lott said at Thurmond’s 100th-birthday party:

I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.

There’s really no comparison, and sensible people of all ideological stripes know that. Check out how conservative pundit George Will put Lynne Liz Cheney in her place on ABC’s “This Week” after Cheney claimed Reid’s words were “racist”:

WILL: I don’t think there’s a scintilla of racism in what Harry Reid said.  At long last, Harry Reid has said something that no one can disagree with, and he gets in trouble for it.

CHENEY: George, give me a break.  I mean, talking about the color of the president’s skin …

WILL: Did he get it wrong?

CHENEY:  … and the candidate’s …

WILL: Did he say anything false?

CHENEY:  … it’s — these are clearly racist comments, George.

WILL:  Oh, my, no.

Indeed. Oh, my. No. Despite Reid’s idiotic choice of words, this remains a racially charged society, and his analysis — as Will noted — happened to be exactly correct.

Even George Will is appalled by Cheney

Thought you might enjoy George Will’s response on “This Week” when George Stephanopoulos asked him about Dick Cheney’s accusation that President Obama, by taking his time before deciding on a strategy in Afghanistan, is “dithering while America’s armed forces are in danger.” Here’s how Will began:

A bit of dithering might have been in order before we went into Iraq in pursuit of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. For a representative of the Bush administration to accuse someone of taking too much time is missing the point. We have much more to fear in this town from hasty than from slow government action.

Good stuff, although a few caveats are in order. First, though Will is a conservative, he’s not a neoconservative, and he’s been notably less enthusiastic about foreign adverturism over the years than his neobrethren. Second, he came out against the war in Afghanistan weeks ago. Third, Will has never been much taken with the Bush clan or its minions.

But still. With the war-mongering Laura Ingraham fulminating on the same set today (and when is she going to enlist?), it was heartening to hear a sane conservative call out Cheney’s posturing for what it is.

Lost Will on Afghanistan

Columnist George Will today calls for the near-total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, writing:

[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Will’s column is not a huge surprise — he’s been offering previews on ABC’s “This Week.” His assessment matters because of his status as a conservative icon, although, as a traditional conservative rather than a neocon, he was never as gung-ho about war in the Middle East as, say, William Kristol.

Giving Will’s views even more resonance is an especially bleak assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, who is calling for a far greater commitment of U.S. forces.

President Obama faces an incredibly difficult dilemma. He campaigned on a platform of shifting resources from Iraq to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguing that the move was necessary to deny Al Qaeda a refuge. Yet that’s a dubious proposition, given that Al Qaeda could move anywhere. Indeed, the only reason it’s in Afghanistan is because it was chased out of Sudan.

But before you say we should let Afghanistan go, remember that Pakistan is unstable and armed with nuclear weapons.

Is Will right? I don’t know. I do know that if Obama can meet American security needs without putting American troops in harm’s way, then he should do so as quickly as possible.

The Washington Post versus George Will

In my latest for The Guardian, I take a look at the insurrection with the ranks of the Washington Post over George Will’s repeated mischaracterizations of the scientific evidence for human-caused global warming.

George Will’s errors and arrogance

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a look at George Will’s error-riddled column on global warming — and at how his arrogance, combined with the Washington Post’s defensiveness, succeeded in turning a one-day story into a two-week (and counting) siege.

George Will’s uncorrected error

The Washington Post’s refusal to correct George Will’s error on global-warming data is starting to rise to the level of a scandal. This account at the Washington Monthly shows why.

The cooling of George Will’s brain

Syndicated columnist George Will presents only one piece of evidence in his Sunday piece denying global warming — and he gets it wrong. Will writes:

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

To which the research center replies:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

Much more from Climate Progress.

Final thought: What does it take for Will and/or the Washington Post to append a correction? As of 6:30 p.m., there was still nothing. Is it because his entire commentary looks ridiculous if he retracts the sole relevant factual nugget he included in his diatribe?

OK, not quite so final: David Bernstein stands at the intersection of Will and Jeff Jacoby.