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.

What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Previously published at GBH News.

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

I didn’t know what she was talking about. I hurried inside. American Airlines Flight 11, which originated at Logan Airport in Boston, had crashed into the North Tower. There was talk of terrorism.

The Phoenix did not have what you would call a well-equipped newsroom. We had a TV that got a handful of channels but no cable. It was obvious what I would be writing about, so I raced to my car and hurried home to the North Shore. I turned on the radio and listened to coverage of the second tower’s collapse just as I was rounding the bend to Route 1. And then I sat down in front of the television set, watching for hour after hour and wondering how I would make sense of it all. Finally, sometime well after midnight, I started to write.

The piece I came up with was headlined “The End of Decadence.” In it, I expressed my hope that the media would finally return to a sense of purpose and seriousness after a decade of wallowing in celebrity culture, the O.J. Simpson trial and the theater-of-the-absurd impeachment of a president over his tawdry sex life.

In fact, the media did change after 9/11, but not for the better. The downward slide didn’t happen immediately. At first, the press diligently covered the aftermath of the attacks. The New York Times ran a wonderful series on the victims called “Portraits of Grief.” Journalists sought to make sense of how security measures aimed at preventing such attacks had so thoroughly broken down. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was covered with great enterprise and courage.

But it wasn’t long before President George W. Bush, a unifying figure in the days immediately after the attacks, began leading the nation in a divisive direction. His uplifting rhetoric about Muslims was offset by the government’s treatment of Muslims as a security risk. He went to war not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.

And the media went along for the ride. Few questioned the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, and few questioned why our incursion into Afghanistan had turned into a full-fledged war to transform a place we didn’t understand into a Western-style democracy. The Times in particular disgraced itself with its credulous, gung-ho coverage, but so did most other news outlets — especially cable news. My late friend Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” called it “militainment,” a construction he borrowed from James Poniewozik, then with Time magazine, now with the Times.

Over the next few years, the wars and the Bush White House both lost support, and the media began to fracture into what we see today — a reflection of the polarization that has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans even to speak to each other. On one side we have the mainstream media, hardly perfect but dedicated to reporting the truth, trusted by about 60% of the country. On the other side we have right-wing propaganda that has convinced 40% of the country that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is the most serious threat facing us.

Last month, the 20-year misadventure set off by 9/11 was finally brought to an end as the United States pulled its last remaining troops out of Afghanistan. It was a chaotic, ugly finish, and President Joe Biden has received quite a bit of criticism for it. But it does bring a close to the story that began on that clear September day in 2001.

The conclusion of the war in Afghanistan ends an era in journalism as well. Think back to where we were. Fox News was barely a blip on the radar. CNN consisted of straight news rather than opinionated talk shows. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no broadband. The internet-driven collapse of newspapers was still in the future. In other words, it was a time of consensus in the media and in the culture, at least compared with what was to come.

Over the weekend, Bush was praised for his forthright denunciation of the Trump-inspired domestic terrorists of 2021. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

That’s all well and good. But it was Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who started us down the road to Jan. 6 with their catastrophic wars, their trampling of civil liberties in this country and their use of torture abroad. And it was a combination of cowardice and gullibility on the part of too many in the media that helped bring us to the crisis of democracy we are dealing with today.

David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq

It’s easy to make fun of David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq. But let’s not forget that liberals like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton voted for the war, and if you think they did it solely for political posturing, then you’re more cynical than I am.

Personally, I was against the invasion, but I thought it was a close call. And if you go back to Bill Clinton’s presidency, you may recall that horror stories about sick and starving Iraqi children — a consequence of U.S. sanctions — led some liberals to call for a humanitarian intervention.

Finally, in 1998 Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which committed the United States to regime change.

Brooks was always the most thoughtful among the war’s supporters. What he has to say today is worth reading.

Iraq, Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Islamic State

The Washington Post today fronts a horrifying story by Liz Sly showing how the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime are pulling the strings of the Islamic State. We will be paying for the hubris of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era for many years to come.

As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

B-minus Barack does no harm

In my latest for the Guardian, I survey morning-after punditry following President Obama’s speech on Iraq, and discover that even some of his critics were mildly impressed. The problem is that no one, including his supporters, was particularly wowed, either.

Investigating the WikiLeaks video

I think it’s only right that all of us hold off before offering any judgments on the astonishing video published by WikiLeaks yesterday showing a U.S. Apache helicopter killing 12 Iraqis, including a Reuters photographer and his driver. The U.S. military has confirmed the 2007 video’s authenticity, according to the New York Times.

I watched the entire 17-minute-plus video last night (there is also an unedited, 38-minute version), and my main reaction — other than horror — was one of cognitive dissonance. The audio made it clear that the American crew believed the people on the ground were armed combatants. The video told an entirely different story: men walking around, seemingly not up to much of anything in particular.

And no, I’m not offended by the American crew members’ bantering. If they had good reason to believe they were shooting at a legitimate target, so what? The real question is why they held that belief.

Anyway, I don’t want to get ahead of the story. What this calls for is further investigation.

The BBC has some background on WikiLeaks, which is hosted mainly in Sweden.

The decade in media

Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz has written as good a summation of the decade in media as you’re likely to find: a tremendous explosion in innovation and diversity; mind-boggling failures by the legacy media, especially during the run-up to the war in Iraq and their continued obsession with celebrity non-news; and the meltdown of the business model. Definitely worth a read.

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.

Darth Vader returns

In my latest for the Guardian, I express my shock and horror at Dick Cheney’s interview with ABC News, in which he (1) defended torture on the grounds that it’s not torture unless he says it is and (2) all but mocked President Bush on the decision to go to war with Iraq. Give him this: the man is not a hypocrite.

The corruption of Gen. McCaffrey — and NBC

To me, the most reprehensible aspect of retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s behavior, documented in a massive front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times, wasn’t that he used his military connections on behalf of his military-contractor clients, and then didn’t disclose those connections during his paid appearances on NBC News.

That’s bad enough. But what was truly the most corrupt about McCaffrey’s behavior is that he deprived NBC’s viewers of his honest opinion at a time when it might have mattered. Worst of all: NBC executives knew it and did nothing.

The story, by David Barstow, is a follow-up to a long piece he wrote last April about conflicts of interest among paid television commentators with military background. At the time, I called it “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” Unfortunately, it pretty much disappeared without a trace.

McCaffrey, a four-star general, may be the worst — or at least the most prominent — of them all, sucking up to the military in order to serve his clients among military contractors, and going on NBC News to offer his expert opinion. Most telling is what happened when he momentarily deviated from the official line, early in the war:

Only when the invasion met unexpected resistance did General McCaffrey give a glimpse of his misgivings. “We’ve placed ourselves in a risky proposition, 400 miles into Iraq with no flank or rear area security,” he told Katie Couric on “Today.”

Mr. Rumsfeld struck back. He abruptly cut off General McCaffrey’s access to the Pentagon’s special briefings and conference calls.

General McCaffrey was stunned. “I’ve never heard his voice like that,” recalled one close associate who asked not to be identified. He added, “They showed him what life was like on the outside.”

Robert Weiner, a longtime publicist for General McCaffrey, said the general came to see that if he continued his criticism, he risked being shut out not only by Mr. Rumsfeld but also by his network of friends and contacts among the uniformed leadership.

“There is a time when you have to punt,” said Mr. Weiner, emphasizing that he spoke as General McCaffrey’s friend, not as his spokesman.

Within days General McCaffrey began to backpedal, professing his “great respect” for Mr. Rumsfeld to Tim Russert. “Is this man O.K.?” the Fox News anchor Brit Hume asked, taking note of the about-face.

For months to come, as an insurgency took root, General McCaffrey defended the Bush administration. “I am 100 percent behind what the administration, what the president of the United States, is doing in Iraq,” he told [Brian] Williams that June.

There should be firings at NBC News for the failure to disclose McCaffrey’s work for military contractors. Then again, as Beth Wellington reminds us at NewsTrust, NBC’s corporate owner, General Electric Co., is itself a major military contractor, and thus had its own conflict of interest with which to contend (or not).

The FCC is investigating, although it’s hard to imagine that it will dig as deeply as it ought to.

“On the Media” recently rebroadcast an interview it conducted last spring with one of television’s compromised analysts, Maj. Robert Bevelacqua, formerly of Fox News.