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Playboy, Tommy Christopher, and the Lessons of Traditional Journalistic Values

5 years ago
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No one was more surprised than I was to read last week that I had supposedly bowed to corporate pressure and fired blogger Tommy Christopher for standing up against a particularly misogynistic and vile Playboy.com piece. But my first reaction – to assume that no one could possibly believe such a far-fetched story, wrong on every count – was mistaken. The number of press inquiries I got? Zero. Number of inquiries our parent company, AOL, fielded? Also zero.
But though nobody asked, I'll tell you anyway, because this episode illustrates why we feel so passionately about the mission of Politics Daily – namely, to uphold the traditions and practices of old-fashioned journalism on the web.
I never even read the Playboy post I supposedly fired Christopher for writing. It was killed because the editor who handled it said it contained profanity, which Christopher had been asked not to use in his work. (To be perfectly precise, what the editor wrote was, "Hey chief, whole lotta f*** in this Christopher piece; that OK?'' And what I replied was: No, it isn't.)
Christopher was one of six bloggers from across the ideological spectrum who had written for the old AOL politics site Political Machine, which doesn't exist any more. They were all told on the same day last week that they were not being retained to write for the new site, Politics Daily, which has only been live since April 27.
There was no corporate pressure to protect Playboy, and if corporate ever did try to dictate anything to me in terms of editorial content, I would quit my job, period.
I'm an economic liberal but also a socially conservative, pro-life Catholic feminist who's written a lot about women's issues and considers everything Playboy does degrading to women. Which made the idea that I'd throw my 25 years in journalism under a bus to protect a bunch of pornographers particularly jaw-dropping.
What I've learned from this incident is that you can't leave even the most outlandish untruths unanswered. But there are larger lessons to be absorbed. The founding principle of Politics Daily is to do old-school journalism in a sustainable format -- old-school as in verifying facts prior to publication.
This experience not only illustrates how important what we're trying to accomplish is – but how far some journalism on the web still has to go in that regard. NewsBusters, a site that is supposed to be a conservative journalistic watchdog, ran a story under the headline, "Liberal Writer Fired by AOL News for Reporting Vile Playboy List.''
"AOL News has been bending over backwards lately to make sure that they do not cover the controversy surrounding Playboy.com writer Guy Cimbalo's vile attack on conservative women,'' the story said. "AOL News has taken some drastic steps to censor any mention, let alone criticism, of Playboy's screed. They have deleted posts about the article, banned contributors from mentioning it, and even fired one of their liberal writers over it...The evidence is stacking up quite high that AOL News fired liberal writer Tommy Christopher today due to his repeated attempts to get coverage of the Playboy attack list on AOL's Politics Daily.''
The piece also claimed that I had not responded to an email seeking comment, but I never received any such email. And it concluded that since I hadn't denied the story, it must be true: "It seems highly unlikely that AOL fired him for lack of performance and it is important to note that nobody has claimed that as of now.''
On the left, this same narrative was repeated, and reported as fact. At the Huffington Post, where I briefly worked as the site's first political editor, Jason Linkins quoted the NewsBusters piece at length, and added this: "Politics Daily has not made the reasoning behind Christopher's dismissal clear, but it's hard not to see it as stemming from his criticism of Playboy. Christopher attempted to publish a story on the matter at Politics Daily the day Cimbalo's piece hit the web. And that's where Christopher's troubles apparently began.''

The reasoning behind the imagined corporate pressure, as best I can follow it, is that since AOL is not yet separated from Time Warner, and an independent company named Time Warner Cable, which no longer has corporate ties to Time Warner, is a distributor of the Playboy Channel, then clearly Playboy.com must have reached out to the Playboy Channel, which in turn reached out to Time Warner Cable, which reached out to Time Warner, which reached out to AOL, which instructed me to kill Christopher's blog post, and I not only agreed to do that, but fired him for good measure.

The last line of the HuffPo piece said that if I had anything to add, I should feel free to contact Linkins: "As of this writing, the precise rationale behind Christopher's firing is not known. But it's really difficult to imagine an alternative conclusion that doesn't involve Christopher's criticism of the [Playboy] piece.''

"I would have to imagine that it would be nearly impossible to justify sacking a productive reporter for the sake of defending another publication's graphic depiction of women... But here's my email, Melinda Henneberger, editor-in-chief of AOL's Politics Daily! You may feel free to jolly well give it your best shot!''

The instant I saw the HuffPo piece, late Friday night, I did shoot off an email to Linkins, which he said he would append to the story – and did, reporting that I had "at last'' responded.

Can you imagine the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or Politico.com running a piece that ended, "Hey, and if anyone criticized in this article has any alternative explanation, which I doubt and wouldn't believe anyway, then feel free to let me know so I can append it to the piece in our archives!''
This was particularly hard for me to understand because it isn't like HuffPo doesn't have my email and phone number – and my social security number, for that matter.
Ironically, the one person who did get in touch with me, last Thursday night, to ask if the story floating around about Christopher was true, was one of the women slimed in the Playboy piece, Amanda Carpenter – and she wasn't even writing a story. Still, Carpenter is a journalist, so her first impulse was to ask questions before assuming she knew the answers. (I told her no, it wasn't true, and invited her to write about how she'd been treated by Playboy for Politics Daily, which she said she'd be glad to do except that her employer, the Washington Times, doesn't allow her to do any outside writing.)
If new media really wants to replace old, if they think they can do better than the stodgy, sclerotic old newsausaurs they're so disdainful of, then they'd better give some serious thought and attention to raising their standards and doing some old-fashioned reporting, including picking up the telephone; you cannot write first and ask questions later, if at all.
Politics Daily exists to provide fact-based, heavily reported news and opinion from across the political spectrum. Our reporting team for the new site includes Jill Lawrence, who quit her job at USA Today to join us, Carl Cannon, who was previously at Reader's Digest and the National Journal, Lynn Sweet, of the Chicago Sun-Times, Walter Shapiro, previously with Salon and before that with USA Today, and David Wood, one of the most respected military writers in the business, who had been with the Baltimore Sun, and who we are sending to Afghanistan. Our team also includes talented writers who have come up through web-based outlets, like Patricia Murphy, founder of the non-partisan CitizenJanePolitics.com, and Matt Lewis, a conservative commentator previously with Townhall.com, who is the only Political Machine blogger continuing to write for the new site.
Why did I hire these veteran reporters, when the prevailing wisdom is that grown-ups are too expensive and too dull, and that kids hired on the cheap – or else not paid at all – are the way to go? Because experience matters – and it shows on the site every day, from Cannon's D-Day article putting Obama's Saturday speech in Normandy into historical context, to Wood's recent piece on the threat of rogue-state nukes. All of these reporters are old pros who have been at this for decades -- and would sooner hang up their press passes than work for an outfit that would cave to corporate pressure. We intend to raise the bar on standards on the web, and this incident reinforces both how important that goal is, and all that we're up against.
Update: Several hours after posting this, I received a snotty, rather than apologetic, email from the HuffPo's Linkins: "FYI,'' he writes, "I have an extant inquiry with someone at AOL. Hopefully, they'll get back to me. Do go ahead and correct that. Also! No promises, but I may have some additional questions for you tonight, so please go ahead and leave me a number at which I can reach you. Thanks for the use of your social security number!''

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