Strange Shade-Throwing from the Washington Post

Good things come in underweight packages.

Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The Washington Post, part of the same media conglomerate as Slate, is one of only two outlets that can claim credit for breaking the NSA leak story. Barton Gellman got to Edward Snowden before anyone else did, and the backstory here is sort of byzantine, but the gist is that Gellman ate every other American newspaper’s lunch. Since then the U.K.-based paper the Guardian, with reporters on four continents, has used more of Snowden’s leaks and broken a few more stories, but I thought the Post was coming across pretty well.

So what’s with today’s patronizing profile of that British paper? Paul Farhi, a media reporter for the Style section, looks at the Guardian as a scrappy, declining outfit that miraculously keeps getting scoops. The paper is “small and underweight even by British standards.” It’s “a financially struggling, frankly liberal newspaper with a newsprint circulation of fewer than 160,000 copies daily.”

Even by British standards? Just a month ago, in a piece about British media talent making it big stateside, Farhi wrote that the British market had a sort of steroid effect on journalism.

Honing your talent in the hyper-competitive British home market is one factor: A nation with one-fifth the population of the United States supports three independent national TV networks and more than a dozen national newspapers — broadsheets, “middle-market” tabloids and scandal-mongering “red tops.”

Which is it? I’m not sure; Farhi’s written a lot this year about non-Post outlets that managed to break news somehow, and the reasons for wonderment change from medium to medium. The Smoking Gun’s decision to publish hacked photos of the Bush family led to a debate about “standards,” and how “the taboo and the personal all seem to be fair game for someone” these days. The key fact of CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s Benghazi stories was that they made her “a kind of Rorschach test among journalists.” The Daily Caller’s faceplant on the Bob Menendez “prostitution” story wasn’t covered as an outlet falling for an unreliable source, but as proof that its “put-up-your-dukes attitude has made the Daily Caller a rising star among the new Washington media.”

And then there was Farhi’s poorly timed salute to David Corn and Mother Jones, which described the magazine’s release of a Mitch McConnell strategy session as one of two “major bombshell” and “career-making” stories. The first bombshell, the “47 percent tape,” really did own the news cycle. The McConnell story ended in disaster, with no actual news coming from the audio and the leakers—dim Democratic strategists in Kentucky—being exposed for stalking outside McConnell’s office.

There’s no bright line running through those profiles. Sometimes a scrappy news outlet becomes Interesting even though its big scoop fell apart; today, a scrappy newspaper with a huge story is Interesting because, hey, how lame is that newspaper, anyway?

See Hamilton Nolan for more headscratching about this.