When The Washington Post started drawing heat for its latest “Mouthpiece Theater” video, in which Post staffers Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza suggested it would be appropriate for Hillary Clinton to drink “Mad Bitch” beer, the paper made the problem go away—literally. As a Post spokesperson noted via email to several outlets, including CJR, the video was removed from the Post Web site Friday evening. Search for it by title now on the “Mouthpiece Theater” home page, and this is what you’ll find:
There doesn’t appear to be any official record of the decision to remove the video elsewhere on the site, either—not in the corrections column, not on the page that collects Milbank’s work, not on Cillizza’s blog “The Fix,” where the post promoting the video is still in place, but the player itself is unresponsive. And no mention of the decision has been appended to the transcript of Cillizza’s live chat from 11 a.m. Friday, which included three links to the video by the time the sixth question was answered, and where another prominent link to “Mouthpiece Theater” features a screenshot from the episode in question. (Clearly, the paper didn’t initially have any misgivings about the piece.)
There are a few ways a reader might learn that the video had been posted and then removed from the Post’s site. One is by reading one of the various other outlets that flagged the Post’s decision to publish the video in the first place, and then reported that it had been removed. (At some of those sites, including Media Matters and TPM DC, viewers can also see the video.)
Another is by reading this Howie Kurtz chat in which, in the course of not quite responding to some trenchant questions from a reader, Kurtz called the video “dumb” and “unfunny” and noted that it had been taken down. A third is by reading Cillizza’s Twitter feed, where he noted Friday evening that the video had been removed. (Asked via email about the location of the apology he mentions in his tweet, Cillizza replied with a link to a Politico post that relayed the statement from Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti.)
Needless to say, none of those avenues are really the most efficient way for a publication such as the Post to get a message to readers—which suggests that, perhaps, the Post wasn’t all that eager to get this message out there, at least not beyond the circle of people who were already exercised.
But the Post’s decision to publish, and then quietly “unpublish,” the video raises a host of questions, among them:
• Do the Post’s standards for publication in print and on the Web differ? If so, how?
• Does the editorial review process differ between print and the Web? How? In this case, who else beside the young producer who bought the beer saw the script in advance?
• If the “Mad Bitch” joke had appeared in print, how would the Post have gone about repudiating it? Why does a different standard apply to material that appears on the Web?
Unfortunately, Post managing editor Raju Narisetti, who has primary responsibility for multimedia content such as the “Mouthpiece Theater” videos, declined to discuss the topic, and Coratti didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment this afternoon. We’re still hopeful that some thoughts will arrive, and we’ll post them if and when they do. In the meantime, we’ll offer this advice to the Post: In the absence of some extraordinary circumstance, simply removing material from your site is the wrong thing to do. If you feel that material you’ve published crossed some line of tone or taste, and that it went so far that you cannot in good conscience keep it up on your site, the responsible thing to do is to own up to the mistake publicly, not to make the item in question disappear.
As Joe Uchill wrote for CJR a year ago, the “standard blogging practice” for making revisions to content involves “noting how and when a post is updated.” A major newspaper like the Post needs to at least meet, if not exceed, that standard. A newspaper would not—could not—respond to a column that went out with an ill-considered line by recalling every print copy. The fact that it can do so, if imperfectly, when the material is on the Web does not mean that it should.
Better, of course, not to cross that line in the first place. To that end, another word to the Post: Everything on your site bears your name and reflects on you as an institution. If you want to allow two of your big-name political writers to spend a summer day pretending that they host a late-late-night cable comedy show, that’s your choice— but if you’re not already doing so, you might want to make sure an editor takes a look at what they come up with before it goes out to the whole world. If you are already doing so, you might want to suggest that those editors start paying closer attention. And finally, given the details of this specific case, you might want to remind all employees of these principles for the Post laid out by Eugene Meyer. One of them seems apposite now, even if it sounds a bit old-fashioned: “As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.”Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.