Who is Autumn Brewington: This morning, the op-ed page at the New York Times puts the Washington Posts op-ed page to shame. But first, an important question:
Who is Autumn Brewington?
As many people have learned in the past week, Brewington is op-ed editor at the Washington Post. To judge from the papers rarely-seen masthead, this seems to make her third in command on the papers editorial board. (Warning: This masthead may be out of date.) Last week, it fell to Brewington to explain the Posts decision to run a particular op-ed columnSarah Palins underwhelming rumination about Copenhagen.
Many people said the Post showed poor judgment in deciding to run Palins piece. In this report, Joe Strupp (Editor & Publisher) quoted Brewingtons explanation for her papers decision.
Brewingtons explanation was quite unimpressive. But first, who is Autumn Brewington? We greedily turned to Nexis and Google, hoping we could find out.
Brewington seems to be relatively youngwhich doesnt always mean callow. As recently as October 2000, Nexis shows her writing for The Maneater, the student newspaper at the University of Missouri. (In this later post, she turns up as one of the 2001 Interns on the scene at the Post. We assume thats a year, not a headcount.) By the fall of 2001, her first piece appears in the Posta 1000-word piece in the Real Estate section about a large apartment complex in suburban Germantown, Maryland.
According to Nexis, Brewington penned five reports for the Post from November 2001 through January 2003. (Her third piece, in November 2002: You Must Remember This/As the Photographs and Memories Multiply, So Do Stores Catering to Scrapbookers.) In June 2006, we find an industry note which says that Brewington has been promoted to op-ed editor, starting January 1, 2007.
In the last three years, Brewington published three pieces in the Postpieces about innocuous topics. On November 16, 2008, for example, she published a travel piece under this heading: The Prince Who Got Away/In London, an American Girl Hunts for Britain's Greatest Catch.
On March 1 of this year, ombudsman Andrew Alexander named Brewington as one of the people who had reviewed the sources George Will cited in a controversial column about global warming. (Alexander said he disagreed with the judgments of the editorial staff about Wills factual claims.) This week, it fell to Brewington to explain how the Post treated this epochal science/policy topic when Palins column appeared.
Brewingtons explanation, at least as reported by Strupp, struck us as callowas groaningly weak. Here are the relevant excerpts:
STRUPP (12/10/09): It took editors at The Washington Post less than a day to greenlight Sarah Palin's climate change Op-Ed piece, according to Op-Ed Editor Autumn Brewington.
She said the newspaper received an e-mail from Palin Tuesday asking to write about the issue and it decided it should run Wednesday, before President Barack Obama was to head to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
"If we were going to use it, we had to use it immediately," Brewington said. "It was a quicker turnaround than is often the case. But we made the decision based on news.
Brewington did not regret giving Palin space, noting, "She is someone who stirs discussion and we are in the business of putting out opinion. She reached out to us."
Palin's piece drew interest for its criticism of climate change proponents, citing a scandal in Britain in which some "climate experts" were accused of falsifying data.
Brewington said the piece drew more reaction than most Op-Eds, adding that it ranked among the 10 most-read articles on the Post Web site Wednesday. "We are getting a lot of feedback. I have heard from a few more people today than I normally would have," she said. "Some people I think were glad that Palin had a voice in the Post, some were critical of her writing about climate change.
Should the Post have published Palins column? With no special disrespect aimed at Palin, wed vote a very clear no. Climate science is a highly technical subjectand the controversy over that mountain of e-mail is quite recent. Very few politicians would be qualified to write about this question at this point. (If any.) But the Post let Palin expound on this critical subjectin a rather murky fashion at that. In our view, theres no reason to think she had any idea what she was typing about.
In response, Brewington says that Palin is someone who stirs discussion. This strikes us as callowas dumb.
Brewington seems to approach this question as many web commenters have. Palin was just putting out opinion, she saysseeming to confuse opinion with simple preference or taste. If you like chocolate ice cream and we like vanilla, that is a simple matter of taste. And De gustibus non est disputandum, as the ancients correctly observed.
(In questions of ice cream, there can be no dispute. For further discussion, click here.)
But guess what? Opinion isnt a matter of taste. On most topics, a person must be well informed to have a viable opinion. There is almost no chance that Palin knows squat about those purloined e-mailsabout what those e-mails may/may not mean about larger questions of warming. Again, we intend no special disrespect to Palin: At this point, very few people could express informed opinion on these technical matters. But its foolish to publish thundering claims by a famous, highly controversial person who almost surely has no idea what shes talking about.
But so what? Last week, up jumped Brewington, giving an explanation to Struppan explanation taken straight from the play book of a D-plus elite. Palins piece has stirred discussion, she says. Palins piece has put out opinion. But did Palin know what she was talking about? In Strupps account, this basic question didnt arise at the Post.
Who is Autumn Brewington? As we tried to answer this question, a stereotype flashed into our heads. In recent years, big news orgs have been dumping salary, weve constantly been told. In the process, the story goes, theyve been dumping experience and judgment.
Is that a part of the Brewington story? We have no way of knowing. But this morning, the New York Times prints an op-ed piece geared to Copenhagen, like Palins before it. That said, one major difference obtains:
The writer possesses basic expertise. Whatever one may think of his views, hes qualified to opine on these crucial technical topics.
Was Palin qualified to opine? At the Post, the question didnt arise, at least as Strupp reports it.
Special report: The culture of scary stories!
PART 1ENORMOUS WASTE: In last Wednesdays New York Times, David Leonhardt was telling it straight. As he started his lengthy Economic Scene column, he described a noxious part of modern American political culturethe scary, bogus story:
LEONHARDT (12/9/09): Over the next several weeks, members of Congress will be confronted with one scary story after another about what will happen if they try to cut health care costs.
Tax the costliest health insurance plans? Workers will be denied medical care. Reduce the growth of spending on home health care agencies? Elderly patients living alone will be left to fend for themselves. Set up a commission to reduce Medicare waste? Again, the elderly will suffer. Impose a tax on plastic surgery? That's unfair to unemployed women looking to enhance their appearance. (Seriously, the plastic surgeons are making that case.)
Lets face it: For decades, American discourse has been ruled by the loud, dumb, screechy scare story. (Al Gore wants to eliminate the automobile as we know it!) In every possible circumstance, loud, screechy, silly people bruit these tales all around. (John Kerry voted against every major weapon system! And he looks French!) Concerning scary stories which come from the right, the liberal world is simply too dumb, too fun-loving to know how to refute them. (Just watch Countdown, pretty much any night.) The mainstream press rarely tries.
To the extent that politicians care, politicians tend to run for the hills when such scare stories arise.
How should liberals deal with scary stories? Thats a difficult questionone the liberal world rarely asks. But for decades, utterly silly, scary stories have ruled our political world. Members of Congress will face them now concerning health costs, Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt began and ended with the question of scary/scare stories. But as he continued, he moved to a key, important fact. In this passage which follows, Leonhardt defined an obvious problem with our gruesome health care system. For our money, this is the topic on which the liberal and mainstream worlds have utterly failed in this, Obamas first year in officeand in the many years preceding Obamas ascension:
LEONHARDT (continuing directly): But here's the thing: It is abundantly clear that our medical system wastes enormous amounts of money on health care that doesn't make people healthier. Hospitals that practice more intensive medicine, to take one example, get no better results than more conservative hospitals, research shows. And while the insured receive better care and are healthier than the uninsured, the lavishly insuredthose households with so-called Cadillac plansare not better off than households with merely good insurance.
Yet every time Congress comes up with an idea for cutting spending, the cry goes out: Patients will suffer! You're cutting bone, not fat!
How can this be? How can there be billions of dollars of general waste and no specific waste? There can't, of course.
The only way to cut health care costs is to cut health care costs and, in the process, invite politically potent scare stories.
Lets repeat what Leonhardt said: It is abundantly clear that our medical system wastes enormous amounts of money on health care. Key words: We waste enormous sums. And Leonhardt said the fact of this waste is abundantly clear.
Waste. Thats another key word.
In this very worthwhile column, Leonhardt went on to discuss the pair of problems he thereby had outlined. He discussed some of the ways our health system wastes those enormous sums. He speculated about the ways Congress will respond to predicted scare stories. In the process, we thought Leonhardt wrote a piece which could serve as a good review of this gruesome, badly failed yeara year in which we Americans proved that we cant conduct public discussion.
Never has it been so clear that we are now a fallen democracythat we are too dumb, too corporate, too store-bought, too compromised to execute our system of government.
Our health system wastes enormous sums. As Leonhardt says, thats abundantly clear. How then could it possibly happen that scary stories might rule the day? This question defines our political culture. Leonhardts imperfect, worthwhile column helps us ponder this state of affairs.
Tomorrowpart 2: Yes, but how enormous?
Coming December 31: Worst person of the year!