By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
The Washington Post has brought down the curtain on "Mouthpiece Theater."
Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli killed the satirical video series Wednesday after harsh criticism of a joke about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, which prompted him to pull the latest episode from the paper's Web site Friday night. The Post staffers who appeared in the videos, Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza, agreed with the decision and apologized in separate interviews.
"I don't think the series worked as they intended," Brauchli said. "It was meant to be funny and insightful and translate the superb journalism Chris and Dana do in print and online into a new format."
"Mouthpiece Theater" was designed as a sendup of pompous punditry, with Milbank, the paper's Washington Sketch columnist, and Cillizza, a White House correspondent who writes The Fix blog, appearing with oversized pipes and smoking jackets. But its comedic style drew catcalls from online critics, which intensified after Friday's episode about the kind of beer various politicians might drink. Milbank said he couldn't reveal to whom President Obama would serve a brew called Mad Bitch Beer, which was followed by a brief shot of Clinton.
"I regret that we put up that image," Milbank said Wednesday, "and while I highly doubt the secretary of state has seen 'Mouthpiece Theater,' I would be honored to have the opportunity to apologize to her over a beer."
As for the dozen videos they have made in what was designed as a summer tryout, "it's clear there was an audience for it out there, but not large enough to justify all the grief," Milbank said. "My strength is in observational, in-the-field stuff, and that's what I should do. I'm sorry about the reaction it's caused, but I think it's important to experiment. The real risk to newspapers is not that they take too many risks, but that they don't take enough risks."
Cillizza agreed that the plug should be pulled, saying: "We'd hoped the self-deprecating humor of me and the irreverent humor of Dana would combine to make something funny and interesting and on the news. It wound up not working. . . . Ultimately it wasn't funny."
The Clinton joke, Cillizza said, "was inappropriate, over the line and highlighted the broader problems with the show. I'm personally apologizing on The Fix. It's not consistent with the Post brand, but more important to me, it's not consistent with the Fix brand I've worked to cultivate -- insider, straight-dope journalism that tries to shoot down the middle."
Brauchli called the Clinton joke "a serious lapse. . . . . It's really beneath us and not something we should engage in."
In a letter to Brauchli on Tuesday that was signed by 32 women, the organization Women, Action and the Media demanded an explanation for what it called "the video's patently sexist -- and otherwise tasteless -- content," which the writers said displayed "misogyny" and "utter contempt for women" as well as racial insensitivity.
Although the scripts for "Mouthpiece Theater" were approved by editors, Milbank and Cillizza often ad-libbed parts of it, as was the case with the inclusion of Clinton's photo. "We did not have an effective system for vetting videos and other multimedia content," Brauchli said, insisting that will change. He said the paper will keep experimenting with new media but that "we need to hold ourselves to our standards to deliver that."
The withering and often personal criticism of Milbank and Cillizza exploded Friday afternoon after the liberal Web site Talking Points Memo posted and criticized the latest video. Both men, who frequently appear on television, became high-profile targets, particularly among left-leaning bloggers but also on such outlets as Twitter.
"It's a brutal world out there in the blogosphere," Milbank said. "I'm often surprised by the ferocity out there, but I probably shouldn't be."
Cillizza said that "people have every right to be offended. . . . I am a big believer in experimenting with journalism and finding different ways to convey information. This was a failed experiment in doing that."
Signaling that their standing at The Post remains unaffected, Brauchli praised both reporters. He called Cillizza "an enormous talent and someone who is closely followed and admired by a lot of journalists and people in politics. . . . . Dana writes a terrific, very funny and usually very popular column on Page 2. He's an equal-opportunity offender, and from time to time everyone's mad at him."