'Mouthpiece Theater' Ends With Apologies

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, August 9, 2009

There were apologies instead of applause when the lights dimmed on "Mouthpiece Theater" last week. The experimental satirical video series, featuring Post staffers Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza, ended its 16-episode run amid controversy and regret.

Conceived as a comedic riff on television's highbrow "Masterpiece Theatre," its modest viewing audience had been steadily growing on The Post's Web site. But critics justly panned it as sophomoric. The decision to pull the plug stemmed from a July 31 segment playing off President Obama's Rose Garden beer chat about race with black Harvard scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley, the white officer who arrested him on disorderly conduct charges that were later dropped. In their skit, Milbank and Cillizza envisioned beer brands that politicians might be served. For "Mad Bitch" beer, an image of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared. A predictable uproar ensued.

There was so much wrong with "Mouthpiece Theater" and the way The Post handled the controversy that it's hard to know where to begin. But there was also something very right about it. More on that later.

The problems:

The basic concept was flawed. Milbank might have pulled it off as a solo act. His Washington Sketch column can be biting and funny, and his occasional accompanying videos are creative and entertaining. It's his job to voice opinions. But Cillizza is different. He writes straight news on The Fix, his popular Post politics blog, and his stories appear on the news pages. Teaming with Milbank created a branding problem for him and The Post. It left readers confused about his true role -- reporter, commentator or comic? -- and about The Post's standards. Cillizza acknowledged this "somewhat discordant marriage" on The Fix after "Mouthpiece Theater" was killed.

Second, satirical humor is risky. Clinton aside, there was mention of Gates requesting a "Big Black Stout" and Crowley ordering a "White Rascal." Some critics charged misogyny and racial insensitivity. It's important to remember that this was meant as comedy. And Milbank and Cillizza poked fun at themselves by hoisting "two cans of Jackass Oatmeal Stout." But allusions to race and gender, however innocent or evenhanded, invite trouble. What's funny to some is hurtful to others. The Post's Stylebook is clear: "Avoid ethnic labels and stereotypes such as hard-drinking Irishman, tempestuous Latins or Chinese fire drill."

Third, the lack of quality control was disturbing. "There was no systematic approach for viewing the content before it went up," Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli told me last week. "Mouthpiece Theater" was intended to be edgy. Scripts were reviewed, but not all images. The absence of final vetting invited disaster. Late this week, a new system was put in place. According to an internal note, key managers have been assigned to review all videos for "fairness and taste." Questionable videos get sent to higher-level managers. "If in doubt, run it up the flagpole," the note says. "Remember the no-surprises rule."

Next, the vanishing video. Brauchli ordered the video removed soon after the controversy erupted July 31 when the liberal Web site Talking Points Memo drew attention to it. Those who tried to view it on The Post's site instead saw a message that said only that the video had been removed because it "contained material that was inappropriate." There should have been a more complete explanation there and elsewhere on The Post's site. Worse, the video went viral and could be found in other places on the Internet. "I concede that it's rather Orwellian for something to totally disappear from the Web site without any trace," said Brauchli. "You need to explain it, especially when people are coming to look for it."

Finally, the apology. If the video was deemed unsuitable, an unequivocal apology was in order. Instead, Post communications director Kris Coratti issued a statement saying only that "a satirical piece that lampooned people of all stripes" had been removed because part of the video "went too far." Cillizza apologized, but briefly, to his followers on Twitter. The Post has since carried apologies from Milbank and Cillizza.

So what was right about "Mouthpiece Theater"? Although fatally flawed, Milbank and Cillizza should be applauded for embracing the spirit of experimentation underlying it. With the traditional business model for newspapers broken, new audiences must be found. The newsroom needs risk-takers and pioneers in new media.

Cillizza got it just right last week on The Fix when he wrote that "experimentation -- and the willingness to fail -- sit at the center of any creative endeavor."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog .

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