A Daily News writer makes his name by taking on the boss.
Not many people get to make their living by biting the hand that feeds them. Will Bunch, it seems, is the exception to the rule.
Bunch, 50, is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and -- perhaps more prominently -- the Attytood blogger who stirred a nationwide controversy when he criticized his bosses and colleagues for hiring former Bush Administration lawyer John Yoo to write regular columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He did more than criticize the Inquirer; he urged readers to demand Yoo's removal from the paper's op-ed pages.
"People should write the Inquirer ... or call the newspaper and tell them that torture advocates are not the kind of human beings who belong regularly on a newspaper editorial page, officially sanctioned," Bunch wrote in early May. Attention from media and liberal blogs from around the nation ensued; Bunch ended up debating this issue with his top boss, publisher Brian Tierney, on WHYY.
Conflicts with the boss make most people nervous, but Bunch saw the dustup as a matter of principle.
“I’ve been writing about the torture issue for as long as I’ve been doing the blog," Bunch said recently. "In fact I had just written a post several weeks earlier arguing that the torture issue was something of a moral test for modern journalism, that it was an issue that should be covered in the traditional objective way. Hiring Yoo was just against everything I believed. The Inquirer wasn’t endorsing torture, but hiring Yoo normalized it, made it a legitimate subject for policy debate when I believe that torture is a crime, period.”
Bunch lives in Delaware County, is married, and is the father of two teenagers. He grew up in Westchester County in New York and went to the Hackley School, where his editor for the school newspaper was current MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann. “Keith was exactly as he is today, loud, boisterous, obsessed with baseball, super-intelligent,” recalls Bunch. “There wasn’t much sign that he was ‘a liberal’ but I doubt he really was then–he was ‘radicalized’ much later by the Bush administration, kind of as I was.”
After graduating from Brown University in 1981, Bunch worked his way up the media food chain -- helping earn a Pulitzer at Newsday for 1991 coverage of a Manhattan subway crash that killed five people. He landed at the Daily News in 1995. "I loved its scrappy underdog status ... and still do," he says.
He started blogging during the 2004 presidential race, but Attytood got started in earnest in 2005. And Bunch, who had made a career doing "straight" journalism started delivering his opinions on a daily basis. The actions of the Bush Administration and the decline of newspapers forced the issue, he said.
The Bush administration's policies, he says, "were essentially destroying the country and required an urgent kind of truth-telling that just wasn’t happening through conventional ‘on one hand, on the other hand’ journalism."
Bunch attracted early attention to his blog by criticizing former Sen. Rick Santorum after the Inquirer -- which, like the Daily News, is owned by Philadelphia Newspapers -- hired him as a columnist. So Bunch had already been down the road of doing in-house media criticism in front of a public audience.
“It might have been a little more complicated if the hire had been at the Daily News," Bunch says of Yoo. "But to not criticize Yoo would have gone against everything that I wanted Attytood to stand for. I was very careful to stress my respect for [Inky op-ed editor] Harold Jackson, which is still there, even though I was a little befuddled by some of the things that he wrote or implied about me in his column.”
Jackson's column didn't explicitly name Bunch. Instead it referred to "bloggers" who had spread false information about the Yoo hiring. Jackson continues to defend the Yoo hire, saying that it doesn’t reflect the Inquirer’s support for torture.
"Criticism of the Inquirer has ignored that the addition of Yoo has not changed this newspaper's position that torture is wrong and that Yoo was wrong to suggest that torture can ever be right," Jackson says. "Our Memorial Day editorial, which I wrote, decries ‘the despicable use of torture to extract information from captives’ and notes that ‘America has spent considerable capital, including the deaths of many captured soldiers who were tortured, building its reputation as a nation that would never stoop to that level of depravity.'”
May people believe, though, that the Inquirer's reputation has taken a hit. And some of that is Bunch's doing.