The de facto firing of David Weigel by the Washington Post the week before last was much less remarkable than the fact that they hired him in the first place. The Post, after all, is well-known for firing people who get the story right: Dan Froomkin was the best they had covering the Bush Administration, and they fired him without even the pretext of a pretext. So the functional firing of Weigel didn't really tell us anything new about the Post, but it was a useful occasion for looking afresh at what we already know, and taking it more fully to heart.
It was also an extremely fortuitous counterpoint to Michael Hastings rudely committing an act of actual journalism about the Afghanistan War. Hastings, too, got criticized by the stenographers for not doing things properly, but since he worked for the DFH press, his job was secure. OTOH, the fellow who allowed him to interview Gen. McChrystal was the first to lose his job--long before it was clear that McChrystal himself would be made to step down.
Before saying anything else, I want to stress the total bogosity of the dominant new media/old media spin on this story. Old media figures have personal opinions, just the same as new media figures do. There is no real difference between the two on that score. Nor is the mix of reporting and opinion anything new. Evens and Novak built one of the most successful old media brands on the right using that formula starting back in the 1960s. Nixon henchman William Safire did much the same at the New York Times, which offered him safe haven as an act of repentance for their own excess of truth-telling about Nixon's Whitehouse, a perch from which he almost single-handedly gave birth to the endless GOP quest for a Democratic Watergate. And who can ignore George Will, an openly confessed criminal--receiving stolen property in the form of Carter's 1980 debate books--whose mendacity is arguably his most defining characteristic?
Similarly, the salient fact about Hastings was not so much that he worked for Rolling Stone than that he didn't work for any of the folks who brought us the war in the first place. A reporter for McClatchy, for example, could very well have written something very similar. This is just what actual journalists do--the kind who haven't been drinking Kool Aid all their lives.
Brad DeLong captured the essential dynamic here quite nicely when he wrote:
the Washington Post never wanted to be perceived as impartial in the sense of an umpire with good eyesight who called balls and strikes as he or she saw them. The Washington Post wanted to be perceived as neutral in that roughly half its calls would go for the establishment Democrats and half its calls would go to the establishment Republicans. There are very big differences. For one thing, a neutral paper is bound to be untrustworthy as a source of information.
And this is why we can't have a better press corps right now.
Just to add some further detail: If the Post and the rest of the not-strictly rightwing Versailles press aim for such "neutrality", then the incentives are quite clear: (1) Move as far to the extremes as possible in your own statements, in order to shift the neutral point in your direction. (2) Attack the other side continuously for its "extremism" in order to deter it from doing the same--and perhaps even to get it to do the opposite. This is precisely what the conservative movement has been doing for most of the past 30+ years, and Democrats--with a few lonely exceptions like Alan Grayson--still have yet to catch on.
|Why are the conservatives the only ones who respond rationally to the incentive structure of the Versailles media? Well, as usual, there are multiple reasons, but I'll just limit myself to the top two: First off, they're the ones who had a major hand in shaping the game, for purposes that they understand quite well, so they have a much firmer grasp of how it works. Second, they shaped the game in part to disarm, disorient and befuddle Versailles Democrats and "liberals", who have darnedest time trying to figure out (a) what's wrong with "neutrality" and (b) why that nice Lucy girl keeps pulling away the football just before they're about to kick it.
At the same time, conservatives have mounted a full-scale assault on Versailles media to drive it relentlessly to the right. One aspect of that assault is their use of demonizing attacks as the normative narrative in their so-called "media criticism," and the Post's conduct in getting rid of Weigel acted out the conservative script to perfection.
This can be seen rather clearly by looking at the Media Resource Center, a rightwing "media criticism" outfit that's been in business since the late 1980s. For years (they seem to have stopped last year), they compiled a bi-weekly list of "Notable Quotables" that are basically just things that they don't like hearing anyone say. They're mostly expressions of opinion offered in contexts where opinions are appropriate--op-ed columns, round-table discussions and the like. Sometimes they are mentions of facts that conservatives don't like--virtually anything about Europe that isn't derogatory could end up as a "Notable Quotable", for example. Every year, MRC created a compilation of their "Best Notable Quotables"of the year, which were then judged and presented at their "Annual Awards for the Year's Worst Reporting". Except, of course, that most of what they got all hot and bothered about was not reporting at all: they got upset anytime anyone said something they didn't like, even when it was clearly marked as opinion, and even when there were more conservatives present giving their opinions than there were liberals. (Wait for it, I've got a nice specific example below).
Early on in my tenure at Random Lengths News--where we regularly received MRC's bi-weekly newsletter of their "Notable Quotables", I was struck by their paroxysms of anger over the incredibly innocuous 10th anniversary coverage of the 1992 Rodney King riots in LA, just because there was passing mention of "root causes" that still remained largely ignored. That lead me to do an analysis of their then most-recent annual awards (2001, available here), along with an interview with "Notable Quotables" co-editor Richard Noyes, which I combined into an article that I republished here at Open Left in March 2008, in my diary, "The Role of Rightwing Media Watch Groups In The Gramscian War of Position". I want to pick out just a few salient points from that piece originally written in 2002.
But first, I just want to list the 14 award categories that MRC used in its 2001 evaluation:
* Swiss Press Corps Award for Remaining Neutral in War Coverage
* Selected Not Elected Award for Claiming Bush Is an Illegitimate President
* Department of Injustice Award for Denigrating John Ashcroft
* Pushing Bush to the Left Award
* Politics of Meaninglessness Award for the Silliest Analysis
* Poisoning the Planet Award for Portraying Bush as Destroyer of the Earth
* Euro-Envy Award for Advocating More Government Spending
* Picking the Lockbox Award for Denouncing Bush's Tax Cut
* Nobody Here But Us Apolitical Observers Award for Denying Liberal Bias
* Carve Clinton Into Mount Rushmore Award
* Blame America First Award
* Good Morning Morons Award
* Glimpses of Patriotism Award
* Damn Those Conservatives Award
Of course they're entitled to organize their analysis and their awards any way that they want to. But the fact that they freely choose to cut the media world up in terms of their own sore spots rather than anything empirical is something worth keeping in mind.
In my article, I cited a statistical analysis by Geoff Nunberg, of Stanford University and a simpler one by Bob Sommersby, of The Daily Howler, both of which served to debunk Bernard Goldberg's claim that "In the world of the Jennings and Brokaws and Rathers, conservatives are out of the mainstream and have to be identified. Liberals, on the other hand, are the mainstream and don't have to be identified." I then wrote about my own (super-sophisticated!) statistical analysis, which showed that MRC's list was heavily weighted away from news, where bias was at least a legitimate complaint (even if their specific examples might be disputed) and toward opinion, where it was not:
Simple statistical analysis wrecks havoc with MRC's work as well. At year end they select groups of related "Notable Quotables" and send them to a panel of conservative judges to select their "Annual Awards for the Year's Worst Reporting". There were fourteen categories for 2001. Not be outdone by messieurs Sommersby and Nunberg, I did a sophisticated statistical analysis of my own: I counted the selections. Only 25 of 65 items (less than one every two weeks) could plausibly be called "reporting" -- news items, that is -- and 10 of those were a stretch, at best. Almost all the rest were opinions or analysis in various settings. (Exception: a cable broadcast of Helen Thomas introducing former President Clinton won a first place bias award.)
So "Worst Reporting" was a lie -- or as I put it diplomatically to Noyes, it was "confusing". He said I was "the first person who has expressed any confusion with that title". That's a good indication of how little scrutiny is given to claims of "liberal media" bias. No one stops to ask the simplest questions when such claims are made. The accusation alone is treated as its own proof.
The fact that I was first person to ever question their deceitful framing to their face tells you pretty much everything you need to know about their purpose, integrity and effectiveness, all rolled up into one. And yet, as will be clear by the end of this diary, their methodology and its logic have been wholly absorbed by the Washington Post in their de facto firing of David Weigel.
Just picking one of their categories as an example, here's an entire entry--in which only one example is from a news show. You'll note that "First Place" went to Eleanor Clift giving her opinion on the McLaughlin Group! That's right! The MRC is claiming that John McLaughlin is part of evil librul media!
Pushing Bush to the Left Award
"Arsenic in the water. Starting up the Cold War. Make as much carbon dioxide as you like. Laugh about it. Bush has set himself up as a huge target. And the arsenic is going to be the equivalent of what your boss [Newt Gingrich] did with cutting school lunches."
- Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, addressing Tony Blankley, on the McLaughlin Group, March 24. [52 points]
"George W. Bush was so indifferent to the world that in the years before he became President he made only two overseas trips, both for business, neither for curiosity. No wonder he wants to break the missile treaty, alienate NATO, ignore global warming and reinstall Russia and China as enemies: Those foreign countries scarcely exist in his imagination. Why go to Australia when you have the Outback Steakhouse right here at home?"
- Movie reviewer Roger Ebert in a July 24 Chicago Sun-Times op-ed. 
"Last week the Bush administration went beyond condiments, proposing to ax a Clinton administration regulation that forces the meat industry to perform salmonella tests on hamburger served in school cafeterias. Given the heightened interest in the health of cattle right now, the move wasn't exactly well timed....
"What happened to the compassion that was supposed to go with Bush's conservatism? The campaign prepared us for some of this - candidate Bush made plain his intention to drill in the Arctic wildlife refuge, not a bad political calculus given America's preference for SUVs over caribou. But no one thought his team would choose slaughterhouses over schoolchildren, even if only for a day. What connects these decisions is a preference for folks he knows: his oil-field buddies (mirrors of himself), corporate executives and captains of industry, from the Halliburton honcho to the Terminix franchisee."
- Margaret Carlson's "Public Eye" column in the April 16 Time magazine. 
"The Bush White House packaged in its first week an image of the President as a uniter. But Mr. Bush's message has often been at odds with the mission: The Ashcroft nomination, new restrictions on abortion counseling, plans for school vouchers, an in-your-face attitude that has Democrats reluctant to let down their guard."
- Reporter John Roberts on the CBS Evening News, January 26. 
"George W. Bush's rhetoric is very inclusive. He means to be inclusive, and he's used very soft rhetoric in trying to reach out to minorities. But the fact is he's proposed no federal programs for minorities. He hasn't talked about using the federal government to broaden the safety net."
- ABC News reporter Linda Douglass during the roundtable on This Week, December 23, 2000. 
Now, just counting stories is a decidedly low-powered statistical analysis. Crude, but effective, I'd say. But having been a math TA in college, I was just itching to do something a little more sophisticated, so I decided to turn to averaging judges scores to see what sorts of stories drew the most fire. First, I looked at where they appeared:
Only slightly more sophistication was needed to discover that MRC's judges found less bias on network TV than on cable, and less in news than opinion pieces.
Average scores were higher for stories on cable (55.08), syndicated TV (52) and websites (48) than for magazines, network TV, newspapers, and local TV (all tightly bunched from 40.17 to 39.40) Only two of 14 first places went to network TV -- and one was in a category explicitly limited to network morning shows. Cable got 5, websites 2, magazines 2, local TV 2, syndicated TV ("The McLaughlin Group," no less!) got 1.
Then I looked at what kinds of stories:
Non-news stories averaged 47.5 compared to 39.04 for news reports, and 37.0 for the subcategory of hard news, second-lowest behind the catch-all "other," with only two items. First places went to 12 non-news stories, no hard news stories, and only two soft news pieces -- one in a category limited to soft news.
And, I concluded:
Without MRC's blinders on, these figures speak loud and clear -- even without questioning the legitimacy of any supposed example of bias: they find relatively little bias on network TV news, where most of their wrath is directed. Typically, ABC Weekend Anchor Carole Simpson was cited three times -- and won a first place...for her online opinion columns, not her on-air reporting.
But what was most illuminating is how MRC responded when I confronted them with my analysis:
MRC claims that none of this matters. When I pointed out the lower bias scores for network TV, Noyes said, "Okay, well I think that probably misses the point. I think what, particularly with our judges, they do tend to focus on personalities. So the fact that Bryant Gumble up until last week was on broadcast, you ended up with a large number of votes that went into that because, you know, people recognized him as a figure who they regard as having a liberal ax to grind. It's not by type of media so much as it's by the personality of journalists and where they do tend to show up."
In other words, it's a witch-hunt, pure and simple. That's the point. (The one that I missed.) People are being targeted for what they think, feel and believe, not for how they actually do their jobs as journalists. And that's precisely the standard and set of background assumptions that the Washington Post adopted in getting rid of David Weigel.
It's not that people's personal attitudes are irrelevant, of course. Indeed, the vast majority of professional journalists (outside Versailles, at least) share a personal attitude toward their work that puts accuracy and honesty ahead of their own particular views on a given subject--at least when they're operating as reports, not commentators. This attitude clearly is not shared by conservatives, which is one of the main reasons that conservatives never seem to suspect it plays any role with the "liberal" journalists they love to hate. And yet, their very own efforts to find the most outrageous examples of media bias clearly show that this is the case: there's very little of what even they consider "bias" in the most high-profile news venues. Most of the "bias" appears in less prominent venues where "bias" (aka opinion or analysis) is precisely the point.
And, of course, with David Weigel and the Washington Post we saw the reductio ad absurdum: he was gotten rid of because of privately expressed opinions outed by his enemies.
No wonder MRC seems to have wrapped up its "Notable Quotable" operation. As this example so richly demonstrates, the Versailles media establishment has completely internalized the "Notable Quotable" mindset. Mission accomplished.