Flaming the Messenger

Looking for a Fifth Column in the media? Try try again

"But for the most part," Michael Barone wrote in a column earlier this week, "[Franklin] Roosevelt did not have to deal with one problem Bush faces today. And that is that today's press works to put the worst possible face on the war."

Instead of being greeted with the howls of mockery it richly deserved, this hyperbolic rant was greeted as Important Media Criticism all over the pro-war blogosphere.

"Is this an exaggeration?" asked the apparently plural James Taranto of Opinion Journal. "We'd have to say not."

Well, we'd have to say that many of the same people who two years ago were making great hay about the anti-war Left's shrillness and hyperbole have increasingly failed to recognize the condition when it afflicts their own ranks.

Let's take Barone's statement literally for a moment: Today's press -- not some of today's press, or particular section of today's press, but today's press -- "works to put the worst possible face on the war."

Let's imagine if that were true. Take the British news agency Reuters, a favored Taranto whipping boy for its "anti-American propaganda." If Reuters was working to put the worst possible face on the war, to spread its pernicious anti-American propaganda, what would it do if, say, three of its employees claimed to be physically and sexually abused, Abu Ghraib-style, at an Iraqi prison, by Americans who knew they were reporters? It'd be at the top of the newswire immediately, right?

Here's what Reuters actually did -- sat on the story for more than four months.

And yet Abu Ghraib is precisely the evidence Taranto and Barone muster in their next supporting sentences. Barone: "Hence the endless dwelling on the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison and the breathless speculation that it would drive Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from office." Taranto: "Consider the press's obsession with the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. Sure, it's a big and important story, but as others have pointed out, it's far from the only story in Iraq. Why, for example, did it get so much more coverage than the murder by terrorists of American civilian Nick Berg?"

So, heavy coverage of Abu Ghraib = "work[ing] to place the worst possible face on the war"? To believe this, you have to believe in a popular false god of the age-old Media Bias debate, namely that bias = agenda. Among news organizations that purport to truly pursue a fair and balanced presentation to a mass audience -- I'm talking here about large daily newspapers, network news shows, the generalist weekly news magazines -- bias may certainly be rampant, but agendas (especially on grave national-interest issues) are actually rare.

That's why former New York Times editor Howell Raines' crusade against the men-only rules of the Augusta National Golf Club stuck out like such a sore thumb. We expect our general-interest news outlets -- even those that skew to a specific audience in a highly competitive news market -- to cover and uncover news, not create it.

To me, the most convincing argument in the Media Bias debate has always been that the fish don't feel the water: that journalists at general-interest news organizations don't even recognize that their personal biases tilt in a certain direction, and affect news judgment.

This was borne out nicely in the just-released journalist survey [PDF] by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, showing that A) a far greater percentage of the national press self-identify as "liberal" or "moderate" (34 percent and 54 percent) than does the general public (20 percent/41 percent), and B) self-identified media liberals and self-identified media conservatives have drastically different opinions on the press' performance (for example, 53 percent of conservative journalists say the media has been "too hard" on President Bush, compared to only 3 percent of liberal journalists).

No doubt this shows how ideology can affect news judgment. But the dominant paradigm in general-interest newsgathering over the past four decades has been to attempt to overcome biases and deliver relatively agenda-free news. This paradigm is now under attack (and a long-overdue one, in my book), by the same forces that are disrupting the monopolist conditions that reinforced it. But to state that journalists themselves have basically abandoned this model is either to display a shocking ignorance of the modern newsroom, or to play down to the worst suspicions of a partisan readership.

Mort Kondracke, in another widely praised column last week, took the leap from the agenda-accusation, straight to the pre-emptive blame-laying: "The American establishment, led by the media and politicians, is in danger of talking the United States into defeat in Iraq," he warned. "And the results would be catastrophic."

This claim, which Glenn Reynolds called a "must-read warning to congress and the media," again rests on the idea that the explicit goal of American journalists is to produce American failure in Iraq. And it also suggests a rather unseemly condescension toward the lowly American citizen -- are we suddenly such sheep that the All-Powerful Media dictates our opinion?

Truth is, if you want your news filtered by people itching to Finish the Job in Iraq, there is no shortage of media outlets, thanks to an increasingly robust and fragmented market. The O'Reilly Factor is a no-Abu Ghraib-image zone, for those sick of the story (or those who, like Trent Lott, don't really understand why it's a controversy).

But claiming that the U.S. media is waging a conscious campaign to make America lose -- and that it has the power to pull it off -- smacks not only of delusion, but a kind of desperation as well.

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