While hosting MSNBC on Friday afternoon, John Harwood took a viewer question -- and, in his answer, provided a glimpse of the shallowness the mainstream media's attitudes about their own biases:
Viewer Question: You grew up in Washington, DC, so some people would probably consider you an "insider." How do you maintain your objectivity when reporting on politics?
John Harwood: Guilty as charged of being an insider. I did grow up inside the Beltway. Let me just say this about press bias and objectivity: The notion of liberal bias in the media is not a fantasy. It is a fact, if we're talking about the orientation of people who go into journalism. However, it's also true that conservatives whine about it too much, and it's less consequential than it's been in the past because people are more mindful of it, pay more attention, and try to make sure that their own biases and their own inclinations don't come across too clearly in their news reporting.
Note, first of all, that the questioner didn't say anything about "liberal bias." She asked about Harwood's status as a Washington insider affecting his objectivity. Harwood didn't address that; not even glancingly. He just stipulated to "being an insider," then put the matter aside, betraying not so much as a hint of recognition that his insider status might affect how he views and reports on politics and policy.
And, after blowing off the question about whether his insider status affects his reporting, Harwood answered a question that wasn't asked, about "the notion of liberal bias." That's how knee-jerk defensive reporters are about "liberal bias" -- they respond to such allegations even when they haven't been asked. Harwood dismisses conservative complaints as "whining" -- but his own defensiveness makes clear that whining has worked.
And Harwood's response displayed a stunning lack of recognition of the difference between "the orientation of people who go into journalism" and the content of the news reports those people produce. John Harwood's own New York Times, for example, absolutely savaged Al Gore throughout the 2000 presidential campaign -- often inaccurately and typically unfairly -- while giving George W. Bush a free pass. Then there's Judith Miller and the Times' coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. After those two failures -- each of historic proportions -- it is simply absurd for any Times reporter to reflexively assume that the key question about the media is whether it displays a liberal bias.
And yet, that's exactly what reporters assume. They have internalized the conservative whining, and they have clearly not come to terms with the media's conduct during the most important events of the past two decades, from their treatment of the Clintons to the 2000 campaign and the Iraq war debate.
For those who wonder why a few progressive media critics -- Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler, me -- insist on bringing up the 2000 campaign and other past examples of media failures over and over again: This is why. The fact that a New York Times reporter upon hearing a question about media objectivity immediately starts talking about liberal bias rather than apologizing for what his paper did to Al Gore shows that they really don't understand what has happened over the past two decades.