Bob Woodward and the trouble with "liberal media bias"

Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

"Liberal media bias" has been part of the conservative mantra ever since the Goldwater era, and in that time the supposed leftward tilt of the mainstream press has served admirably as a scapegoat for Republican political misfortune. A Democrat wins an election? The biased media carried water for that liberal. A Republican caught in a scandal? He was the victim of a liberal media witch hunt. And so on.

The plausibility of the claim is dubious at best, as it requires one to believe not just that the entire media stacks the decks for liberals, but that Republicans and conservatives are somehow able to thrive despite the fact that the American media -- without question the most potent political entity on earth -- is arrayed against them.

Nonetheless, the supposed liberal slants of journalists remain a concern for the right, and individual reporters are often singled out and attacked for their allegedly biased ways. That serves their immediate purposes well enough, but what happens when those same journalists act in decidedly un-liberal ways and report information that conservatives want to exploit? Predictably, those past accusations of bias quickly cease to matter. Consider the curious case of Bob Woodward.

Woodward spent pretty much the entire Bush administration writing books about the Bush administration, releasing four titles about the Bush White House before they turned the keys over to President Obama in 2009. Woodward grew more critical of Bush with each book, and the last two, State of Denial (released in 2006) and The War Within (released in 2008), were particularly harsh in their assessments of the Republican president.

At the time, conservatives attacked Woodward's credibility. The Media Research Center -- the right-wing clearinghouse for complaints of "liberal media bias" -- had little regard for Woodward's journalistic acumen, calling him a "left-wing author" who "mak[es] up facts to fit a preestablished narrative." MRC president Brent Bozell wrote that State of Denial was "perfectly pitched for maximum anti-GOP impact just four weeks shy of the midterm elections."

And then there's John Bolton, the former Bush administration official-turned-Fox News contributor, who slammed Woodward in 2008 as a petty hack, saying of The War Within: "People who talked to Woodward typically are portrayed very favorably, and those who won't talk to him are portrayed badly." [Special Report with Brit Hume, September 5, 2008]

That narrative of Woodward the untrustworthy liberal endured, even as control of the White House switched from Bush to Obama. Woodward, however, kept up his habit of writing about current presidents, and his first book on the Obama administration, Obama's Wars, is slated for release next week. As with Woodward's past titles, advance copies were sent to the press and excerpts were released ahead of time, some of them not flattering of Obama. And the same conservatives who spent the past four years trashing Woodward as a liberal apologist are now taking his word as the gospel truth.

Over on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters, they're writing posts that begin:

Of all the revelations in Bob Woodwards's new book, this could be the most devastating . . .

On this evening's Hardball, Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell admited [sic] that the military people in the Obama administration don't trust Pres. Obama's political advisers.

That raises grave concerns for America's security. In purely political terms, consider the implications given that among Americans, by far the most trusted institution is . . . the military.

Meanwhile, John Bolton used Woodward's reportage to "prove" that Obama lacks the "qualifications to be commander-in-chief":

This, more than anything else, gives lie to the notion of "liberal media bias." It's a false premise that the right-wingers adopt or abandon as the political situation demands. And as their treatment of Bob Woodward shows, in conservative circles yesterday's liberal hack can be tomorrow's paragon of journalistic excellence.

Media Research Center, NewsBusters
L. Brent Bozell, John Bolton
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