Ross Douthat's New York Times column has already drawn some criticism for giving President Bush credit for acting to fix catastrophes he created and for its concluding suggestion that Bush was a good president. But there's another problem: in his desire to defend Bush, Douthat offers a strawman version of one of the central criticisms of Bush:
And if we give Bush credit on these fronts, it's worth reassessing one of the major critiques of his presidency - that it was fatally insulated, by ideology and personality, from both the wisdom of the Washington elite and the desires of the broader public.
In reality, many of the Bush-era ventures that look worst in hindsight were either popular with the public at the time or blessed by the elite consensus. Voters liked the budget-busting tax cuts and entitlement expansions. The Iraq war's cheering section included prominent Democrats and scores of liberal pundits. And save for a few prescient souls, everybody - right and left, on Wall Street and Main Street - was happy to board the real-estate express and ride it off an economic cliff.
I don't really think one of the major critiques of Bush's presidency is that it was "fatally insulated" from "the wisdom of the Washington elite." When is the last time you heard someone say "If only George W. Bush had listened to Tom "Suck on This" Friedman?" Or "Why, oh, why, didn't Bush listen to Richard Cohen's and Jonathan Alter's pleas for torture?"
No: One of the major critiques is that Bush was insulated from opposing viewpoints. And, of course, those opposing viewpoints generally turned out to be correct.
The Washington elite, as Douthat notes, generally went along with Bush administration schemes like unnecessary and unpaid-for tax cuts and wars. Douthat seems to think that undermines the criticism that Bush was insulated from those who disagreed with him and deaf to opposing (and better-considered) views. It doesn't; it merely demonstrates that Bush was not alone in that flaw -- he was joined by, among others, many of the journalists who make up the Washington elite.
Given that Bush is gone and that Washington elite is still here, Douthat would have done far better to examine why the Tom Friedmans and Richard Cohens of the world were in such agreement with Bush than to use their agreement to absolve Bush. Or why the Washington elite is so quick to bless right-wing policies. Or why, despite that, the Washington elite persists in thinking they are insufficiently solicitous of conservative viewpoints.
Have the recent bouts of cost-cutting at the Times meant staffers no longer have access to Nexis/Lexis to do simple research before making transparently false claims? And hey, last time I checked Google was still free to use, so what's the excuse?
But that didnt' stop the Times from unfurling this whopper [emphasis added]:
Still, the Acorn story is somewhat different in that it hasn't been so readily picked up; it's been publicized heavily by Fox and conservative talk radio but much less so by other news organizations
This was published on the Times' website on Sept. 17. (It was dubbed a "must-read.") Here however, according to Nexis, is a partial list of just the daily newspapers nationwide that had covered the ACORN story between Sept. 10-17 (and the number of separate times the ACORN story was addressed in articles or columns):
New York Post (11)
San Bernardino Sun (7)
Washington Times (6)
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (5)
Baltimore Sun (5)
St. Petersburg Times (4)
Newark Star-Ledger (4)
St. Paul Pioneer Press (4)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (3)
Kansas City Star (3)
Boston Globe (3)
Orlando Sentinel (2)
Chicago Tribune (2)
Washington Post (2)
New York Daily News (2)
Los Angeles Times (2)
Wall Street Journal (2)
Miami Herald (2)
The Oregonian (2)
An additional 60-plus newspapers covered the ACORN story one time between Sept. 10-17, according to Nexis. In total, over 100 newspapers reported on ACORN during that time frame and published well over 200 articles and columns in which ACORN was mentioned multiple times.
But other than that, the Times was correct to claim last week that the ACORN story "hasn't been so readily picked up."
Here's the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut on MSNBC, reacting to President Obama saying ACORN is "not the biggest issue facing the country, it's not something I'm paying a lot of attention to":
Of course, that's an easy out for the President. The only problem for him is that after he's weighed in on Kanye West, saying he's not paying attention to something isn't gonna fly quite as well.
Absolute nonsense. Obama's Kanye West comments were off the record small talk, not carefully-considered policy positions. More importantly, it takes about three seconds to get up to speed on the Kanye West controversy. You don't need to do a lot of fact-finding to come to a conclusion about his behavior at the Video Music Awards. The ACORN controversy, on the other hand, is considerably more complicated. It isn't the kind of thing you can get up to speed on through cultural osmosis -- certainly not enough to make actual policy decisions.
Kornblut can't possibly think the President's off-hand comment about Kanye West has anything at all to do with whether he's given the ACORN matter sufficient consideration to have a position on it. So she was going for an amusing line, at the expense of drawing a false equivalence that suggested the president is inconsistent or even dishonest. That's the kind of behavior you might reasonably (if regrettably) expect from a partisan political operative. But why would Anne Kornblut think it's appropriate behavior for a journalist?
In his Sunday column, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander addresses conservative complaints that the Post doesn't do enough to cover topics they are interested in. In doing so, Alexander quotes Pew's Tom Rosenstiel and Post editor Marcus Brauchli agreeing that the Post -- and other news organizations -- aren't responsive enough to conservative viewpoints:
One explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don't pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints.
It "can't be discounted," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms."
"They just don't see the resonance of these issues. They don't hear about them as fast [and] they're not naturally watching as much," he added.
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he worries "that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It's particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."
I don't find the Rosenstiel/Brauchli position quotes the least bit convincing.
When, exactly, have news organizations like the Washington Post paid insufficient attention to conservative voices? When they were inflicting a decade of nonstop Whitewater/Vince Foster/Troopergate/etc coverage on a nation that just wanted it to go away? When the Washington Post editorialized in favor of a Whitewater special counsel -- even while saying there "no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong"?
Or During the 2000 campaign, when they relentlessly and unfairly portrayed Al Gore as a liar? During the run-up to the Iraq war? Was that when they were paying insufficient attention to conservative concerns?
Take a look at this comparison of the resources the Washington Post devoted to the Monica Lewinsky story, and those the paper devoted to the Bush administration's warrentless wiretapping of Americans. Do you see evidence that the Washington Post is excessively liberal, or insufficiently responsive to conservative concerns?
Or during the presidential primary debates, when Democrats were routinely asked how they would pay for their health care plans -- often, that was the only question they were asked about health care -- but Republicans were rarely asked how they would pay for their tax cuts? Was that an example of the media being dominated by the Democratic point of view?
How about the past few months, when the media has taken its cues from the most rabid of conservatives, allowing lies about "death panels" to drive their coverage?
Or when the media rushed to insist, after both the 2006 and 2008 elections -- won convincingly by Democrats -- that America remains a "center-right" nation? Or when they refer to far-right politicians as "centrists" and and moderates -- and those who are actually moderates or slightly liberal as among the "most liberal"?
Or how about the behavior of Tom Rosenstiel and Marcus Brauchli right now. Given everything that has happened over the past two decades -- the relentless media attacks on the Clintons and Al Gore, their complicity in the Iraq war, endlessly running after every Republican-invented sideshow, from lipstick on a pig to death taxes -- isn't it possible that the eagerness with which Rosenstiel and Brauchli agree that the media is insufficiently responsive to conservatives just another example of how they are excessively responsive?
Unfortunately, Alexander omitted any mention of the mere possibility that Rosenstiel and Brauchli are wrong in their assessment. Instead, he went on to cite a study that purports to establish that reporters "are considerably more liberal than the general public."
But reporters' personal views, even if they are more liberal than those of the general public, don't even begin to tell us whether their work product leans to the left. In fact, that's something that was driven home by a recent column of Alexander's, about Post reporter Monica Hesse's coverage of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. Alexander agreed with me and other critics who argued that Hesse's article was inappropriately one-sided (omitting any quotes from NOM critics, among other flaws) but noted that Hesse's "personal life seem[s] to belie claims she has a conservative agenda. (Alexander recently explained that Hesse had a two-year-long relationship with a woman and personally favors gay marriage.)
So, reporters with liberal leanings can produce news reports that skew in favor of conservatives. In fact, if you believe former Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall, that happens all the time -- in part because those reporters are too responsive to conservative complaints:
The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.
Whenever I see comments like those made by Rosenstiel and Brauchli, it occurs to me that there are three basic possible explanations for them:
1) Maybe they're right.
2) Maybe they are, as Edsall suggests, leaning over backwards to avoid offending the Right -- and, thus, inadvertently helping them.
3) Maybe they are more conservative (or, at least, have adopted the assumptions of conservatives more) than they realize, so that which is neutral or even tilted a bit towards the right appears to them to tilt to the left.
Unfortunately, most journalists (including, in this case, Rosenstiel and Brauchli) only seem to consider the first possibility.
Is that how a media that really does lean to the left would behave?
Over at The Daily Beast, former New York Times reporter Leslie Bennetts takes her old paper to task for belatedly examining the potential downside for women who give up their careers to stay at home:
Guess what The New York Times has just discovered? Women who quit their careers to stay home can face financial challenges if a recession hits and their husbands lose their jobs! And-gasp!-when these women try to re-enter the labor force after a timeout, it's hard for them to find work, and they earn far less than they did when they left!
The front page of Saturday's business section ... featured this startling news in a lengthy story under the headline "Back to the Grind: Recession Drives Some Women to Return to Work"
In this case, however, the paper of record bears an unusual responsibility for setting the record straight-something it has taken an extraordinarily long time to do. Six years ago the Times published a Sunday magazine cover story that discovered what it deemed a happy new trend among affluent women and coined a catchy phrase-the Opt-Out Revolution-to describe the cushy lives of women who quit their careers to become full-time mothers. In what seemed an astonishing oversight, nowhere in that 2003 cover story did the Times investigate the economic challenges that the privileged Princeton graduates it portrayed might face should they ever lose their husbands-or their husbands lose their incomes.
Having spent a significant chunk of my own life interviewing such women, I found the Times' belated acknowledgment of their problems to be bittersweet. Two years ago, I published The Feminine Mistake, which documented the financial risks of dropping out of the work force and also criticized the mainstream media for neglecting the well-documented but catastrophically under-reported economic aspects of the opting-out trend.
The Times-whose Sunday book review section is notorious for its hostility toward serious books by and about women-assigned its review of The Feminine Mistake not to a recognized expert in any of the fields it dealt with, but rather to a stay-at-home mother who trashed it.
Oh, just go read the whole thing.
Ugh, this is what passes for insight at elite media outlets. The Times' David Segal thinks it's really, really interesting that he can draw connections between rappers and right-wing talk show hosts. i.e. Ludacris and Glenn Beck are similar. It's "uncanny" and "revealing," writes Segal, who's a big gangsta rap fan.
See what the Times is doing? It's comparing two groups of people rarely associated with one another. The Times is being contrarian!
Of course in the process, Segal, adhering to the media's Gold Rule of never directly quoting the disgusting vile that hate talkers actually traffic in, portrays Beck and Limbaugh and Savage as artists, not hate-mongerers. They're merely "colorful" and "highly agitated" in the hands of Segal. And instead of leading a blood-thirsty, right-wing pack set on dehumanizing Barack Obama by claiming he's a foreign-born, Manchurian Candidate sent to the United States to undermine our freedoms and liberties from within by leading a left-wing revolution, the talk haters are actually artists behind the mic.
Indeed, according to the Times, Beck is "genuinely hilarious." And nut job Savage "riffs are a quirky, zig-zagging flow of ideas that at their best are a kind of talk show scat, jumping from a mini-lecture about the Khmer Rouge, to a rave about barbecue chicken, to a warning that he feels a bit manic, which means he'll be depressed for tomorrow's show."
But the real kicker comes at the end when Segal plays monumentally dumb and wonders if the hate radio is detrimental to the country's debate [emphasis added]:
There's a curious role reversal here, with fans of Mr. Limbaugh, et al., now under the very suspicion that had long been cast on fans of gangsta rap. The suspicion boils down to another question: Can people listen to highly provocative words (and in rap's case, irresistible beats) and still be civil?
See, in the mind of Segal this question is open to debate. Having watched the right-wing mini-mobs unleash a raw kind of vitriolic hatred not seen in this country's public discourse in decades, after watching radicals show up at anti-Obama rallies with loaded pistols and parading around with posters of Nazi's and Hitler and swastikas, and after watching the 9/12 rally where openly racists attacks were made on America's first African-American president, Segal can't figure out if right-wing talk radio is causing listeners to be less civil.
Yeah, me neither.
Honestly, is there anything in more annoying than a millionaire, celebrity journalist like Chris Wallace wallowing in self-pity?
By now, everyone knows that on Sunday, Obama will make the rounds on the morning news shows but that Fox News Sunday, hosted by Wallace, will be left out. The insult is obvious and poor Chris Wallace is not handling it well. He's alternating between feeling sorry himself and taking every opportunity to lash out wildly at the administration. (Gee, think the WH hit a nerve w/ its Wallace snub?)
Here's the funny part, though. During one pity party session, a Fox News host claimed Obama was skipping out on "the highly-rated Fox News Sunday."
Here we go with more alternate universe stuff from the GOP Noise Machine. Because if by "highly rated" Fox meant dead last, than yeah, it's an accurate description. The facts: Wallace hosts, and has hosted for years, the perennial Sunday morning news show loser. Fox News Sunday pretty much gets lapped by the rest of network field. It's not even close. And since Wallace became host during Bush's first term, the ratings haven't really budged an inch. The show's in dead last, where it has remained pretty much since its inception.
So instead of feeling sorry for himself this weekend, we'll offer up this novel advice to Wallace: Get more viewers! Maybe if your show wasn't a ratings doormat (like, for a decade running), Obama would make time for you. But why should the White House make an effort to include Fox when Wallace's show at times barely draws one million viewers?
The newspaper owes the news outlets an apology for running the obviously false and inflammatory ad purchased by Fox News; the full-page ad that claimed all the news channel's "missed" the story of the 9/12 protest. Question: Is the Post so desperate for ad revenues that it will gladly ignore its own advertising standards? Because that's so clearly what the newspaper did on Friday.
It didn't take a detective on the Post's sales team to realize the Fox News ad was false. How could the nets and Fox News' cable competitors have "missed" the story of the march if they all covered it throughout the day?
Here's the Post's dreadful attempt to defend cashing Fox News' check [emphasis added]:
[The Post] will not reject an advertisement based on its content or sponsor, unless the ad is illegal, false, advocates illegal actions, or is not in keeping with standards of taste. When we do not see anything in a particular ad that is contrary to these standards, we will not place limits on speech or content. That was our review and judgment in this case."
Pressed about the fact that the Fox News ad's central claim was false, a Post flak insisted that because it was Fox News' opinion that competitors "missed" the story, that made it okay.
So if the New York Times bought a full-page ad in USA Today ridiculing the Post for having "missed" a story that the Post had clearly covered, the Post would have no problem with that?
In this battle of media giants, ABC was dead-on when it's spokeswoman declared that the Post had exercised "zero due diligence" in trying to figure out if the Fox News ad was false.
"[the Post] should have been rejected according to your professed standards. Now the Post should make it right by apologizing quickly and recognizing that it made a grave error that tarnishes the reputation of five other news organizations."