The Corner

Edsall Admits the Obvious

Good for Tom Edsall for admitting what every honest person in this business already knows but shockingly few are willing to admit: The “mainstream press” is liberal.

It’s an interesting read all in all, but there’s one really false note in his CJR piece. After conceding that the mainstream press is liberal, he writes:

But, and this is a mega-but, even though the mainstream media are by this measure liberal, ending the discussion at this point would be a major disservice to both the press and the public. While the personnel tend to share an ideological worldview, most have a personal and professional commitment to the objective presentation of information, a commitment that is not shared by the conservative media. FOX News, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Washington Times, Drudge, The Washington Examiner, The American Spectator, CNS News, Town Hall, WorldNetDaily, Insight Magazine are all explicitly ideological. FOX makes the bizarre and palpably untrue claim of ideological neutrality, “We Report, You Decide”—a claim it violates so routinely that no one takes it seriously.

While the mainstream media often fail to live up to their own standards, their committed pursuit of neutrality and objectivity is crucial to the quality of American journalism. That commitment is the main reason the mainstream press is so intensely sensitive to allegations of bias. The refusal of mainstream media executives to acknowledge the ideological leanings of their staffs has produced a dangerous form of media guilt in which the press leans over so far backward to avoid the charge of left bias that it ends up either neutered or leaning to the right. This happened at The Washington Post and was reflected in weak and sometimes fawning coverage, first of the opening years of the Reagan administration, and even more so during George W. Bush’s first term—when not only the lead-up to the Iraq invasion but key domestic initiatives went largely unexamined, with disastrous consequences.

Leaving aside the usual Fox debate, yes, okay there’s a conservative media. But there’s also a liberal media — other than the mainstream media — that Edsall doesn’t mention. The New Republic, The Nation, The Washington Monthly, Huffington Post, Harper’s etc. are every bit as biased and ideologically committed to a liberal agenda as the conservative outlets he lists are committed to a conservative agenda. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact I  think opinion journalism is very often far, far more honest and effective than “objective” journalism. But that’s an argument for another day.

What bothers me about Edsall’s  bit about the conservative press is that it’s either irrelevant or a red herring. There’s a kind of false equivalence here, “real journalists” versus “ideological journalists.” But what Edsall doesn’t address is that the New Republic and its various knock-offs are farm teams for the “real journalist” big leagues. Scores of young writers who are every bit as polemical and activist in their pursuit of liberal causes as the folks at NR or the Weekly Standard are in pursuit of conservative ones have “graduated” to work for the Post, the Times, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Meanwhile, experience working for conservative outlets is often a black mark in the MSM.

But Edsall seems unconcerned by this. In fact, it seems he thinks this is exactly as it should be because liberals and only liberals make for good reporters. He concludes:

Although it is the subject for another essay, the fact is that there are very few good conservative reporters. There are many intellectually impressive conservative advocates and opinion leaders, but the ideology does not seem to make for good journalists. In contrast, any examination of the nation’s top reporters over the past half-century would show that, in the main, liberals do make good journalists in the tradition of objective news coverage. The liberal tilt of the mainstream media is, in this view, a strength, but one that in recent years, amid liberal-bias controversies, has been mismanaged.

How convenient. Liberals make good reporters because all the good reporters are liberal. And in order to compensate for the fact they are so liberal, mainstream reporters should work harder at being more understanding and imaginative. No need to do anything so drastic as actually hire any conservatives, since it’s clear they can’t be reporters. 

It’s funny how the newspaper industry, which has some of the most severe affirmative action and racial quota programs in America, believes it is absolutely vital to hire as many (liberal) blacks as possible in the name of diversity but it doesn’t even dawn on them to hire more conservatives in the name of diversity. Having more conventionally liberal women and racial minorities on staff wouldn’t have prevented any of the major journalistic scandals of the last decade or so, but it’s very plausible that having just a few conservatives on hand might have. If Dan Rather had a conservative producer — i.e. someone inclined to be skeptical as opposed to enthusiastic  about the whole thing — working on that memogate story Rather might well still be at CBS right now.

Surely, if the elite media takes the problem of liberal bias seriously, the remedies have to involve something more concrete than encouraging liberal journalists to “own” their liberalism and be more open-minded.

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