WASHINGTON -- So we hear this week that President George W. Bush is taking delight in the spread of the "alternative press" (read conservatives on the internet, in talk radio, in print, and at Fox) and the gentle detumesence of "mainstream media" (read liberal media, or more precisely, Democratic media). Well I join him in his satisfaction.
I have spent much of my life with journalists, beginning in competitive swimming and moving on to politics and culture. Usually, even in covering sports, the journalists have been liberal Democrats. I recall a Sports Illustrated writer who used to come out to Indiana to cover my world-champion teammates on the Indiana University swimming team. He was a very agreeable fellow, but two decades later he ended up as campaign press secretary during Al Gore's first run for the White House. Well, that is the way things have been in American journalism. From journalism one drifts into Democratic politics. From Democratic politics one drifts into journalism, often TV journalism. Think of Chris Matthews, Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos.
Some of these journalists are very dreary duds. But others are lively. The best are energetic, curious, often intelligent, occasionally well-read. Yet I have often sensed something off-putting about them. It is as though they were members of one of those weird California cults. They seem friendly enough. On occasion they are feverishly friendly, but then one senses something else, a secretiveness, a smugness, and in many instances, a peculiar conformity. Journalists are forever breaking into dry discourses on their "journalistic ethics."
I find that odd. Why are they so sensitive about their ethics? Is it because their ethics are so elusive? Most of the time when I find myself in a journalistic controversy I do come away with the conviction that the ethics of the mainstream journalist -- the liberal, Democratic journalist -- are, well, rubbery. Consider a controversy I found myself in last month. I chaired a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference, featuring a debate between former Justice Department official Viet Dinh and former congressman Bob Barr on government surveillance. It was an intelligent give-and-take. Conservatives are divided on this issue, revealing again that there is variety of opinion among conservatives, a variety of opinion one rarely encounters among liberals. I judged the audience pretty much equally divided, as did Barr and Dinh.
A report on the debate by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post proved to be clearly inaccurate, even mischievously inaccurate. Consequently, as it was a panel I presided over, I wrote a clarifying letter to the editor, sending a copy to the paper's Ombudsman. Mainstream media have created the quaint position of the Ombudsman out of concern for journalistic "ethics." My letter has never been printed, and the Ombudsman's response was another example of the liberal journalists' weirdness.
Here is the unpublished letter: "Dana Milbank's report of the Conservative Political Action Conference's debate on civil liberties, moderated by me, is inaccurate in matters large and small. Large: it is not true that 'the crowd was against' former congressman Bob Barr's libertarian criticism of the Bush Administration's surveillance policies. Both Bob and I considered the audience pretty evenly divided. There exists considerable disagreement among conservatives on this issue, as has been widely reported. Small: I am not 'a conservative publisher' but rather the editor in chief of The American Spectator, a position I have held for nearly 38 years. As such, I have been interviewed by Milbank in the past, and my last name has not one 'r' but two. Milbank botched my middle name as well. The American Spectator's publisher is Al Regnery whose name is easier to spell."
The Ombudsman's odd response was to e-mail me that she was sending the letter to her "national editor to see about correcting your name." Of course, the burden of my complaint was that Milbank was playing sophomorically with the facts of the event and misleading his readers "in matters large and small." That is what mainstream media, and Ombudsmen, in particular, are supposed to be concerned about. Several days later, in the paper's "Corrections" section, here is what was printed: "The Feb. 11 Washington Sketch misspelled the name of R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the editor in chief of the American Spectator."
As I say, there is often something smug and secretive about these journalists. The above "correction" hid the real issue regarding the Milbank report. Even its identification of me was cryptic, evading the initial misidentification of me. Such Byzantine maneuvering goes on all the time in the "mainstream media," which is why they have lost the trust of so many Americans. Once a news organization has lost the public's trust it has very little to offer.