Old Media Curses the Wind

Paul Jacob
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Posted: Apr 13, 2014 12:01 AM
Old Media Curses the Wind

In strategy meetings through the years, I’ve often heard conservative and Republican operatives complain, “If the mainstream media would only cover the issue fairly . . .”

My advice? Don’t hold your breath.

In lively discussions with friends from across the political spectrum, including a journalist or two, I’ve debated the proposition of whether a “liberal media bias” even exists. Without resolution.

Consensus aside, though, I’ve determined it über-exists — resting my judgment on two things: (1) surveys of the Washington press corps over the past decades, showing its members to be consistently and overwhelmingly liberal, and in turn voting Democratic, and (2) my personal experience with reporters and editors over the last 35 years.

And now, add to my personal list of anecdotal evidence two self-disclosures from important journalists in recent months.

Last October, in the wake of the disastrous rollout of Obamacare via the healthcare.gov website, National Journal’s Ron Fournier told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, “[The Obama Administration] really had to get this right, not just for the healthcare reform, but for the whole ideathat a lot of us believe in — that a strong, effective government can help people through this huge economic and social transition we’re going through.”

Fournier admitted that this federal government failure undermined the “central argument that we’re having in this country” — namely, whether bigger and bigger government makes life better and better.

Fournier is not just any journalist: he serves as senior political columnist and editorial director of the prestigious National Journal. Before that, he worked for the Associated Press for 20 years, moving up to Washington bureau chief.

As top banana at the DC bureau, Fournier instituted a controversial policy that he called “accountability journalism.” The idea? Tell the readers who is right or wrong. Fournier called it being “provocative without being partisan. . . truth-tellers without being editorial writers.”

“It seems to me there’s a conscious effort to inject bias in the story,” Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto offered in describing the new policy, “though obviously Fournier would see it differently.”

The point here isn’t that Ron Fournier is a “bad” man. I’ve spoken with him and found him pleasant enough. The fact that he and I don’t agree on public policy is hardly earth-shattering, insidious or actionable. He has a right to write as he pleases and the publications he works for to print whatever they wish.

And Fournier does call out Democrats. I don’t mind his style at all.

But please don’t tell me that Fournier’s political views are completely divorced, walled-off from his reporting and writing about these political issues on which we disagree.

The second journalist is Robert G. Kaiser. Kaiser worked for The Washington Post for 50 years, as an intern, reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and finally as managing editor, shaping the paper’s coverage. Last month, he wrote a parting-shot column entitled, “How Republicans lost their minds, Democrats lost their souls and Washington lost its appeal.”

Having left The Post and moved to New York City, Kaiser was full of self-righteous attacks on the failures of Washington, even while deriding those who attacked the failures of Washington.

He wrote of Republicans as “global-warming deniers” (never mind global temperatures), and lambasted the 162 Republicans in Congress who voted against raising the debt ceiling last October, saying the “votes reflected the deep hostility felt by the newest version of Republican lawmakers toward the government of their country.”

No mention of the “deep hostility” President Obama must likewise feel, since he, too, voted and spoke against upping the debt limit when in the U.S. Senate.

Kaiser rails against the incivility of conservative Republicans for calling Obama a socialist — or in the case of Rep. Randy Weber of Texas, a “socialistic dictator” — only to turn around and smear the free-market-oriented Club for Growth and Heritage Action as “vigilantes” for campaigning “to eliminate every Republican in Congress who toys with moderation or considers collaborating with Democrats.”

He seems oblivious to the implication — that only some folks may campaign for what they believe and for whom they wish to see in public office. His folks.

“I won’t rail against the wind,” Kaiser writes. “I understand that, beginning with the passage of Proposition 13 in California in 1978, a tax revolt spread across the land. Americans who once trusted their government now distrusted it, profoundly.”

Yet, even Kaiser confesses that this distrust “was not irrational. The appalling war in Vietnam, the venality of Watergate, the now-forgotten but then-terrifying Great Inflation of the late 1970s — these huge events altered the relationship between citizens and their government.”

Kaiser’s real complaint is that the march of big government isn’t faster and unrestrained. To him, the problem with Democrats is that they aren’t liberal enough and the problem with Republicans is that they’re not Democrats.

Our concern, on the other hand, is that folks with a strong political bent in favor of ever larger and more intrusive and controlling government — Fournier and Kaiser, just to name two — are almost exclusively shaping what stories are covered by the mainstream media and how they’re covered.

That may not change. But the hopeful news is that the stream where Americans get their news is indeed changing.

I bet Thomas Jefferson, who hated the press of his day (and had every reason to), would welcome today’s revolution in the press away from the dominant media bias. There may be some irony that the founder of the Democratic wing in American politics would have preferred “newspapers without government” over “government without newspapers,” while today’s major Democratic newspaper journalists would find the preference so incomprehensible.

And speaking of Jefferson . . .

Two American freedom fighters share April 13 as their birth date: Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and Jane Jacob, my mother. Happy Birthday to you both, Tom and Mom!