Sunday, June 27, 2010

The mysterious ways of the mainstream media

I've been deeply amused by the whole David Weigel contretemps at the Washington Post. Apparently, after having several liberal bloggers already on their payroll, the Post decided that they needed some balance. So they accepted the recommendation of one of those liberals, Ezra Klein, that David Weigel would be a good guy to cover conservatives. And then, as Ben Smith ridicules, the Post hired Weigel and never bothered to research or even ask him what his political affiliation was. When it became public that the guy had written emails expressing his derision for conservatives, even wishing for the violent death of some conservatives, the Post had to let him go.

Periodically, the liberal media wakes up and notices that there seem to be a heckuva lot of conservatives out there and perhaps it would behoove them to cover these alien life forms. So they have a liberal journalist go poke around the conservatives like some anthropologist who just discovered a new tropical island full of natives with strange mating customs. The reporter, like Weigel, will fixate on the very oddest of the conservatives he can find because that confirms his bias that anyone who would be vocally conservative must be either evil, weird, or dopey. Or all three.

The MSM just can't seem to understand these strange folks. They don't seem to have any problem understanding liberals because, hey, that's the people they've been hanging around with for a lifetime. No mystery there.

But, as Byron York writes, the problem is that they miss stories under their own noses because they both don't understand conservatives and miss the forest for the trees on the left. The conservatives are an alien life force to the liberals.
One question that hasn't received enough attention in the whole David Weigel/Washington Post brouhaha is whether the Post needs a reporter to cover the conservative beat in the first place. There's been a lot of discussion of what kind of reporter would be best on the beat -- a conservative, a liberal, or someone studiously uncommitted? -- but there has been less talk about why such a reporter is needed at all, or whether there should even be a conservative beat.

In the past several years, newspapers have assigned reporters to specifically cover conservatives, but they haven't done the same thing for liberals. It started in January 2004, when the New York times chose David Kirkpatrick to cover the conservative movement. The goal, as Times editor Bill Keller told then-ombudsman Byron Calame in 2006, was to identify "the [conservative] thinkers and the grass roots they organize" and explore "how the conservative movement works to be heard in Washington."

"We wanted to understand them," Keller said of conservatives.

If you were trying to craft the most concise statement of the distance between mainstream media figures and conservatism, it would be hard to do better than that.
That would explain their mystification about the whole tea party movement. They can't conceive of why ordinary people would get up off of the couch and go hold a sign to protest the growth of big government. The only reason that makes sense to them is that they must be racists. But when it comes to covering stories about what is happening on the left - things aren't as clear as they think they are.
Meanwhile, the Times did not, of course, create a liberal beat. To Calame, that simply reflected "the reality that the Times' coverage of liberals had no gaps similar to those in its reporting on the conservative movement." That is apparently still the thinking of the management at the Times and Post. And it makes some sense; most of the reporters and editors at those papers are liberals, so it's assumed they understand the liberal world better than they understand the world of conservatism.

The problem is, that's not the way the world works. Just because you're a liberal, and your fellow reporters and editors are liberals, doesn't mean you fully understand the liberal world. There might be other ways of seeing it.

For example, at the same moment the Times created the conservative beat, in January 2004, there was a movement gaining momentum on the left to create new "progressive" institutions that would reshape Democratic politics. In the space of a few years, the Center for American Politics, much of the liberal blogosphere, Media Matters for America, Air America radio, and a newly-revitalized and redirected all appeared. At the same time, George Soros and other left-leaning billionaires poured unprecedented -- really, really unprecedented -- amounts of money into an effort to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. It was a huge, extraordinarily rich, and carefully-directed movement. And after it failed to defeat Bush, it rebooted and recast itself in ways that would help elect a Democratic majority in Congress in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2008.

The Times and Post covered many of these developments -- the Times' Matt Bai wrote a book about some of them -- but the papers' managers did not see fit to assign a reporter, or reporters, to focus on the liberal beat full-time, even though what was going on among liberals dwarfed what was going on among conservatives at the same time. In addition, a significant amount of the coverage was not terribly critical in nature, and much of it failed to grasp the interconnected nature of many of the developments. So even with a huge story happening right in front of their eyes, the papers saw need to devote even a single reporter specifically to the story. Meanwhile, they looked for journalists to assign to the conservative beat.

There's little doubt that the most interesting coverage of events on the left and right generally comes from journalists on the other side. Much of the time, the right sees things happening on the left, and connects them, in a way that the left doesn't see, and the left sees things happening on the right, and connects them, in a way that the right doesn't see. In opinion journalism, it's a good thing to have each side examining the other.

The Post doesn't seem to understand that, even though it has jumped into opinion journalism with both feet. The paper hired a bunch of people from the left-wing blogosphere -- Ezra Klein, Greg Sargent, Garance Franke-Ruta, and, for a short time, Weigel -- who often write about the right, even though Weigel was the only one specifically assigned to it. But they haven't hired any conservative to write about the left. It's the worst kind of one-sidedness.

If Post editors really thought Weigel was a conservative, then their cluelessness is truly remarkable. Amusingly so: When Politico's Ben Smith reported that Weigel says he is a registered Republican but "has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election," the conservative blogger Erick Erickson inferred that Weigel had voted for Gore, Kerry, and Obama. Weigel sent Erickson a quick correction. He had actually voted for Nader, Kerry, and Obama. And that was the Post's "conservative" blogger.

But even if the Post really believed Weigel was a conservative, there is still the question of why they hired a (presumed) conservative to cover the conservative movement. Why not have some of the many liberals already on staff cover that and hire a conservative to cover liberals? Or maybe -- gasp -- hire two conservatives to cover liberals. After all, there are a lot of liberals in powerful positions these days. If the Post is going to practice opinion journalism, having the perspective of a couple of conservative journalists couldn't hurt, could it?
But that's fair and balanced from the MSM's point of view. Hire a faux conservative who voted for Nader, Kerry, and Obama to cover conservatives and then pat yourself on the back that you're demonstrating balance when he joins the liberals you've already hired.