Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Picking on the MSM

Nicholas Lehmann writes in The New Yorker that everyone – left, right, and the entire blogosphere – carries a grudge against the mainstream media.

Just before last fall’s Presidential election, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, and Philip Taubman, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, went on the road to inspect the candidates’ campaigns. In Florida, on October 22nd, they arranged to have drinks with Karl Rove, the White House’s chief political strategist, and Dan Bartlett, its head of communications. It was supposed to be a friendly get-together, and that’s how it went for the first few minutes, until Keller asked Rove what he thought of the Times’ coverage. It’s the sort of question that editors often ask important people, in the same spirit that a politician asks, “How’m I doing?,” usually hoping for an answer somewhere in the lower-middle range of politeness and candor. But Rove, Keller told me not long ago, “pounded on us for two cocktails’ worth of conversation.” Saying what? “It was three kinds of things,” Keller explained. “It was Bush accomplishments we had ignored, flaws in the Kerry record that we had put inside the paper, and a number of pieces we had done looking hard at the Bush record. In their view, that all amounted to arming the Kerry campaign.”


Since the election, the mainstream media—tagged as the M.S.M. by bloggers—have conceded a couple of points to Rove: that they failed to appreciate fully the dimensions of the Republican organizing effort; and that they misunderstood the way that the Republican Party’s religious base lives and thinks. But the idea that the M.S.M. made these mistakes intentionally, because they had taken sides in the election, makes mainstream-media organizations indignant, and worries them—at a time when there is much else to feel indignant, and worried, about.


I spoke to the heads of several large news organizations, and all of them maintained that they get attacked from both political sides, and agreed that both the amplitude and the frequency of the attacks seem to be increasing. Bill Keller wrote, in an e-mail, “There is a significant liberal antipathy toward the, pardon the expression, mainstream press. . . . Liberals perceive us, or claim to perceive us, as lapdogs of the Bush Administration, instigators of the war in Iraq, sellouts to big business and panderers to red-state prejudices. Some of this is probably disingenuous—calculated Mau-Mauing.” But, if the question is which side is more full-throated, the only editor I spoke to who thought he heard more criticism from the left than from the right in 2004—and that was because of complaints about coverage of the Iraq war—was Leonard Downie, Jr., the executive editor of the Washington Post. Downie had one sit-down meeting with people concerned about the Post’s reporting—a group from the Kerry campaign, who had come to try, unsuccessfully, to influence a story that Michael Dobbs was working on about the claims made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They had sensed in advance what the piece, which appeared in August, suggested: that Kerry and the pro-Bush group had been less than candid about Kerry’s military service. The other editors seemed more aware of critics on the right—partly because there are more of them, and partly because they represent the winning team in American politics—and they insisted that they try to present the news without bias. Some said that they don’t even know the political views of their colleagues. That raises the question of how, if the reality is what the editors say it is, the perception can be so different.


Most mainstream-media organizations, worried at being culturally and politically out of synch with many Americans, are making an effort to reach out—I frequently heard a promise to cover religion more seriously and sympathetically. For many, that’s a business imperative, an attempt to broaden the audience, especially among conservatives. Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News, whose variegated domain includes cable television, and even blogs, plainly felt that the nightly news broadcast needs to have its red-state credentials in order. He said of NBC’s new anchor, Brian Williams, “He’s a great journalist, a great reporter. Having said that, he’s a huge nascar fan, has been since his father took him to the track when he was a kid. He cares a lot about his faith. He wants to take the broadcast on the road a lot. He was on the road the whole week before the inauguration. Brian does get it. He once did a story on Cabela’s”—the superstore chain for hunters. “A lot of the people in the newsroom said, ‘Gee I didn’t know about that.’ But he did. And many of our bureaus did. We’re not just the Northeast Corridor.” One doesn’t get the sense that Shapiro worries about the possibility that NBC’s anchor might be out of touch with the values and concerns of residents on the Upper West Side.

A better understanding of conservatives seems manageable, but there is another possibility, which is much more worrisome, at least to journalists who work in the mainstream media. It is that during the years of heavy shelling—through impeachment and the Florida recount and then the rough 2004 campaign—what they consider their compact with the public has been seriously damaged. Journalism that is inquisitive and intellectually honest, that surprises and unsettles, didn’t always exist. There is no law saying that it must exist forever, and there are political and business interests that would be better off if it didn’t exist and that have worked hard to undermine it. This is what journalists in the mainstream media are starting to worry about: what if people don’t believe in us, don’t want us, anymore?

Perhaps the MSM wouldn’t be in such a situation if they hadn’t tried so hard to be so obliginingly “balanced;” a blind acceptance of what one side said in a calculated press release and posting an equally calculated response from the other side. We saw that throughout the run-up to the war in Iraq and the presidential campaign. That’s not reporting, it’s stenography.