I’ve been following the WaPo story with some interest, but haven’t commented on it. And now, when I’m prepared to comment, Legal Fiction steals my thunder.
For those not up on it, it started with the Post’s Ombudsman, Deborah Howell, writing that Jack Abramoff gave money to Republicans and Democrats alike. This created a howl from the left blogosphere, simply because it parroted Republican talking points that the Abramoff scandal is bi-partisan. Which is simply, and bluntly, untrue.
Howell made it worse for herself by making a correction, saying that what she should have said was that Abramoff "directed" money from his Indian tribe clients to Republicans and Democrats. Again, this is misleading, and still implies that Democrats are involved in the scandal. Yes, Indian lobby groups often contributed to Democratic candidates, but their contributions went significantly down after Abramoff became their lobbyist. If anything, Abramoff directed his clients NOT to contribute to Democrats, and for the most part, they complied.
She issued somewhat of a retraction yesterday, writing:
My mistake set off a firestorm. I heard that I was lying, that Democrats never got a penny of Abramoff-tainted money, that I was trying to say it was a bipartisan scandal, as some Republicans claim. I didn’t say that. It’s not a bipartisan scandal; it’s a Republican scandal, and that’s why the Republicans are scurrying around trying to enact lobbying reforms.
But the Howell mini-controversy highlights a problem with the mainstream media today. They fail for two reasons: (1) laziness; and (2) the bending-over-backwards not to appear biased in favor of liberals. Legal Fiction explains it all nicely:
The thrust of the post-blogosphere liberal media critique has been focused on the press’s intellectual laziness and, to a lesser extent, its fear of right-wing criticisms.
The laziness comes in many forms. The first is the sometimes-pathological devotion to the balanced “he said/she said” template, even when the facts clearly reveal that the “she said” is factually inaccurate. A second manifestation of laziness is simply relying on intentionally-placed quotes from self-interested sources and treating the quotes as news – rather than what they are, which is “free” propaganda. A final point is the annoying tendency (which I often ridicule David Broder for) to treat both parties as equally bad on any and every controversy. Sometimes, of course, they are. But sometimes they are not. The Abramoff scandal is clearly – by any number of objective criteria – a one-party problem – though it’s easier to just go get a quote from each party representative rather than, say, researching the donation history of the Indian tribes at issue.
The other liberal critique is that the MSM has so thoroughly internalized conservative criticisms of bias that reporters go out of their way (often too far out of their way) to show they are not biased. Personally, I think Judith Miller was permitted to “run amok” largely because of the editors’ fears of appearing biased. See, we’re not baised. We put Miller on the first page. We let her do what she wants. As Josh Marshall explained:
So much of the imbalance and shallowness of press coverage today stems from a simple fact: reporters know they’ll catch hell from the right if they say or write anything that can even remotely be construed as representing ‘liberal bias’.
These two problems – laziness and fear of bias – converged in the Howell statement. It wasn’t just that she (as an ombudsman) wrote a factually inaccurate statement, it was the nature of the inaccuracy that drew the ire of the cyber-lynch mob. First, it represented the scandal as a bipartisan one. Second, it was a manifestation of the Broder “all-are-equally-bad” problem. …Third, and most importantly perhaps, it was literally a cut-and-paste statement from the RNC talking points. Now, I don’t think Howell is biased – I just think she was lazy and was afraid of appearing biased.
Unlike Publius, I think the major problem is fear of appearing biased, with laziness keeping a close second. It’s time for the media to start providing the facts FIRST, and not what people are saying about the facts. For example, deep in her clarification/retraction yesterday, Howell wrote this:
The Post also has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with his personal directions on which members were to receive what amounts.
Why, I wonder, hasn’t this been printed — even now? After all, this would settle the matter of Abramoff’s personal directions.
Hopefully, when the dust settles, reporters will start to learn that they are going to have to answer for conclusory, unsupported bad reporting. They will need to understand that reporting talking points as news isn’t news, it’s spin.