My Bias for Mainstream News by Dana Milbank
My Bias for Mainstream News
By Dana Milbank
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page B01
To judge from the e-mails I received during the four years I spent on the White House beat, Post readers of all political ideologies agree: I am biased.
But in which direction?
A conservative magazine put me on its cover as "Dana 'Bias' Milbank." A liberal Web site made me its "Media Whore of the Week," and a posting on a liberal blog proposed "Whore" as my middle name. (I've decided to combine the "Bias" and "Whore" suggestions and make my middle name, simply, "Bore.")
In political journalism, complaints from ideologically driven readers come with the territory; sometimes I've gotten dueling complaints that I have betrayed my conservative and liberal biases in the same story. But I think the growing volume and the vitriol of the bias accusations are part of a new -- and dangerous -- development.
Partisans on the left and right have formed cottage industries devoted to discrediting what they dismissively call the "mainstream media" -- the networks, daily newspapers and newsmagazines. Their goal: to steer readers and viewers toward ideologically driven outlets that will confirm their own views and protect them from disagreeable facts. In an increasingly fragmented media world, ideologues have already devolved into parallel universes, in which liberals and conservatives can select talk radio hosts, cable news pundits and blogs that share their prejudices.
You could dismiss my view as an admittedly self-serving claim coming from one of the dinosaurs of a dying media oligopoly. But the consequences are ominous for the country as well as for newspapers. Consider a poll two weeks before the 2004 election by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes: The survey found that 72 percent of President Bush's supporters believed that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or at least major illegal weapons programs. It also found that 75 percent of Bush voters believed that Iraq either gave al Qaeda "substantial support" or was directly involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Further, majorities of Bush supporters believed that U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer and the 9/11 commission backed them up on these points.
It's fine to argue about the merits of the Iraq war, but these views are just plain wrong. Duelfer did not find weapons or active programs to make them; the 9/11 commission found no "collaborative relationship" between al Qaeda and Iraq.
The poll's director, Steven Kull, argues that media fragmentation is at least in part to blame for these misperceptions. If the only "news" you get is from talk radio and conservative blogs, you could be forgiven for continuing to believe that Saddam Hussein was tight with al Qaeda and that Iraq really did have the banned weapons.
This is not to pick on Bush followers. Many on the left harbor their own fantasies that they consider fact -- about how Bush knew of 9/11 in advance, or how he was coached during one of the presidential debates via a transmitter between his shoulder blades.
Two decades ago, the late senator-scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Now, ideologues are claiming their own facts as well.
According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the proportion of people regularly reading newspapers has fallen to 42 percent from 58 percent in a decade, while viewership of network evening news has fallen to 34 percent from 60 percent. And with that decline comes a loss of the mainstream media's role as referee, helping to sort out fact from fiction in the nation's affairs.
"Today, a host of new forms of communication offer a way for newsmakers to reach the public," the Project for Excellence in Journalism observed in its annual report last week. "Journalism is a shrinking part of a growing world of media. And since journalists are trained to be skeptics and aspire at least, in the famous phrase, to speak truth to power, journalism is the one source those who want to manipulate the public are most prone to denounce."
In place of the traditional press, outlets once seen as alternative have become a new mainstream media. Conservatives tune in to Rush Limbaugh (20 million weekly listeners) or Sean Hannity (12 million), and log on to the Drudge Report (claiming near 10 million visits a day). Liberals opt for the late-night commentary of Jon Stewart, Web sites such as Salon and Daily Kos, and Michael Moore's films. Those on either side can scan the Google news headlines and click on those that fit their worldview.
These partisans are determined to see a connection between the declining audiences of traditional outlets and the pervasive accusations of bias. An ad for "Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media," a 2004 book by L. Brent Bozell III, says "the liberal media's audience will continue to defect to the emerging alternative news outlets -- outlets more in tune with their perspective on the world."
Organizations such as Bozell's Media Research Center, David Brock's Media Matters, and scores of partisan outlets on both sides that back them up, are devoted almost entirely to attacking the press. Those on the right are so practiced at citing liberal media bias that they've assigned it an abbreviation: LMB. Left-wingers, meanwhile, complain about a timid, corporate media that helped Bush get reelected and led the nation to war in Iraq. The attacks help to explain why 45 percent of Americans now say they can believe little or nothing of what they read in the papers, compared to just 16 percent two decades ago.
But declines in news viewership and readership have more to do with changing habits and technology than with accusations of bias. "That's dictated by lifestyle," says Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center's director. "It's not a product of declining credibility of the media. Having observed it for a long time, I just don't see any correlation." Indeed, in a recent Pew poll, those most likely to complain about newspaper bias (and presumably the ones who would turn away from the mainstream press) were the most faithful readers.
This is not to say claims of bias are groundless. Reporters aren't machines, and some prejudice inevitably finds its way into print or on the airwaves. But our dominant bias is skepticism of whoever is in power. Don't just take it from me, though. In a candid admission, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer writes in his new book: "Many Republicans, especially conservatives, believe the press are liberals who oppose Republicans and Republican ideas. I think there's an element of truth to that, but it is complicated, secondary, and often nuanced. More important, the press's first and most pressing bias is in favor of conflict and fighting . . . No one can claim with a straight face that the White House press corps were easy on former President Bill Clinton."
Regardless of the merits, the pervasive accusations of bias are making it increasingly difficult for the traditional media to play their role of gathering and reporting facts. The danger in this situation became evident in the exit polls from November's elections. These polls are one of the most valuable tools for understanding the American electorate, but they were made unreliable because some conservatives were so distrustful of the media that they declined to answer questions from media-sponsored pollsters; this, in the view of some experts, may explain why early exit polls forecast a victory for John Kerry.
The Bush administration has exploited the fragmentation. The president avoids the media "filter" -- as his aides like to call it -- by holding few news conferences and granting more interviews to conservative talk show hosts, local news stations and specialty publications less likely to ask tough questions. Officials also routinely disparage mainstream media efforts to hold them to account. In a presidential debate last year, after Kerry cited a news report, Bush retorted: "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations."
This is no coincidence. Look at Page 77 of the Defense Science Board's 2004 study titled "Transition to and from Hostilities." The Pentagon advisory board writes: "Today, political struggles are about the creation and destruction of credibility." The board was writing about foreign propaganda, but the lesson applies at home, too. In the past, the key to winning in politics was to control the information. Now, when information has no controls, the key is making your information credible and casting doubt on other information -- such as that found in the mainstream press.
Ultimately, it's not good for anybody, even partisans, to get into a postmodern morass where there are no such things as facts, only competing perceptions of reality. Would liberals really favor the absence of a press that calls into questions the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's weapons and ties to al Qaeda? Would conservatives really favor the absence of a press that brought the Clinton scandals to light?
The Republican National Committee cited The Washington Post to refute Kerry's claim that his vote to authorize force in Iraq was not really a vote for war. More recently, the RNC cited The Post to show that Democratic leaders were at odds with Democratic voters on Social Security. The Democratic National Committee, in turn, cited Post reporting to highlight Bush budget cuts that the administration played down. Partisans love to complain about bias when the facts are against them, but pleased to cite the mainstream media when the facts are in their favor.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism asserts that, at a time of media fragmentation, the traditional press's truth telling is more important than ever. "In this new world, we continue to believe journalism is not becoming irrelevant," the new report argues. "The need to know what is true is all the greater, but discerning and communicating it is more difficult." But we're up against some short-sighted partisans who would prefer to do away with this truth-telling role.
Stephen Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard protested in a November article that during the campaign, "journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post and the television networks saw themselves not as conveyors of facts but as truth-squadders, toiling away on the gray margins of the political debate." These journalists, he continued, "fancy themselves thinkers, not mere scribes. They go to work every day to tell us not what the Bush administration has said, but what it has left unsaid."
Imagine that! An independent press looking for the truth rather than serving as stenographers for the powerful. It's a quaint tradition Americans would be wise not to abandon.
And the followup LiveOnline discussion from today.