Comforting the Comfortable


Via @jayrosen, this item from the Washington Post's White House Columnist Dan Froomkin seems like a good example of a rot in journalism.  

After eight years, we’ve gotten used to having a president whose credibility is shot, whose policy apparatus is utterly politicized, and whose decision-making process is completely opaque. So what do we do with President Obama? Do we treat him with the same skepticism with which we learned to approach Bush? If not, how do we hold him accountable? These are some of the issues I’m wrestling with as I prepare to make the transition from Bush to Obama – and I’d welcome your input.

 I'm not sure I understand why this is even a question.  Indeed, it would seem to me that it would be grounds for immediate dismissal.  Imagine if a scientist - heck, a freshman in science class - said something similar:

We got used to experiments not turning out exactly as the hypothesis suggested over the last 8 years, so we've learned to be skeptical, always testing claims and checking results. So what do you think we should do with the next hypothesis?  Should we use the scientific method again?  I'm wrestling with that question.

If there is a central problem with journalism, it is the lack of skepticism.  Especially as it applies to government.  Politicians and political organizations are not held to account for contradictory statements, false predictions and claims.

Why did it take a Washington Post reporter so many years to learn skepticism, and why would he ever discard skepticism? 

The Right has convinced itself that the problem is "that liberal media", but that is obstructive rhetoric.  Sure, there are a multitude of examples of media bias that favors the Left...but there are also a multitude of examples of media bias that favors the Right.  People notice what they expect to see.   

This isn't a problem of personal bias; biases are unavoidable and don't fit a left/right matrix, anyway.  Ultimately, criticisms of Left/Right bias are tactical attacks against symptoms, not the problem itself.   Crying "that liberal media!" delegitimizes our more fundamental criticisms. 

The problem isn't a biased media.  It is a media that has lost sight of the role of journalism and reporters. 

If there is even a question of whether they should be extremely skeptical of political claims, then they aren't really a Fourth Estate at all.  They've just become enablers of the Estates to which they are attached.

Addressing this core question of the role of journalism - on a bipartisan basis - should be a goal of the next Right.   Government will be healthier and more limited when the media acts as a reality check - a skeptic of power - rather than an enabler of the world's biggest monopoly.  That, not "liberal media", is the problem we have to address. 

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It's more than just a lack of skepticisim

Should a reporter be skeptical of everything a government spokesperson says? Yes, but the reporter shouldn't be overly skeptical.  Too many times over the last eight years, reporters were overly skeptical of government reports while taking goverment critics' statements at face value.  For a non-US example, recall how Isreal's last adventure in Lebanon was reported by the world's media.  Photos that were critical of Isreal were accepted by the media without any skepticisim.  Statements made by IDF spokespersons were treated as lies until proven true (by someone other than the media). 

Reporters need to be skeptical of government, but they also need to be skeptical of everyone else, too.  Otherwise they will continue to be used as tools and fools by anyone who has an ax to grind.



"The Right has convinced itself that the problem is "that liberal media", but that is obstructive rhetoric.  Sure, there are a multitude of examples of media bias that favors the Left...but there are also a multitude of examples of media bias that favors the Right."

...such as?

No, talk radio and right wing blogs don't count. They're declared partisans and don't influence detached observers not looking for reaffirmation.

This assesment reads like someone who actually takes seriously the occasional Kos posts pointing to a mainstream journalist who wonders aloud if 3 years as a Senator has prepared Obama to be president more than Hillary as "evidence of right wing bias."

If this is true -- if the real problem is the decline of "skepticism," and not a liberal bias -- how do you explain the unrelenting pounding that every person and issue tangentially related to a Republican has taken on the front page of every major paper over the last 8 years? You're free to "work toward" this magic goal of the media acting as a check on government power in whatever way seems the least quixotic to you, but you're still left as someone with conservative goals with 75% of the media being registered Democrats.

8 years?

hitnrun, do you not recall that after 9/11 the administration enjoyed complete across the board support? It wasn't untill things started going south that the pounding started - and rightly so. Or do you not think that this has been the worst administration in history?

And you seem to have forgotten FOX News.

I don't recall that.

Because it never happened.  At no point over the last eight years has the Bush administration enjoyed anything approximating complete, across-the-board support from ANYONE, least of all the media.  Feel free to refresh your memory by Googling up all the post-9/11 caterwauling about the brutal Afghan winter; how Afghanistan was the Graveyard of Empires; how we needed to understand the "root causes" of terror rather than mindless warmongering; et cetera et cetera.  Hell, screw 9/11 -- Google up some of the stories about how the Bushies were manufacturing controversy by daring to even bring up how some of the outgoing Clintonistas had engaged in petty acts of vandalism to executive branch workspaces during the transition.

Even if FOX News is every bit as big a monument to right-wing bias as the left imagines -- a rather enormous "if" -- it's still only one fucking network, compared to CNN, ABC, CBS, and particularly MSNBC and NPR.

No, I don't believe this is the worst administration in history.  This is because I actually know something of history, and haven't allowed my partisanship to destroy my sense of perspective.


So, you are saying that the Afghan war went well?

So, the Afghan war went well well, we got in, got Osama Bin Ladin, and got back out again with minimal casualties. I guess I missed that. Possibly I was confused because I just read that 2008 was the deadliest year so far for US troops in Afghanistan. Which served to remind me that we've been there for seven years! Obviously, when reporting reasons why going into Afghanistan might be hazardous, the media was indulging in its biases and not expressing any legitimate skepticism.

Gen'l Clark's plan went well.

did exactly what it was designed for == toppled a regime.

Leave it to a Democratic Presidential Candidate to craft a good warplan,eh?

There's an enormous difference...

between airing thoughtful and legitimate skepticism of the propriety or wisdom of military intervention, or or a particular military strategy, in a neutral fashion that allows for reasoned counterpoint, and wallowing in reflexive, ceaseless, defeatist Quagmirism before military action has even commenced.


geez, y'all seem to miss the notorious

"no terrorist attacks on us soil since 9-11"


as if an attack in the United States Congress itself wasn't a fracking problem!!!

Good lord, NextRight, you

Good lord, NextRight, you can't make a lie true by repeating it a thousand times.

Bush NEVER received across the board support from the media.  As centerfire said, have you forgotten how many times Afghanistan was predicted to be just a repeat of the Soviet disaster, and how the Arab world would hate us more if we went to war?

Just because the "liberal" media caught a case of war fever sure to sell tons of paper, this doesn't mean they thought Bush was anything more than a drooling simian.

Oh, and to add to centerfire's list, the horribly biased AP, AFP and Reuters, whose articles are reprinted verbatim in thousands of outlets around the world.

A story that is negative is not necessarily biased

An administration as inept as this one deserves negative coverage. You have forgotten that he used to get fairly positive coverage.

You might find this little snippet turns your theory topsy-turvey:

From the September 24 2006 edition of  Fox News Sunday. The participants are Host Juan Williams, who works for FOX and NPR, and Mara Liasson, NPR senior politic correspondant

LIASSON: That is the subject of probably the most intensely polarized debate in America right now. Does the media -- was the media as tough on Clinton or as tough on Bush as they were on Clinton? Did the Bush administration get a pass? I mean, that is a huge debate. I don't think you can talk about the media as a whole. I think there are plenty of aspects of the media that have blamed President Bush every step of the way for every misstep, and certainly, the country has come to a kind of consensus about the war in Iraq. It's a kind of a split one, but the war in Iraq is very unpopular. I think the president has, over time, come in for a lot of criticism -- whether, you know -- presidents always feel they're mistreated by the press worse than any other president. So, it's hard to --

JUAN WILLIAMS: But walk-up to this war and the weapons of mass destruction?

LIASSON: On that one, he certainly did.

WILLIAMS: No, come on! The press gave him a pass.

LIASSON: You know what? At that time, Democrats and people all over the world thought that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction. We learned later that wasn't the case.

Yessiree, there you have it - the guy taking the FOX News dime is blaming Bush, and the NPR woman is arguing for giving him a pass.

Right-Wing Media

Hmmm.. How about the Editorial pages of the Washington Post under Fred Hiatt?  Or the unerring Right-wing, pro-Bush slant of the nation's largest newspaper, the Wall Street Journal?  Not to mention the unrelenting Right-wing slant of other large and influential papers with National distribution like the Washington Times, the Investor's Business Daily, the NY Post, the NY Sun, any and all of Rupert Murdoch's behemoth mass-media empire, you have to be kidding me.

Or Judith Miller's unquestioning reporting of planted WMD talking points from the Bush White House's Scooter Libby for over a year in the NY Times?  Or the hiring of Bill Kristol at the same NY Times?  Or the widely published, syndicated, unendingly pro-Bush columns written by people like Tom Friedman, George Will, David Brooks, Kate O'Beirne, Peggy Noonan, and dozens of other popular Right-wing and Conservative writers?

Or the inclusion of voices like Glenn Beck, who still has his own prime-time Right-wing news program on CNN, or the weekly multiple appearances all over cable news for years of right-wing luminaries like Newt Gingrich, Bill O'Reilly, John Stossel, Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, et al?

No, there has not been a shortage of Right-wing viewpoints in the mass media for a long time, maybe for over a decade.  And altough much diminished, they do still enjoy support among all tiers of Americans.

This is what Bush has accomplished: His true legacy is the devastation of the Right.

Certainly no shortage of right-wing media outlets

But the Left looks on 'bias' very differently than the Right.  In general, the Left tends to be more nuanced, whereas the Right effectively functions on dichotomies (this same view is becoming more common on the Left).

That is, to the Right, any disagreement whatsoever amount to 'bias.'


As to this:

This is what Bush has accomplished: His true legacy is the devastation of the Right.

I disagree.

The Right is going through a shift (the Left is too).

I did this series of posts about a year ago that had some material from a high school teacher's lesson plans on political parties.  In summary, in the parliamentary system, each faction is its own party, and they then form a coalition to form a government; in the congressional system, the parties themselves are made up of factions, and the government goes to the ruling party.

Part of the lesson plan included a hand-out with a list of several different factions.  Students, in groups, were to re-organize the factions into political parties, to where they would be more sensibly dispersed.

So, no, the Right could never be devastated by the Bush legacy; only that faction that put him in power in the first place will suffer that, and they are.  But there was not a robust dialogue within the GOP that would have smoothed the transition.

Taking the long view, I would say that the fact that the Ron Paul supporters flexed their muscle a bit in the past cycle was healthy for the party as a whole.

Other factions of the Right remain strong.  Unfortunately, the Right has been branded, deservedly so, as the party of the Bush apologists. 


Have you ever read Froomkin's column before?  Are you at all familiar with what he writes?

The more fundamental problem...

isn't skepticism (or lack thereof), but rather that the media has arrogated to itself the privilege to determine for the rest of us the prevailing political narrative.  Ace characterizes this nicely by suggesting that members of the media fancy themselves The Deciders: they coalesce around a preferred storyline -- Bush Is A Lying Cowardly Stupidhead; The Iraq War Is A Hopeless Quagmire; Dick Cheney Is Evil Incarnate; take your pick -- and then shape, forcibly if necessary, their reporting to reinforce that storyline.  Tactical skepticism to discredit challenges to the storyline, and tactical credulousness to reinforce the storyline, are symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.

I would agree with you that characterizing the problem as "that liberal media" is obstructive rhetoric.  That the media's preferred political narrative favors Democrats, because most members of the media are themselves unreflective liberal hacks, is certainly particularly obnoxious if you're nominally right-of-center -- but frankly things wouldn't be a heck of a lot better if most members of the media were unreflective conservative hacks establishing and reinforcing political narratives that favor Republicans.  We're ill-served by a media that tries to put the news into/make the news fit any editorial context, except on the opinion page.


 I'm not sure I understand

 I'm not sure I understand why this is even a question.


Get out of the echo chamber!  It's clear you don't understand what Jay is saying.

Dan Froomkin, second-rate hack

I was on the case in 2005, but ever since it seems that the entire MSM has joined him.

was Bush an outlier

In 2005?  What do you think?


Is he one now?


Dan's puzzle is only a puzzle if you see Bush as an outlier on secrecy, opacity and politicizing of government.


Bring back the Muck rakers

'The problem isn't a biased media.  It is a media that has lost sight of the role of journalism and reporters.'

Here in Britain, we have newspapers that wear their bias on their sleeves. They don't pretend, like the New York Times and Washington Post to be austerely impartial, while all the time being utterly partisan. In Britain, we have a spread of newspapers for every political taste. They also manage to perform the basic function of the free press in a free society- they burrow into all the dusty corners looking for inconvenient and important stuff and expose it.

The US used to have muckraking journalism- the kind that really pisses off the rich and influential; but it seems to have neutered that species very successfully. My local rag when I lived in the states, the Huntsville Times, was an absolute snorathon. Nobody rocked any boats in that town. How sad, that along with the frontier spirit, the famous American can-do spirit and the grit and vim of a bold and dashing nation, America has also lost the ability to ask tough impolite questions and demand an answer.

To my eye across the Atlantic, corruption and the abuse of position are growing in the US, probably as the ease of getting away with it increases. Do something!

hineni! the muckrackers have migrated to the web

they live here, and at kos, and at a thousand other little nooks and crannies of the blogosphere.

They are the 70 year old man with a army-issue crossbow, shooting pictures of his local parade.

They are the brave men and women of Tennessee, catalogueing their homes destruction.

They are the Texans, cataloguing FEMA's obstructionism, and their determination to see that no news media was allowed to report on Ike.


And the news media? They listen with a tin ear, taking stories like Tulza (uncovered through a blogger's memory and a bribe to the newsvault) and spreading them far and wide.

Media bias that favors the right? Where?

"The Right has convinced itself that the problem is "that liberal media", but that is obstructive rhetoric.  Sure, there are a multitude of examples of media bias that favors the Left...but there are also a multitude of examples of media bias that favors the Right."

You're kidding, right?

I've heard leftists attempt to cite examples of rightward bias. Invariably, what they're citing is the failure of a news source to emphasize their favorite conspiracy theory -- which proves only that the media outlets are mid-left rather than hard-left. By contrast, I can cite literally hundreds of clear examples showing how identical situations are treated differently by the same press sources, favorably for the left and unfavorably for the right.

Examples from Fox News don't count. Fox is one news purveyor, and is no farther to the right than ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, TBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, US Today, etc. are to the left. One news purveyor cannot balance the otherwise-unbroken flood of leftward bias.

I do not see how the truth can be considered "obstructive rhetoric." The rhetoric that's obstructive is that which attempts to posit something other than truth.

Please stop trying to make friends by positing parity that does not exist. The left will simply accept your false formulation and then continue to hurl epithets at you as though you were an evil, demented Nazi. It is far, far more important to simply tell the truth.

centrist governments go bad all the time

why not centrist media? the Unionizing Hitler was not radical right, afterall.

"There has been no terrorist attack on US Soil since 9-11"

Sound familiar? It's repeated to death on all major news channels.

Like an attack in the US Capital is chopped liver...

Don't Worry About The Main Stream Media

It is widely known that the Main Stream Media (excluding Fox), made a concerted effort during the campaign to show Obama in an overall favorable light.  It wasn't because they loved the guy.  Rather, it was because the democratic party promised MEDIA ACCESS to the administration.

You see, for the last 8 years, the Main Stream Media has been shut off.  They were marginalized.  They got no access to insiders, no scoops, nothing.  Fox got the goodies...along with local papers.  Heck, it was more likely that a high school paper would get the scoop before anyone from CNN or MSNBC.  MSNBC was near shutting it's doors.  You know things are bad when journalists interview other journalists.  Advertising dollars weren't flowing either.  Fox was getting good ad revenue.  But others, i mean really, advertisers weren't going to pay on MSNBC when FOX was going to get the scoop.

All that has changed now.  Obama is in, the media once again has access.   They can do their job.  The industry has been saved.  However, it is just a matter of time before they sink their teeth in again. 




I might be able to believe that...

...were it not for Judith Miller.

Valerie Plame.

et al.

This administration has had the most compliant media in all of history. 

There is certainly media bias

There is certainly media bias. It's biased in favor of big government welfare statism, and against limited governement.

That said, you are correct that the endemic absence of proper journalistic skepticism is a huge sign of media rot.

Jay Rosen Comment

  1. You got a couple of things wrong, Danny. But thanks for writing about this.

    First, I wasn’t puzzled by Froomkin’s question. Not sure where you got that. I felt certain it would not compute for some, but I understood what he was asking.

    Second, Froomkin wasn’t asking, “should I be skeptical of Obama, or give him a pass?” That reading is just wrong. I was certain some people, especially political opponents of Obama and believers in the liberal bias religion, would employ that reading for a “can you believe this?’ reaction, but it is not what he was asking

    He was asking whether habits of extreme suspicion built up in reaction to Bush and his extreme opacity, mendacity and truthlessness should be applied to Obama on day one.

    Of course if you don’t believe there was anything extreme or even unusual about Bush’s opacity, mendacity, secrecy, and general truthlessness, then Dan’s question would make no sense, and that’s how it becomes, “Gee, should I be skeptical of Obama?” That is not at all what he was asking.

    As I put it on Twitter: “If you start skeptical–listen and verify!-and you listen but cannot verify, you may switch to ‘mistrust and document’ the outlier.” Then, when there’s a new president, do you start from: “mistrust and document the outlier”? or go back to “listen and verify.”

    Again, those who think Bush was a normal president in his public communications and intellectual honesty (but got hurt by a biased media) won’t even see that there is a question. Those–from any political position on the spectrum–who see Bush as an outlier on these matters will see it.

    So when you write, “No journalist should ever wonder whether skepticism of politicians is warranted.” He wasn’t wondering that.

    But the misreading makes for great culture war! Cheers.

    Comment by Jay Rosen — January 2, 2009 @ 12:24 pm