I’m all about the atrocity that was “Bush v. Gore” this week. My Think Again column focuses on press and the manner in which the politics of that period presages the crazy political moment in which we live today, and that’s here.
My Daily Beast column over the weekend was about the “Bush v. Gore” decision itself. That’s here.
That’s all. Now here’s Reed:
Our Editor-in-Chief President
There’s an old adage about objective journalism: If both sides of the political spectrum are complaining, you must be doing something right. This idea, on its face, seems laudable, essential even, for our democracy to function properly. As inculcated into newsrooms and mastheads around the country, this conventional wisdom has come to mean that the traditional American media pulls no punches ideologically, lays bare the facts without regard for whose arguments are strengthened or weakened, and courageously stands up for the reader by stripping away the spin and talking points. In other words, the truth can always be found somewhere in the middle of a political debate. This week, at his press conference, President Obama defended his tax cut compromise by mistakenly planting his flag firmly in the same middle ground, but I’ll get back to him a bit later.
Within journalism, there are two significant flaws to this outlook, one practical and one philosophical. The first of these derives from traditional logic, which says that if the adage is accepted as true then the contrapositive must also be true (i.e., If a, then b; If not a, then not b.) So, if neither side and/or only one partisan side is consistently complaining about a journalist’s coverage, it follows that he or she must be doing something wrong, whether it’s turning out copy so boring as to be inconsequential or tilting his or her reporting toward one side and betraying a personal bias.
Do either for very long in a traditional newsroom and your days are likely numbered, so what invariably starts to happen is a kind of reverse-engineered journalism, one that works backward from this notion that angering both the left and the right equals fairness and objectivity. Of course, this phenomenon doesn’t occur overtly or even consciously, but instead runs as a background program for most political reporting, embedded in the code, as it were. (Assuming robot voice): Must find ideological equivalence to balance out story no matter how tortured or false the assertions. (Human me again)
This journalistic calculus is partly why so much of our political discourse is artificially colored by he said, she said reporting that is of little use to our democracy. Why it rarely weighs facts, draws conclusions and exposes the dissemblers, prevaricators and liars. Why it more often than not resembles a referee, yes, but one at a pro wrestling match, purporting to be a fair watchdog but completely ineffectual and easily rolled (if not totally in on the joke) when faced with a party who simply refuses to play by the rules. Why a supposedly preeminent member of the Washington press corps like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank could write the following five years ago: