On August 17 the New York Times published a front-page appreciation of former Reagan Administration Attorney General Edwin Meese that neatly illustrates how so much of the media–including America’s most influential newspaper and alleged headquarters of the liberal media conspiracy–bend over backward to coddle conservatives. The bias on display here is of a passive nature and is therefore not as obvious as the gratuitous attacks leveled at liberals discussed in my last column. But it is no less pernicious.
In the first place, the entire foundation for the story, written by Lynette Clemetson, is wholly speculative. It purports to explain how Meese laid the foundation for John Roberts’s judicial philosophy with a speech he gave to the American Bar Association in 1985–but look at how many journalistic weasel words were necessary to justify its thesis: “Mr. Meese gave what many say was the speech of his career. Helping lay the foundation for the judicial wars that continue today, he advocated a ‘jurisprudence of original intention.’ The philosophy he promoted, one of strict adherence to what proponents say were the intentions of the writers of the Constitution, inspired a generation of conservatives–including, some say, a young lawyer named John G. Roberts Jr., now a Supreme Court nominee.” (My italics.) In other words, none of the above may be true at all.
A second gimme offered to the far right is the story’s assumption that the legal philosophy of “originalism” deserves to be taken seriously, as anything other than yet one more fundamentalist gimmick–à la “intelligent design”–designed to undermine what the rest of us consider to be reality. Owing to its commitment to the ideal of “objectivity,” the Times treats the question as mere partisan debate, quoting liberals Laurence Tribe and Justice Brennan in opposition to Meese et al. In doing so, it reifies nonsense and offers its imprimatur to politically motivated pseudo-scholarship. As the Constitutional Convention’s leading expert, Stanford’s Jack Rakove, explains in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, Original Meanings, “Even the conservative framers themselves…having learned so much from a mere decade of self-government, and having celebrated their own ability to act from ‘reflection and choice,'” would find “incredible…the idea that later generations could not improve upon their discoveries.”
But the most egregious journalistic omissions come in the Times’s whitewash of Meese himself. Clemetson writes that Meese was “vilified by liberals as an ideologue and embroiled in frequent disputes with more moderate figures within the Reagan Administration,” but “is now lionized by conservatives for his role in reshaping the judiciary.” According to Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, “he is our moral compass.” Clemetson adds, however, “His effectiveness as attorney general was blunted by a 14-month ethics investigation into his role helping a contractor secure a defense contract for a proposed Iraqi pipeline. He resigned as attorney general after it was announced that no criminal charges would be filed.” That’s it. Moderates didn’t approve of his political philosophy, and his ethical troubles never amounted to much.
Now here is some information about this conservative moral compass–much of it culled from New York Times reports of the time–that Clemetson and her editors chose not to include:
§ An independent prosecutor found Meese had probably violated federal conflict-of-interest laws when his family held telephone company stock worth thousands at a time when he was reviewing telecommunications policy at the Justice Department. He also concluded that “a trier of fact would probably conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Meese willfully permitted a materially false tax return to be filed for him.”
§ The Senate Oversight of Government Management subcommittee found that Meese, as counselor to Reagan, had violated White House policy when he intervened to win a defense contract for the scandal-ridden Wedtech Corp.
§ During Iran/contra, Meese conspired with Reagan Administration officials to cover up the crimes committed, possibly even including the President’s. He lied to the press and instructed other members of the Cabinet to do so. When conducting a Potemkin investigation, he told Reagan officials they were “under no obligation” to answer questions truthfully.
§ Republican William Weld, former US assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, explained that he was frequently instructed to base his prosecutions on political and ideological criteria. As he understood it, investigations were dropped if “the political affiliation of [the person investigated] was likely to be Republican.” But they were more likely to be approved, Weld said, if the person under investigation was a liberal.
(There’s plenty more, for which we lack the space.)
If this were a single instance of such bias, it would be insignificant. Alas, the Times has had to apologize to its readers for its credulousness in believing the lies it was fed by the Bush Administration vis-à-vis its ruinous war in Iraq. It has also apologized for accepting the unfounded accusations of conservatives against the Clinton Administration about alleged atomic spying, during the Wen Ho Lee investigation. The Times still owes an apology in a more significant case as well: Seth Mnookin’s Hard News reveals that in an unpublicized report by Marty Baron, then the Times‘s associate managing editor and now editor in chief of the Boston Globe, he described the paper’s coverage of the Lewinsky scandal as characterized by “repeating sensational reports…without confirming them,” relying on “passive voice…as a substitute for sourcing,” “speculation” and “overstatement based on evidence seen or heard.” In almost every case, the victim was Bill Clinton.
So the so-called liberal New York Times terms itself too tough on Clinton, Democrats and liberals and too easy on Bush, Republicans and conservatives. As a result, it ends up misleading its readers, but it changes nothing about its coverage. I could write a book…