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Refs, Worked (Redux) | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

Refs, Worked (Redux)

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There is some strategy to ["liberal media"-bashing].... If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is "work the refs." Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.   --Former Republican Party chair Rich Bond, 1992

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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George Santayana, call your office. MSM refs are not merely "doomed to repeat" their historic capitulation to right-wing pressure groups; they are leading the charge themselves.

Exhibit A is CBS News. Scared silly in 2004 by blogger attacks on Dan Rather's carelessly sourced report on George Bush's war avoidance record--according to records unearthed in the discovery process of Rather's lawsuit--network execs sought, by any means necessary, to appease their accusers. This included rejecting a moderate Republican like Warren Rudman for their allegedly independent investigation because, as CBS News vice president Linda Mason put it, he might not "mollify the right." Instead, they settled on Richard Thornburgh, who was found to receive "high marks from the GOP." In a way, that's too bad, because CBS was actually considering--I swear I'm not making this up--going to Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Ann Coulter. How is such insanity possible? According to CBS News ex-president Andrew Heyward, "CBS News, fairly or unfairly, had a reputation for liberal bias," and "the harshest scrutiny was obviously going to come from the right."

A more recent but only marginally less disturbing case of a similar Stockholm-style syndrome among appointed MSM watchdogs can be found in a couple of recent columns by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell. Readers of this column are aware of countless indulgences John McCain enjoyed from that paper, as well as some vicious and unfair characterizations of Barack Obama. Never mind. The Post's problem, says Howell, is the fact that "thousands of conservatives and even some moderates have complained during my more than three-year term that The Post is too liberal; many have stopped subscribing, including more than 900 in the past four weeks." She calls these complaints "valid" and explains that part of the problem is that "journalism naturally draws liberals." Nowhere, however, does she speak to competing claims on these same journalists, such as the corporate interests of its owners and executives or the fact that journalists often overcompensate for their alleged biases--which, by the way, are far more conservative than liberal on economics and more hawkish than dovish on war and peace.

When Howell gets into specifics, however, she demonstrates just how transparent is her mission to mollify the same conservative complaints that so successfully intimidated CBS. She is concerned, she writes, about "the drumbeat of polling stories saying Obama and the Democrats were likely to win." Perhaps the Post should have made up some phony polls in an imaginary country in which McCain was defeating Obama and reported on those instead. Conservatives, she adds, also "felt the paper hadn't sufficiently scrutinized Obama." And Howell agrees. "Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got, especially of his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago and his relationship with Antoin 'Tony' Rezko, who was convicted this year of influence-peddling in Chicago," she writes, and adds, "The Post did nothing on Obama's acknowledged drug use as a teenager."

Howell's first charge is a curious one. A short search of the pre-election Post archives using key words "Rezko" and "Obama" turns up twenty-eight hits; this for a story that has yielded not a sliver of evidence of wrongdoing on Obama's part. The second charge is not merely silly, in light of the nonimportance of this "story"; it's kind of crazy. How else to describe a sentence that actually links to its own disproof? I clicked on the words "acknowledged drug use" in Howell's column and, lo and behold, I found myself reading a 1,285-word Post story on page A1 headlined Effect of Obama's Candor Remains to Be Seen: Senator Admitted Trying Cocaine in a Memoir Written 11 Years Ago. Unless this is Howell's idea of "nothing," the Post employs an ombudsman who can't be bothered to click on her own links.

In a previous column, Howell did some number crunching and calculated that "The Post op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces about McCain, 58, than there were about Obama, 32." She added, "The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain." Again, her point is difficult to discern. Should conservative columnists have been forced, Soviet-style, to write columns approving of McCain's hapless campaign?

Howell continues her calculations. Regarding the news, "stories and photos about Obama in the news pages outnumbered those devoted to McCain." True perhaps, but when you compare numbers, you must also compare contexts. Surely Howell is aware that for much of this period, Obama was receiving largely negative coverage. And when it comes to pure numbers, shouldn't she at least acknowledge that Obama nearly always campaigned on weekends while McCain often did not? Doesn't that automatically translate into more stories in a publication that covers, you know, news?

Sadly, these examples are not outliers. They are the result of an astoundingly successful conservative campaign to pressure members of the media to inject an anti-Obama tint into allegedly objective coverage, in the name of "balance." Not long ago, Post media cop Howard Kurtz complained that "web worship of Obama is nearly limitless." His evidence? Lots of people enjoyed watching the Obama Girl video on YouTube, while others thought it worth a few minutes to watch the nation's next president give his election-night speech on the web as well. The nerve of these damn liberals, wanting to see America's first African-American president give his acceptance speech. What's next, conservative concentration camps?

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