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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Our Editor-in-Chief President

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:

[A 2004 survey] 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…

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.

I’ll set aside any confusion possibly caused by this inconvenient memo to state unequivocally that I’m no crazy 9/11 truther. Nevertheless, it’s still amazing that, in Dana Milbank’s mind as well as his editors, an erroneous belief held by 46.5 million Bush voters, one of whom at the time of the survey was also our Vice President, constitutes as big a threat to democratic discourse as a minority of fringe conspiracy theorists on the left, none of whom have ever gained so much as a toehold within legitimately respected circles of intellectual or political discourse. In fact, it took an astute reader to later corner Milbank on his baldly false equivalence in a subsequent Post webchat, where Milbank's response cast aside his righteous anger at so much political spin and instead became an object lesson about Nietzsche’s abyss: “Let's for now leave aside the question of the % on each side that believe a falsehood. I think the examples cited are actually quite similar.” Wow, wholly abandoning any attempt to defend the logic behind one’s assertion while at the same time confidently re-asserting its veracity.  Ari Fleischer, eat your heart out. (To be fair, Milbank, in that same webchat, says he personally doesn't hold to the idea that if people from both political sides are complaining about your coverage, you're doing it right, but I'd say his own reporting says otherwise.)

I pick on Milbank here because his journalistic style often embodies the second, philosophical flaw I mentioned earlier. This flaw presents itself as a sympathetic bias toward any fellow travelers outside of the media who similarly generate criticism from both political sides. It explains why, just this week, Milbank would expose himself to ridicule by writing an unbelievably contorted profile of Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan’s upset a few Republicans along with most Democrats in Congress, you see, which, ipso facto, means he’s closer to the truth than the rest of his and the opposing party’s caucus. Never mind that Ryan’s intellectual seriousness and commitment to reducing the deficit are belied by actual facts. Here’s Milbank in full-on cognitive dissonance mode, with two excerpts just three paragraphs betwixt them:

‘The way I see it is if you're getting an inch in the right direction, take the inch even though you can't get the mile.’ [Ryan] acknowledged that ‘this fix to our debt, whenever it happens, will have to be bipartisan, no matter what.’…

But Ryan indicated that he would rather pick a fight than work toward a fix.

This soft spot for go-it-alone, everybody-hates-me, party-bucking explains the long love affair many in the Washington press crops and Beltway punditocracy had for Sen. John McCain. And it is perhaps not surprising that this same constituency in the media seems downright obsessed with the political center and, its natural by-product, compromise as it occupies the same part of the ideological landscape where they think the truth lies.

Indeed, it was no coincidence that long-time keeper of this centrist flame on the Post’s editorial page, David Broder, practically gushed about Obama’s tax cut deal with the Republicans. This was after the Post's editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, had wholeheartedly urged Obama to push through the thoroughly regressive and politically suicidal Bowles Simpson deficit reduction plan with this notable endorsement: “I don't think it's perfect, but no plan capable of winning majority support is going to make everybody happy. On the contrary: Every good plan will make everyone unhappy in some way.” Sounds familiar, no?

This, I fear, is the trap our president has fallen into. Indeed, when I read the transcript of his press conference it sounded remarkably like a one-man editorial board pressed by a publishing deadline and kicking around ideas for which position to endorse while castigating those who dare to hold out for more. That his decision was sure to anger a sizable contingent of both Democrats and Republicans (though, tellingly, not the Republican Senate Minority Leader with whom he negotiated the deal) seemed almost like icing on the cake, proof that his was the most reasonable and fairest way forward in the current political environment.

Of course, there are obvious holes in Obama’s argument for kicking the tax cut issue down the road: how will he convince Republicans two years from now to forego further tax cuts for the rich if a public that already strongly supports this position just gave the GOP an overwhelming electoral victory? I mean, how much public support does he think he needs to overcome the Republicans’ intransigence? But what was more ominous than his justifications was his tone.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want a president who qualifies whether or not he’s willing to fight an onslaught of potential GOP legislative fights by saying: “I suspect they will find I am.” (italics mine) I’m still of two minds about what Obama gave and got with this particular deal, but I do know that that wavering resolve and hectoring, a-pox-on-both-houses language ominously left open a lot of doors to compromise down the road. To a future where his speeches, press conferences, and ultimately, campaign stops will have to present half a loaf, a slice or even a few crumbs as the best way, given the circumstances, to satiate the American people, while acknowledging that it actually satisfied no one. Seeking out an intellectually denuded center, whether it’s in pursuit of some falsely contrived sense of objectivity or a quixotic attempt at postpartisanship, is a prescription for more than just poor journalism or a difficult reelection campaign, it’s potentially a recipe for disaster for our democracy.

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