It was a small victory in the battle against false equivalency in the media: pundits Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann were on a Sunday morning talk show.
That may not sound like a big deal—after all, Ornstein used to be a Beltway media fixture, and he and Mann have for years been among the “most quotable” sources for media on the Hill. But last weekend CNN’s Reliable Sources became the first mainstream Sunday news program the two have appeared on since their op-ed “Let’s Admit It: The Republicans Are to Blame” was published nine months ago in The Wash Post. Their crime? They “came out” from years of straight-down-the-middle political opining to point out that not only are Republicans threatening the economy and democracy itself, but the mainstream media enable them by refusing to notice.
Despite hoots and hollers from the sidelines, the MSM continue to pretend that the GOP emperor wears the finest of clothes, even as his parade of reality-denying, gun-toting, hostage-taking supporters do a striptease for the nation every filibusterin’ day. In the name of “balance” (and keeping advertisers), the media blame the country’s problems on a generic “Congress” or “Washington.” Or they cry, as Ornstein and Mann write, “’Both sides do it’ or ‘There is plenty of blame to go around,’ ” mantras that “are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias.”
After their op-ed and the book it’s adapted from, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, came out in April, Ornstein (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) and Mann (of the centrist Brookings Institution) went missing from Big Media.
“It’s hard to exaggerate just how popular Mann and Ornstein were with the press before their apostasy,” Dan Froomkin writes in the Huffington Post. “They were quite possibly the two most quotable men in Washington.”
But quoting them on how the media creates symmetry where there is none hits a little too close to home. “We know from some of the most prominent journalists in America that [false equivalency] is a main point of contention,” Ornstein told me by phone. “And to have radio silence” after the book came out means it “clearly touched a nerve.”
Behind the scenes, however, the media and the rest of Washington were buzzing with Mann and Ornstein’s thesis. Their article went viral within hours.
“It was the topic people were talking about in political circles,” says Ornstein, adding that the political director of one network told him colleagues were asking themselves whether they “were doing false equivalency, and all that. It opened up a conversation in the newsroom.”
Ornstein and Mann were not completely absent from the media. They were (and still are) in print and on the Internet; they did Jon Stewart, radio, and weekday television, mostly on MSNBC. But until Reliable Sources last weekend, their sole sighting on a Sunday public affairs program was on MSNBC’s decidedly non-mainstream “Up w/ Chris Hayes,” back in June. Otherwise, they’ve been virtually banned from TV on conventional wisdom’s Holy Day.
“The whole point of the Sunday show panels is to talk about what people are talking about,” says Ornstein. “You can have me on or someone else, but how can you not talk about what people are talking about? You have to make a conscious decision to not do it.”
Ornstein, who in the past had appeared on Meet the Press and This Week with George Stephanopoulos, shows that have also used his and Mann’s articles to launch discussions, says: “I sent George the book and I know he got it, and we communicated a couple of times, but I haven’t been invited to the show. We got the book to David Gregory,” but they didn’t hear back.
“It has been brought up on a couple of Sunday shows, but not by the hosts,” he adds. “David Corn [of Mother Jones] brought it up on Face the Nation. And when he mentioned it, Peggy Noonan said, ‘Boo hoo,’ and that was that.”
Reliable Sources, a show on media issues hosted by Howard Kurtz, isn’t big league like MTP, but it's definitely mainstream. Ornstein believes the show finally had him and Mann on because of Froomkin’s piece last month. It shamed the press for ignoring their work “expos[ing] how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media’s fear of being seen as taking sides.”
if we’re like the law and we present advocates from one side and advocates from the other, then everything is fine.
So, if you represent 99.5 percent of scientists on climate change with one person and a half a percent with the other side, you’re fine with that.
Kurtz obviously gets their argument, but even then he struggled not to appear to take sides:
KURTZ: But at the same time, I just have to wonder, maybe you just don’t like where the Republican Party has gone…. And so this is more of an ideological message on your part as opposed to calling out the press for supposed bias.
MANN: It could be, but I don’t believe it is. We don’t do that kind of analysis and —
KURTZ: You do it right here. “The Republicans are extremists. Republicans are radicals.”
MANN: But look to see how we back it up. I mean, we really look at arguments made and there’s no truth content to them.
It’s just stunning what Republicans have said and been willing to do that’s simply aren’t true, not in a little fact-checking way, but in broad arguments about what America’s about, where we’ve come from, why we have deficit problems now, what government spending does to jobs, and the like.
Mann and Ornstein are not unsympathetic to the news media. “Journalists are struggling with this dilemma, on how they’re reporting both sides,” Ornstein told me. “They’re caught in the crosshairs, where they can be pounced on for showing bias” by bloggers, politicians, and advertisers. “But the consequences are very significant for the political process.”
Especially over the next few months, when the GOP-created debt-ceiling “crisis” will be sucking all the air out of political media. They will no doubt treat the political party that bows before Wayne LaPierre and Grover Norquist as equal to the one that, for all its faults, does tend to want to improve life for most Americans.
Hey, journos: find a hook—intransigence on the debt ceiling, gun control, climate change, whatever—but sometime before the Republicans crash the economy, arm third graders, and fry the planet, get this discussion out in the open and, as Ornstein says, “report without fear or favor.”
Previously, Leslie Savan discussed how conflicted Mitt Romney was over his presidential run.