The Washington Post’s editorial page disgraced itself recently with a frontal attack on its own news division. The September 17 missive masqueraded as a demand that President Obama deny Edward Snowden’s plea for executive clemency, falsely blaming Snowden for a series of actions that were taken not by the famous whistle-blower but by the newspaper itself. (Snowden revealed nothing; the Post and The Guardian did.) Leaving the argument’s lack of merit aside, the editorial probably came as a significant surprise to many of the paper’s readers. After all, as The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel pointed out on the Post’s op-ed page, the paper “submitted these articles to the Pulitzer Prize board, seeking and rightfully winning a Pulitzer for public service.”
Glenn Greenwald, one of the reporters originally contacted by Snowden (and portrayed in the new Oliver Stone movie, Snowden), took the opportunity to argue that if the Post’s editorial-page editors “had any intellectual honesty at all,” they would be “accepting institutional responsibility for what they apparently regard as a grievous error that endangered the public.” But a focus on “institutional responsibility” is exactly the wrong way to look at this conflict. What it does demonstrate—aside from the cravenness of the editorial’s anonymous authors—is the iron wall that separates news judgment from editorial judgment at The Washington Post. As Barton Gellman, who shared the Post’s Pulitzer with Laura Poitras for their Snowden reporting, has observed: “It’s a good thing” for the Post, “and for journalism, that the opinion staff has no say in what counts as news.”
Newspaper journalists tend to take pride in this separation. However, it creates nothing but confusion among news consumers. Not long after the Post editorial ran, the paper’s media reporter, Paul Farhi, wrote an article in which he accurately asserted: “Fact is, there really is no such thing as ‘the media.’ It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions.” And yet poll after poll demonstrates that most people fail to make such distinctions. When conservatives attack “the media,” their concern is primarily with the elite corporate media, which set the standard against which the entire scrum is measured. They insist, almost without exception, that reporters are liberals and that their reporting is biased against conservatives. I would argue—and have done so, at book length, more than once—that this contention is demonstrably false: Simple accuracy is what so annoys conservative complainers. But from a social-science standpoint, this assertion is almost impossible to prove because of the lack of stable standards or controllable variables through which one might conduct a scientific study. Even the definition of terms is subject to debate.