Newsweek announced that Karl Rove, the controversial architect of the rise and fall of the modern G.O.P., will join its ranks as a new contributor to balance the recent hire of blogger Markos Moulitsas.
This is an odd pair on several levels. First, it makes Kos look huge. His web commentary and grassroots organizing have earned him a media perch on par with one of the most powerful people to ever work in the Bush White House. If columns are going to be handed out based on power, then at least Newsweek understands that there is power beyond holding office in Washington.
Second, it reveals a common misunderstanding of partisanship in the traditional media. In this model, Rove and Moulitsas automatically balance out each other’s partisanship, because they are political operators. I doubt it. Rove has spent an entire political career devoted to the advancement of the G.O.P. and its politicians. Moulitsas has spent his political career toggling between support and confrontation with the Democratic Party. Yes, he’s a liberal partisan Democrat who generally wants the party to win. But he has repeatedly challenged Democratic politicians, offering criticism, scorn, ridicule and several well-funded primary challenges. He even sits on the board of They Work For Us, an independent organization devoted to pressuring incumbent Democrats and supporting primary challenges. So while Rove and Moulitsas are both more politically active than a typical columnist, they are nowhere near equal on the partisanship scale. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham says that means readers will "know that what they get from Karl has to be judged in the context of who Karl is…Readers will have to decide if he’s simply an apologist." Fine, "reader beware" applies to both of them. Now let’s keep track of how many times Rove flatly criticizes Republicans, or calls for a primary against a senior Republican senator in a safe seat.
Third, of course, there’s this constant media fixation with "balance" itself. If the goal is something like equal time for liberals and conservatives, most of the media is failing badly. A recent study found conservatives have 60% of the the syndicated newspaper columns, while 58% of the Sunday show guests were conservative in 2005. Then, apart from the numbers, equal time cannot substitute for factual, thoughtful news and commentary. Criticizing Moulitsas’ endorsement of the balance approach, Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici breaks it down:
Is that what it’s about? Balance? So you have a liberal shouting on one side, and a conservative shouting on the other side, and if their voices exactly cancel each other out, you’ve done your job? That sounds like Crossfire, or like the obligatory post-debate spin room, not like a magazine with an outsize regard for its own reputation.
Maybe we all just have to live in that spin room now. At least it’s "balanced" by partisanship.