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June 08, 2004

Oh, That Liberal Ombudsman

Some time ago, DNC staffer/Washington Post employee Dana Milbank penned a delightfully unhinged piece claiming that "scholars" (guess what kind) deemed Bush to be "unprecented" in his negativity as regards his political advertisements.

Milbank determined that Bush had spent much more than Kerry on negative ads, conveniently excluding the primary season from the calculus (why? because that's where Kerry did most of his negative Bush ads) and "forgetting," as Paul Krugman might say, to tally up all the negative ads run by Kerry-supporting surrogate groups like MoveOn.org.

But he wasn't done yet! Oh, no. One nice thing about liberal reporters is that there's really no exhausting their partisan loyalty to the Democratic Party.

He went on to "determine" (scholars say!) that many of Bush's claims about Kerry were "misleading" or "false." In fact, of course, they're all either true or true depending on how you look at it, which has historically been the bar for truthfulness as regards political ads.

Well! After such a performance, you could well expect the Washington Post's ombudsmen to weigh in as to whether the "news article" was too transparently a Kerry '04 press release.

The Post's ombudsman does just that-- and spends the bulk of his piece defending the article from criticism that it was too unfair to Kerry [!!!] and not stridently enough anti-Bush:

Also among the letters prompted by this story were some from readers who felt that The Post, in perhaps striving for balance by also reporting details of Kerry's "own misleading statements and exaggerations" in the same article, had diminished the impact of the story, which was focused on the Bush campaign. At issue for these readers, clearly not Bush supporters, is whether some standard journalistic conventions are obscuring what is happening.

Here is what some of them said on this point.

...

Another said: "One of the reasons the administration has been able, for example, to convince the American public of a causal link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, while maintaining that they did not lie, has been the press's tendency to try and always present two sides to each issue, regardless of how false one of the two points of view is. The press often adopts a credulous 'he said, she said' approach rather than investigating the truth of assertions and placing them in context when they present them in print.

"This is not fairness," this reader continued, "but rather an abdication of the responsibility to make an honest assessment of the facts. Journalism should strive to be unbiased, but it should not simply parrot what it hears, and it should not be afraid to delineate between what it believes to be the truth and what it is told. The tendency to do this has led to the expectation among both readers and journalists that articles critical of one side or another will always have statements that provide balance. While this is generally good, if the truth makes one side look particularly bad it can lead to the journalist putting his thumb on the lightweight side of the scale in order to avoid the accusation that he or she is biased."

I don't feel as though The Post put its thumb on the scale in this case. Reporting on Kerry's "misleading statements and exaggerations" was proper in a story whose main focus was on Bush's campaign advertisements. Yet the readers quoted above make interesting points.

Indeed they do! But more interesting is how interesting you find it! In a piece which is quite obviously a Kerry talking points memo printed up as a Washington Post news article, you're quite sympathetic to the idea that the writers, if they had any bias at all, were too biased in favor of Bush.

Let's extend the thoughts you find so "interesting."

You find it "interesting" that, in the interest of "fairness," a liberal reporter includes some very slight criticism of Kerry. You are worried that this nominal fairness is in fact not "fairness" at all, because Bush is so clearly wrong and Kerry so clearly right that any effort to "balance" the two is, de facto, unfair to Kerry.

And when it comes to charges of media bias-- the Washington Post, obviously a liberal newspaper, attempts to "balance" its media-bias analysis by suggesting that a piece written by a known anti-Bush partisan which bashes Bush might have one flaw, and that flaw is that it is skewed too favorably towards Bush.

Hmmmmm...

I find it very "interesting" that, when it comes to evaluating its own success at achieving fairness, the Washington Post gives equal credence to two different claims, one obviously correct, the other transparently looney, and then claims "balance." The Post's ombudsman thinks that Dana Milbank is "equally" guilty of liberal and conservative bias, or at least can't decide between the two.

Isn't that an example of the very "false fairness" -- giving equal credence to two claims which are wildly divergent in plausibility -- that the writer finds so "interesting," at least when the theory can be used to defend liberal bias?


In related news, Washington Post editors defended their policy of paying their ombudsmen half in cash and half in pharmaceutical-quality LSD.

Update! I'd originally wanted to link this piece by Byron York debunking Milbank's tendentious debunking, but I'd forgotten where I'd seen it and couldn't find it.

Thanks to Geek Empire for pointing the way.


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posted by Ace at 02:10 PM

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