Distrust of the national news media continues to grow, pollsters such as Gallup and Pew report, and yet we don’t see too much introspection on the part of these media outlets. New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane concluded that the newspaper suffered from institutional bias to the point where it has become a “progressive hive mind,” but he made that observation on his way out the door of the Gray Lady, which rejected Brisbane’s criticisms while more or less proving him correct. It’s not often that a voice from the inside points out the obvious — as Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton did yesterday, simply by doing the math:
One aspect of The Post that particularly irks conservatives is the columnists who appear in print and online in news positions (as opposed to those on the editorial and op-ed pages and the online Opinions section). With the exception of Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza, who cover politics in a nonpartisan way, the news columnists almost to a person write from left of center.
Steven Pearlstein, who covers business and also appears occasionally on the front page; Walter Pincus on national security; Lisa Miller of the On Faith blog; Melinda Henneberger of She the People; Valerie Strauss, the education blogger; plus the three main local columnists — Robert McCartney, Petula Dvorak and Courtland Milloy — all generally write from a progressive perspective, readers say. (So does Dana Milbank, who works for the Opinions section but writes a column that appears on Page A2 twice a week.)
Is it any wonder that if you’re a conservative looking for unbiased news — and they do; they don’t want only Sean Hannity’s interpretation of the news — that you might feel unwelcome, or dissed or slighted, by the printed Post or the online version? And might you distrust the news when it’s wrapped in so much liberal commentary?
Well, yeah, although I’d argue that the online impact is probably less than in the printed version. Everyone knows that Milbank writes point-of-view work, and I’m not sure that the online access gives the impression that it’s news rather than opinion. Klein is clearly a partisan, especially with his work on MSNBC. However, the rest of the lineup shows how that progressive hive mind forms; most readers probably don’t know about the ideological pitch each of these gives their work in the “news” sections.
That’s not to say that they don’t do fine work. But why not include some conservative writers in those slots? The Post has Jennifer Rubin, who turns out a fairly prodigious amount of work in their blog on the conservative perspective, but how often does Rubin write “news” stories for the Post on politics? [See update below.] I’ve seen Jennifer cover CPAC and other events, so it’s not a case of being locked up in an office 24/7. Why not hire a Byron York or a Philip Klein, a Robert Costa or an Erika Johnsen for some front-page and news features?
This is exactly what Brisbane meant by creating a “progressive hive mind,” and Maurice Brauchli gives the Jill Abramson response right on cue:
Marcus Brauchli, The Post’s executive editor, said conservative readers may perceive that recent coverage of Romney is too tough because they’ve missed a lot of the coverage of Obama in the past four years. “We’ve been covering Barack Obama aggressively for years,” Brauchli said. “We’ve only been covering Mitt Romney deeply since he became the Republican nominee. We cover politics in an even-handed way, and Dan Balz, Chris Cillizza, Karen Tumulty, Glenn Kessler and our other reporters do a terrific job of delivering the news without slant. Between the columnists on the editorial page and the commentators on the news pages, I believe The Post offers readers a balanced perspective.”
I’ll give the Post credit for being tougher on Obama than the New York Times and some of the other media — but that’s not Pexton’s point. Pexton is talking specifically about the news pages, and the lack of “balanced perspective” where readers expect it most. Perhaps the Post has been tougher than some, but are they being tough enough? Are they capturing all of the stories about this administration, or is their choked perspective blinding them to stories and angles on stories that leave their readership ill-served, and angry about the reasonable perception of bias in their reporting?
Give Pexton credit for pointing out the obvious and doing the math. The fact that Brauchli either can’t or won’t do the math himself tells me that the media should prepare itself for even further erosion in public trust.
Update: As it turns out, Jennifer writes quite a bit for the news sections — but in the Post’s online format, it’s not easy to determine which story is published in which section. This is what I was referring to in the post above, which is that the perspective of the writers named by Pexton is probably a lot more clear on line than in print. My apologies to Jennifer, as the last thing I intended was to slight her. She does terrific work, and I’m glad much of it appears in the news section.