W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Intellectual diversity’

‘We’re trying to toughen you up’: Never happened with Obama and news media

In Debunking, Media myths on October 7, 2012 at 8:39 am

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Remember that?

It was nearly six years ago when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd made the comment to then-Senator Barack Obama, as his campaign for the presidency was unfolding.

Obama at the debate

Her remark was in reply to Obama’s criticism — uttered perhaps half in jest — about Dowd’s having mentioned his prominent ears. (She wrote in a column in October 2006: “He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and ‘maybe a little blow’ as a young man.”)

“You talked about my ears,” Obama told her later, “and I just want to put you on notice: I’m very sensitive about — what I told them was I was teased relentlessly when I was a kid about my big ears.”

Dowd said in response:

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Of course, “toughen up” never happened. The mainstream U.S. news media rarely have treated Obama with anything but swooning deference. He and his policies seldom have been exposed to rigorous and critical assessment. Not in any sustained way, and certainly not during the 2012 election season.

As Andrew Klavan wrote recently in City Journal: “No other president could have … presided over such a crippled economy and such universal failures at war and in foreign policy and escaped almost without mainstream blame.”

The upshot of media deference was on vivid display Wednesday night, when Obama’s economic record was eviscerated by Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a debate stunning for its lopsidedness.

Not even Richard Nixon lost so utterly in 1960 in his debates with John F. Kennedy.

For the first time in his presidency, Obama was called to account publicly and prominently for the economic failings of his administration. And he had nothing in rebuttal: Romney’s unrelenting pressure left Obama looking flustered, hapless.

Since then, the mainstream news media have been inclined to blame Obama’s performance on Romney’s having told nothing but lies, on the clumsy moderation of Jim Lehrer of PBS, and (in Al Gore’s telling) on the altitude in Denver, the debate’s host city.

Even now, the mainstream news media are little inclined to “toughen up” Obama, even with two debates ahead and his presidency very much in the balance.

An inevitable reason for all this can be traced to the dearth of intellectual diversity at leading U.S. news organizations. The ideological imbalance in newsrooms is hardly a secret: News organizations themselves have called attention to this defect from time to time.

For example, the then-ombudsman for the Washington Post, Deborah Howell, wrote in a post-election column in November 2008:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives.

“It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

More recently, in his farewell column in August, Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor (or ombudsman), chided the newspaper’s “political and cultural progressivism” which, he said, “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

“As a result,” Brisbane declared, “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

Rather than treat the “overloved and undermanaged” critique as a matter of serious consideration, the Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson, rejected it out of hand, dismissing it as obviously erroneous.

Brisbane’s observations, the product of two years as the newspaper’s ombudsman, deserved a reception far more thoughtful and serious-minded than that. Especially given the newspaper’s mostly forgotten internal report in 2005 which said in part:

“Both inside and outside the paper, some people feel we are missing stories because the staff lacks diversity in viewpoints, intellectual grounding and individual backgrounds. We should look for all manner of diversity. We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faith.” (Emphasis added.)

The critique of the news media’s ideological imbalance is more than impressionistic, more than “perception”: A survey in 2008 of journalists for national news publications reported that 8 percent identified themselves as “conservative,” 32 percent as “liberal,” and 53 percent as “moderate.”

Such imbalance has given rise to the occasional vague promise to promote intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

But nothing much changes.  As I pointed out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “Viewpoint diversity is an issue not much discussed” in American newsrooms — “places that sometimes seem to be bastions of group-think.”

In that regard, I quoted Michael Kelly, former editor of National Journal, who once observed:

“Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Obama has thrived for years within the reassuring confines of the media cocoon which, when ripped away as it was Wednesday night, makes for dramatic theater. But it does little for the news media and their sagging credibility.

WJC

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No ‘rock-em,’ no ‘sock-em’: What ails WaPo

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 7, 2011 at 1:59 am

The ombudsman of the Washington Post, Patrick Pexton, weighs in today with platitudes and hang-wringing about the newspaper. He mostly misses the mark.

Pexton writes in his column that the Post’s “future lies not with the rich; it lies with the citizenry.

“This newspaper must be the one source of high-quality, probing Washington news that readers in this region and across the country can look to for holding their government accountable. This publication must be for all Americans.”

Oh, brother.

But wait: Here’s more vague abstraction:

“The Post,” Pexton writes, “can’t be a liberal publication or a conservative one. It must be hard-hitting, scrappy and questioning — skeptical of all political figures and parties and beholden to no one. It has to be the rock-’em-sock-’em organization that is passionate about the news. It needs to be less bloodless and take more risks when chasing the story and the truth.”

A “rock-’em-sock-’em organization,” eh? Well, that’s useful guidance.

In his five or so months as ombudsman, Pexton hasn’t dared touch the electrified third rail about the Post, which one of his predecessors, Deborah Howell, gamely if belatedly addressed.

That’s a decided lack of intellectual diversity in the Post’s newsroom. In mid-November 2008, shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, Howell wrote in her ombudsman column:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying that “conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

In Obama's thrall

The lack of intellectual diversity often shows in the Post’s report. Even casual reading signals that the newspaper remains in the thrall of Obama, despite his clearly failing presidency.

Obama scarcely gets “rock-’em-sock-’em” treatment from the Post.

Last Wednesday, for example, the Post’s once-edgy “Style” section devoted most of its front page to a cheery feature about the meaning of Obama’s turning 50-years-old.

“On Thursday,” the article gushed, “President Obama — one of American history’s most precocious achievers — joins the ranks of Washington 50-somethings ….”

But what ails the Post goes well beyond its routinely tender treatment of Obama.

The Post’s local report is superficial, a diet of eye-rolling, feel-good features. The newspaper carries little staff-produced national coverage. Its international report is undistinguished, especially compared to that of the New York Times.

Moreover, the Post offers few notable cases of investigative journalism any more.

It has won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting in 25 years, which has to be considered meager for a newspaper that reputedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency with its relentless digging into the Watergate scandal.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Post-Watergate trope, of course, is a powerful media-driven myth.

I’d be remiss were I to fail to note that the Post never has come clean about how it erred so utterly in offering the world the bogus hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq War.

Lynch, the Post reported on its front page on April 3, 2003, “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army’s 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday.”

But none of the derring-do attributed to Lynch was true, and the Post has never explained who led it so badly astray.

Moreover, the staff cuts and buyouts of recent years left few notable characters on the newspaper’s staff.

Gone are such colorful figures as the erudite and pugnacious Henry Allen, a Pulitzer winner who left the Post after throwing punches at a staff writer who called him a c—sucker.

Now there was “rock-’em-sock-’em,” old school variety.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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NYT’s Keller and the dearth of viewpoint diversity in newsrooms

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times on June 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I enjoy Bill Keller‘s column in the New York Times Sunday magazine, not so much for strength of argument and depth of reporting as for its tendency to offer grist to Media Myth Alert.

Keller of the Times

Keller’s assertion a few months ago that the Times corrects errors of fact when it detects them prompted me to point out that the Times hadn’t corrected an erroneous reference in January to the Army-McCarthy hearings.

And I’m still waiting for that correction.

In his most recent column, Keller poked at Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who’s flirting with the notion of making a run for president. Ill-fated that would be.

But Keller’s column — especially its opening observation — revealed more about the dearth of intellectual diversity and contrarian thinking in American journalism than it did about the limited appeal of Sarah Palin.

Keller, the Times executive editor, wrote blithely:

“If the 2012 election were held in the newsrooms of America and pitted Sarah Palin against Barack Obama, I doubt Palin would get 10 percent of the vote. However tempting the newsworthy havoc of a Palin presidency, I’m pretty sure most journalists would recoil in horror from the idea.”

Keller’s probably correct.

Ten percent of the U.S. newsroom vote may even be a generous assessment.

But rather than consider the implications of such intellectual lopsidedness, Keller breezily wrote that “watching Palin answer a question is like watching a runaway train struggling to stay on the rails, and fact-checking her is like fishing with dynamite.”

OK, that’s amusing.

But in acknowledging and then sidestepping the larger matter of viewpoint diversity in the newsroom, Keller left a more compelling issue unaddressed.

A broad-based ongoing discussion about the dearth of intellectual diversity in the newsroom — why so few American journalists self-identify as politically conservative — would be beneficial to American journalism.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, intellectual diversity and contrarian thinking are objectives that deserve to be vigorously promoted in American newsrooms.

“It is certainly not inconceivable,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “that a robust newsroom culture that embraces viewpoint diversity, encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassing tales such as the Washington Post’s ‘fighting to the death’ story about Jessica Lynch.”

The Post’s bogus front-page story in 2003 about Lynch’s supposed battlefield heroics in Iraq catapulted her to international fame and celebrity. The newspaper has never fully explained how it botched the Lynch story and has never identified the anonymous sources that led it astray.

To its credit, the Post has raised the issue of limited intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

Notably, Deborah Howell, the newspaper’s former ombudsman, wrote in mid-November 2008 that more “conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two” ways to confront what she termed “the perception of bias” in political coverage. (The week before, Howell had reported a “tilt” in the Post’s 2008 campaign coverage, in Obama’s favor.)

In her column about perception bias, Howell wrote:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Tellingly, Howell quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong.

“But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

Rosenstiel called for “more intellectual diversity among journalists” and was further quoted by Howell as saying:

“More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism.”

I wonder what Keller would say to that.

I offer it as grist for one of his columns.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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