- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With the messiah safe at last, some of the notabilities of press and tube are climbing out of Barack Obama’s media tank with tales of what’s been going on in there.

It’s an article of media faith that everybody with a press card is incapable of showing bias - with the exception of a few newspapers like this one, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post and, of course, Fox News. Anyone who says otherwise is a vacuous irrelevancy. So when someone strays off the reservation it’s front-page news, even when it’s not on the front page.

Deborah Howell, the ombudsman (a Swedish word her newsroom now defines as “newsroom harpie”) at The Washington Post finally had enough on Sunday and took her newspaper’s best and brightest severely to task for allowing its reporters and editors to climb into that tank. “Readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama,” she wrote. “My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that [readers] are right on both counts.”

Even before Election Day, Harold Evans, once editor of the Times of London and the London Sunday Times, was even blunter, perhaps because as the former editor he no longer has to risk life and limb walking among his former colleagues: “It’s fitting that the cynicism ‘vote early and vote often’ is commonly attributed to Chicago’s Democratic boss, Mayor Richard Daley, who famously voted the graveyards in 1960 to help put John F. Kennedy in the White House. In this 2008 race, it’s the American media that have voted very early and often. They long ago elected the star graduate of Chicago’s Democratic machine, Barack Obama.”

In fact, Reuters, the British news service that most slavishly follows the line of least resistance to bias, isn’t even waiting for the inauguration. Most of the media refers to the new president as “President-elect Obama.” To Reuters, he’s occasionally already “President Obama.”

Miss Howell relies on statistical analysis to demonstrate her point, that by sheer weight of words and mush her newspaper showed bias. The Post’s news pages reflected a lopsided attention to Mr. Obama’s interests, “with 1,295 horse-race stories and 594 issues stores. The Post was deficient in stories that reported more than the two candidates trading jabs; readers needed articles, going back to the primaries, comparing their positions with outside experts’ views. There were no broad stories on energy or science policy, and there were few on religion issues.”

All very interesting, up to a point. But these are mere statistics about what everybody who reads newspapers already knows, and the numbers, impressive as they may be, do not tell the story.

“What’s troubling to anyone old-fashioned enough to care about standards in journalism,” says Mr. Evans, is how the news is presented. The old notions of objectivity, fairness and thoroughness still get occasional lip service, though the Associated Press, once the gold standard of objectivity and neutrality, now boasts of telling it like it only imagines it is. “The coverage,” says Mr. Evans, “has been slavishly on the side of ‘the one.’ ”

Not just against Republicans. He cites the way reporters connived in the Obama campaign’s insinuations that Hillary and Bill Clinton were race-baiters in South Carolina. The Clintons are a lot of things, but they’ve never been credibly accused of race-baiting. Bubba took considerable heat early on in Arkansas when he ran against a powerful segregationist tide, before Barack Obama had put on his first pair of long pants.

The most discouraging part of the sad state of media affairs is that there’s scant sign it will ever get better. All that writhing around together down in the tank has only reinforced the high opinion the correspondents and commentators have of themselves. They imagine they’re responsible for electing a president - and maybe they are - and they can’t wait to keep on doing it.

Newspapers, even those “too big to fail,” have come on parlous times. The daily newspaper not so long ago was the arbiter of the manners and even the morals of its community, determining community’s view of itself, its personality and its character. Now all that is mostly gone, and most of the editors and publishers think the way to survival is to give the readers more of what ails them. Crusty old city editors who relished making the lives of young reporters miserable in pursuit of teaching them how to be thorough and fair - “Son, nobody cares about what you think about anything, just tell me what happened” - are mostly disappearing. That stuff in the tank is poison.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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