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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Political Perspectives With Tunnel Vision

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page C01

When Armstrong Williams appears on television, he is predictably pro-Bush. And he was that way well before he got a $241,000 contract from the Bush administration to promote the president's education policy.

On "Crossfire," where Williams was usually paired with an anti-Bush guest, the same division applied to the hosts: Paul Begala and James Carville are proud Democrats who advised John Kerry, while Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson largely backed the president.

"Everyone's more partisan now," says Paul Glastris, above, of the liberal Washington Monthly. Fred Barnes, right, of the conser- vative Weekly Standard: "We live in a more polarized time." (Jennifer Domenick For The Washington Post)

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Taking money from the government without disclosing it is dumb, but too many pundits these days shill for free. The world of opinion now resembles a choose-up-sides playground, with the players rarely straying from their assigned spots. The only real motion is when they jump back and forth between politics and journalism, or demonstrate agility by keeping a foot in both camps.

"Everyone's more partisan now -- magazines, pundits, individuals," says Washington Monthly Editor Paul Glastris. But he offers a frankly partisan explanation, that it's "largely driven by the extreme partisanship on the right."

Says Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes, who wrote a piece last week calling Democrats "The Ruthless Party": "We live in a more polarized time. There are so many people who've come into journalism from politics and other fields rather than straight reporting. . . . As Republicans and Democrats divide more, commentators who are sympathetic to one party or the other divide more, and I'm no exception."

Are people tired of lockstep loyalty? CNN is canceling "Crossfire," but ideological bookings -- left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, Bush-basher vs. Clinton-basher -- remain a staple at that and the other networks.

Although some columnists retain the capacity to surprise, you don't often find Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd or Bob Herbert saying a nice word about Bush on the Times's op-ed page any more than George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Novak had much good to say in The Washington Post about John Kerry. And the cable pugilists -- Donna Brazile vs. Bay Buchanan, National Review's Rich Lowry vs. the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel -- are booked to ensure constant disagreement.

The commentariat is increasingly populated by political refugees. From Bush 41's White House and campaign, Tony Snow joined Fox, Mary Matalin went to CNN and Bill Kristol, who happily advises the current administration, launched the Weekly Standard. From the Hill, Newt Gingrich became a Fox commentator, his spokesman Tony Blankley took over the Washington Times editorial page, and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough became an MSNBC talk show host. From the Clinton White House, George Stephanopoulos became host of ABC's "This Week," Dee Dee Myers signed with NBC and Vanity Fair, and Carville and Begala joined CNN.

Glastris, who worked in the Clinton White House, notes that he ran a cover story slamming big-name Democratic consultants. But, he says, "we're more partisan and gloves-off" and "much more aggressive in seeking out stories that attack the administration and Republicans."

New Republic Editor Peter Beinart says there's "a temptation to be partisan," in part because TV bookers don't want guests "if your point of view is really out of step with your 'side.' " His magazine seems less ideologically diverse than in the late 1980s, when then-Editor Michael Kinsley employed the likes of Barnes and Krauthammer.

"I think of us as a liberal magazine very willing to criticize Democrats," says Beinart, noting that this week's issue features a debate about whether U.S. troops should withdraw from Iraq. "Is the balance hostile to Bush? No question about it." Barnes calls the New Republic "a pretty hard-core Bush-hating magazine," but the Weekly Standard doesn't exactly open its pages to left-of-center types. "We always conceived it as a conservative magazine," Barnes says.

Some pundits, of course, do stray from the reservation now and then. Carlson and Novak opposed the Iraq war, while the New Republic supported it. Kristol called for the dumping of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Peggy Noonan, who took a leave from the Wall Street Journal to work for Bush's reelection, said his inaugural speech was overly religious and suffered from "mission inebriation."

As the battle lines harden, the admittedly flawed mainstream media are increasingly viewed as just as partisan as those who parade their opinions. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, interviewed for a New Yorker article out today, says that during the presidential campaign, Bush strategist Karl Rove "pounded on us for two cocktails' worth of conversation" about unfair coverage. At the same time, Keller told author Nicholas Lemann, "liberals perceive us, or claim to perceive us, as lapdogs of the Bush administration, instigators of the war in Iraq, sellouts to big business and panderers to red-state prejudices."

Keller says the Times needs to work harder at not caricaturing opponents of abortion, gay marriage and gun control.

Reporter Questions Reality

It was hard not to notice the question at last month's presidential news conference.

Invoking Hillary Rodham Clinton and Harry Reid, reporter Jeff Gannon said: "Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. . . . How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

Gannon writes for Talon News, a Web site whose reports also appear on another site, GOPUSA, whose self-declared mission is "Bringing the Conservative Message to America".

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan says President Bush didn't know who Gannon was and that it's "nonsense" to suggest the president was trying to get a sympathetic question. Gannon got a day pass to the White House, available to any journalist, commentator or blogger who writes for an audience. "I don't think it's the role of the press secretary to get into the business of being a media critic or picking and choosing who gets credentials," McClellan says.

Gannon, who uses a pseudonym -- he declines to reveal his real name -- sees a "double standard" in criticism from such liberal groups as Media Matters. "I am admittedly a conservative journalist, and that point of view is not represented in the briefing room at all," says Gannon, who also hosts an online radio show for the Rightalk network. Other White House reporters "come from a decidedly liberal perspective, certainly left of center. . . . Call me partisan, fine, but don't let my colleagues off the hook. They're partisan too, but they don't admit it."

There was a whopping inaccuracy in Gannon's question when he told Bush that "Harry Reid was talking about soup lines." Jim Manley, a spokesman for the Senate minority leader, calls that "outrageous" and a "lie." Gannon concedes he picked up the characterization of Reid's views from a Rush Limbaugh monologue and that Reid never referred to soup lines, but he is unapologetic about using the phrase.

Talon and GOPUSA are headed by Bobby Eberle, a Texas Republican activist, who says: "We make no bones about it: It's a partisan site." Eberle says he hired Gannon two years ago, when he was a "writer of conservative commentary," as his only Washington reporter, and that Talon deals in "facts," not editorializing.

Gannon, who was turned down for a congressional press pass, says he's been stalked and threatened by some "nuts" on the left. "I'm a pioneer," he says. "Guys on the front lines, they get shot at, and hey, I'm willing to take it."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

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