In political journalism, complaints from ideologically driven readers come
with the territory, as Post reporter Dana Milbank learned during his four
years as a White House correspondent. Partisans from both ends of the
political spectrum found his work wanting: A conservative magazine put him
on its cover as "Dana Bias' Milbank." A liberal Web site made him its
"Media Whore of the Week." There's an old adage in journalism that if both
sides attack you, then you must be doing something right. But in a piece
for Sunday Outlook, Milbank suggests that the
growing volume and vitriol of these accusations of bias are part of a new
and dangerous development that threaens the standing and credibility of the
traditonal media. In our increasingly fragmented world, he says, liberals
and conservatives have split into parallel universes, in which the
inhabitants act as they are not just entitled to their own opinions, but to
their own facts.
Milbank was online on Monday, March 21 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his article, My Bias for Mainstream News.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Good morning. When I started out in journalism 15 years ago with the Wall Street Journal, I learned that if you want to get a sack of mail, write a story about a puppy. These days, if you want to get the equivalent pile of emails, the rule is to write something about the media.
Thanks for the hundreds of emails on the subject. A scan of them -- I'll do my best to respond to as many as possible later -- indicates about a third of them are agreeing with the argument, a third are conservatives disagreeing, and the other third is a mixture of liberal disagreement and agreement on non-ideological grounds.
I received many thoughtful conservative objections to the story, although the main argument seemed to by trying to refute some point that I never made: that the press isn't biased. Indeed, I approvingly quoted Ari Fleischer saying the press is biased to the left, only that this isn't the overriding bias. My favorite objection was a one line email saying "Mr Milbank; Does a fish know that it is wet?"
Less favorite was the one that said: "the truth of the matter is that the main stream media has an INCREDIBLE left-wing bias. And those who can't (or won't) see it are simply blind or incredibly [f-word here] stupid."
Liberal objections centered around the notion of "false equivalence" -- that my examples of left-wing lunacies were less egregious than the right-wing lunacies.
And I am grateful to the self-proclaimed conservative: "If the political or social culture does not cherish facts over fiction, then the two will inevitably conflate, and civilized discourse will come to an end."
Amen. Ok, fire away.
Seeing that you're a former writer for the New Republic, isn't your attempt to label yourself "objective" as questionable as someone from The Weekly Standard or The National Review labeling themselves "objective?"
Aha. So I am a liberal because I worked for the New Republic? Then the same goes for Fred Barnes, Andrew Sullivan and Charles Krauthammer? Famous liberals, those.
But the real point is that I wasn't labeling myself "objective" -- that's an impossible and undesirable standard. I was asserting that you need to come to the mainstream press to get a full presentation of facts.
Incidentally, I think the response to the piece underscored the importance of the mainstream media: If Rush Limbaugh had given such a commentary, liberals wouldn't have heard it. If Salon wrote about it, conservatives wouldn't have read it. The Post has run it, and many people will disagree with it, but the important thing is here we all are discussing it, people of all ideologies.
Mr. Milbank --
Being criticized by the wacko MediaWhores Web site does not automatically mean that you're an unbiased centrist. You came from the generally liberal New Republic magazine and before that the generally liberal Wall Street Journal news pages (Al Hunt, Alan Murray). According to surveys, most national news reporters are pro-abortion, pro-homosexual agenda and vote for Democratic presidential candidates. Your own newspaper has not endorsed a Republican for president since Eisenhower. Would you, with all your power and influence, at least tell us who you vote for?
Ok, we dealt with TNR already. I see you make a distinction between the Wall Street Journal's fiercely conservative editorial page and its news pages, but you make no distinction between the Post editorial page's presidential endorsements and its news pages, which make no such endorsements.
The Post's executive editor, Len Downie, doesn't even vote so that he needn't take sides politically, even in his own mind. I don't go that far. I have voted in five presidential elections, twice for a Democrat and thrice for a Republican. I am registered as an independent. While covering national politics for the last couple of elections, I have done write-in votes, choosing the ideal candidate rather than one of those on the ballot. Some might say this is throwing away my vote, but I live in DC, so my vote doesn't make much difference.
Mr. Milbank, I think you're an excellent reporter, and I largely agree with your piece; but there is a bit of on-the-one-handism in it that is a problem for me. When you say, for instance, "Those on the right are so practiced at citing liberal media bias that they've assigned it an abbreviation: LMB. Left-wingers, meanwhile, complain about a timid, corporate media that helped Bush get reelected and led the nation to war in Iraq," there is implied equivalence between the actions of right and the left.
In fact, the right has been complaining loudly and indiscriminately about LMB for years, whereas the left has only been complaining about it in the past few, and largely, I think, as a result of the media's failure on the Iraq war and the WMD, etc. Which is to say that from my (admittedly partisan) point of view, the left's complaints seem largely valid, while the right's seem at best merely habitual and at worse insidiously strategic.
Do you really see the equivalence you're implying here?
Dana Milbank: This is the false equivalence argument I mentioned at the top. I think it's true that the anti-media forces on the right are more developed than on the left.
The differences are probably best explained by who's in power now. The GOP controls both the Congress and the White House, so the press, playing its natural adversarial role, appears to be biased in favor of the left. When Clinton was in power and we were hammering away at his scandals, there was much more complaint from the left about media bias.
In reality, we're universally skeptical.
You stated in your Sunday editorial that attacks from right and left-wing blogs "help to explain why 45 percent of Americans now say they can believe little or nothing of what they read in the papers." Don't you think the real reason so many Americans -- myself included -- feel that way is because in the last two years so many major media resources (i.e. USA Today, New York Times) have been busted flat-out lying to the American public? Add to this the increased use by this adminstration of VNRs/pre-packaged news. Thoughts?
No doubt we haven't done ourselves any favors, and you didn't even mention the Rather case. I'm sure some of the credibility wounds are self inflicted.
I didn't play up that element of the story because I think it's something we in journalism do every day: attacking ourselves. We're all media critics now, and more outlets are hiring ombudsmen, whose job is to amplify reader complaints. I liken the job of our ombudsman to GM running ads in which its executives say that GM cars aren't safe.
Mainstream media has a reflex belief that the "other" side must be presented in order to be fair and this leads to ridiculous conclusions. There's a perfect example of this in your own article. You note that roughly 2/3 of Bush voters believe the "WMD" and the "ties to al Qaeda" reasons for going to war. But these have been proven objectively false. You then apparently feel compelled to say that the left does this too by using two preposterous examples. You cite "the idea that Bush knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks" and that "he was fed information during a debate."
The key differences? Neither of these things has been proven to be objectively untrue. Much more importantly, particularly in the 9/11 example, no sizable percentage of the left actually believe in them. Do you think that more than say 2 percent of the left think Bush knew in advance about 9/11?
I do believe both sides put out slanted information but I want the media to plow through it and report the truth, not always report on "both" sides as if there is always an equal counterargument.
Dana Milbank: Let's for now leave aside the question of the % on each side that believe a falsehood. I think the examples cited are actually quite similar.
The idea that Bush knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks and the mysterious lump between his shoulder blades are both in the category of Iraq's WMDs and its ties to al Qaeda. We may yet learn that Bush knew about the terrorist plot before 9/11, just as we may yet find huge stockpiles of weapons in Iraq. But based on everything we know now, both claims are wrong.
Bravo on at least minimally acknowledging what most of your colleagues do not: that reporters are not neutral and without prejudice and that it's folly to think that any human can turn off their own experiences, biases, and presuppositions about life in such a way that they can ever be truly neutral (do we even want that? I wouldn't want reporters being neutral about plagiarism or faking sources). But again, I think you, along with much of your profession, continue to miss the point. People are not primarily upset by what they see as bias in the news -- they're upset by the denials of bias by much of the press corps because it's a dangerously naive denial of human nature. This is simply dishonesty and/or ignorance that has been mainstreamed in journalism circles in the last 50 years, and I think most of the country inherently understands that THIS is the reason why the press is out of touch, because they're living in their own fantasy land that denies the influence their presuppositions have on the job they do, the kinds of questions they ask, the kind of stories they pursue, etc. What the press needs more than anything else is enough open-mindedness to have a serious discussion about this without getting defensive or going after the "watchdog groups" that are attempting to hold them accountable. Such transparency has been seriously lacking, and I sensed the same reticence in your article. Much of the press could profit greatly from reading Polanyi, but I'm not holding my breath.
Such erudition forced me to consult my source of all knowledge, Google, which informs me that Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, lived from 1891 to 1976. I'll start reading him, as soon as I answer all those emails.
Do you think the events of 9/11 are what has so grieviously altered the political and media landscape? There was a period after that when it seemed there was a moratorium on reporting anything critical of the administration (which may be why there weren't more probling questions asked in the leadup to the Iraq war) and attempting to restore any sort of even-handed balance hasn't been easy.
9/11 was actually a brief pause in the polarization, which has been happening for two or three decades. It long ago split institutions such as Congress, and the same is now happening to the press.
As a generally conservative person who LIKES to read different viewpoints, I am finding it increasingly difficult to find liberal sites that are not simply hysterical 'Bush is Satan'. Slate is a prime example, where a couple years ago it was reasonable. Is there anyway to get everyone to tone it down?
If only we could get everybody to take a deep breath and tone it down.
Just as Clinton seemed to anger many conservatives so much that they lost their senses, Bush seems to be doing the same thing now to previously sane people on the left.
And I'm not directing any of this at Slate, which is now a sister publication in the Washington Post family.
Author Dr. Michael Chrichton has predicted that we in the near future see product liability lawsuits for inaccurate information, much the way we see the product liability for other consumer products now. Given the Janet Cooke, Peter Arnett, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Dan Rather scandals, does this concern you?
Dana Milbank: I'll have to direct you to my attorney.
Ann Arbor, Mich.:
Maybe the problem isn't that the "alternative" media are biased, maybe the problem lies with the citizens of this country. They don't seem to be interested in truth, facts, or science. They want reality to conform to their prejudices which is why they don't like mainstream media. Any thoughts?
Dana Milbank: I certainly hope you're wrong, because we're truly in big trouble if that's the case.
It is normal, though, for people to wish to avoid cognitive dissonance -- being presented with information that contradicts what you believe to be true. So it is more comfortable to seek out media that confirm what we already believed to be true.
Look at the Schiavo case to see why the press has lost respect. Have I seen one report from reputable neurologists or a discussion on the fact that the woman's cerebral cortex is liquid? Isn't that a fact that should be reported? Then shouldn't respected doctors be asked to reply? How about the law that Bush passed in Texas that gave hospitals the right to pull the plug over a family's objection for cost and the hopelessness of the case? The press has stopped doing their homework and that is why no one trusts them. If every aspect of the story was explored and explained and if I felt that the writer really knew what they were reporting they would have more credibility.
Look at global warming. The consensus of the most distinguished scientists is that it is real. Yet the press makes it seem that the other side carries the same weight. If 99 percent of the scientists believe one thing why is the lone opinion on the other side given the same stature in reporting? The press has been the one that has allowed facts to be subjective by trying to keep from being attacked and because they no longer want to put the time and resources into investigating a story thoroughly and coming to some objective truth.
Couple of questions on the Schiavo case this morning. I'm no scientist and I haven't yet written about the issue, but it seems that this would indeed be a good time for the press to uphold its truth-seeking role.
Tom DeLay has said that Schiavo is talking. You point out that her cerebral cortex is liquid. I'm just guessing here, but I bet those two can't both be true.
I'm confident my colleagues are on the case.
Just for grins, "based on everything we know now," what's your explanation for "the mysterious lump between his shoulder blades?" My guess is it was body armor, which the White House didn't want to admit because that might make Bush appear cowardly.
Glad you asked. As it happens, a colleague at the Post talked with the tailor who made the suit. He said that is normal for these suits, and put on a jacket and showed how the bulge appeared when he moved his arms to a certain position. Now, I'm not sure why the tailor would want to admit this design flaw, but the ability to duplicate said bulge in a laboratory environment seems pretty convincing.
There is a flaw in the "both sides complain so it must be unbiased" defense that I see bandied about so much. Watch the next NCAA tourney game, both coaches will be yelling at the refs. Does this mean that the refs are doing a good job? No, it means that both coaches believe if they yell at the refs then they will get more favorable calls.
True. I don't believe that if both sides say you're wrong then you're necessarily doing a good job. I put those two examples at the top of my story to show the passions on the left and right, both absolutely certain that they know exactly the political views of the author.
I have found you to be fair, and I sometimes think people overreact to questions more as a reaction to news they don't wish to hear. Yet, isn't it fair to state there is a general, overall bias in that the press reflects our society. For instance, we do not seem to question or be as concerned about the number of civilian deaths in Iraq because it is not direct news affecting our lives. My point is: if we focused more on the overall perspective of what is happening in news, such as how the war in Iraq affects people in Iraq, we would see the news in a far different perspective from how we see it as Americans. In fact, one thing I give a lot of credit to the Washington Post is you are one of the few newspapers that has journalists reporting on just this type of focus, so in a way, because you broaden our focus, others may claim you are biased because you no longer represent only the view as seen within America. Maybe we get caught up in semantics, but broadening the perspective of readers is a good thing, and criticizing it as bias is only a reaction to having one's centric view challenged.
Dana Milbank: Thanks, mom. Glad you got the email account up and running.
San Antonio, Tex.:
"We're all media critics now, and more outlets are hiring ombudsmen, whose job is to amplify reader complaints. I liken the job of our ombudsman to GM running ads in which its executives say that GM cars aren't safe."
What kinds of critical self-analyses goes on at the Washington Post? Who're involved and how frequently?
We have a circular firing squad every day at noon. In fact, I've got to wrap up now so I don't miss today's shootout. I hear the ombudsman may be there.
Thanks for the questions.