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My Bias for Mainstream News

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page B01

To judge from the e-mails I received during the four years I spent on the White House beat, Post readers of all political ideologies agree: I am biased.

But in which direction?

_____Outlook Live_____
Dana Milbank will be online Monday, March 21, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss this article.

A conservative magazine put me on its cover as "Dana 'Bias' Milbank." A liberal Web site made me its "Media Whore of the Week," and a posting on a liberal blog proposed "Whore" as my middle name. (I've decided to combine the "Bias" and "Whore" suggestions and make my middle name, simply, "Bore.")

In political journalism, complaints from ideologically driven readers come with the territory; sometimes I've gotten dueling complaints that I have betrayed my conservative and liberal biases in the same story. But I think the growing volume and the vitriol of the bias accusations are part of a new -- and dangerous -- development.

Partisans on the left and right have formed cottage industries devoted to discrediting what they dismissively call the "mainstream media" -- the networks, daily newspapers and newsmagazines. Their goal: to steer readers and viewers toward ideologically driven outlets that will confirm their own views and protect them from disagreeable facts. In an increasingly fragmented media world, ideologues have already devolved into parallel universes, in which liberals and conservatives can select talk radio hosts, cable news pundits and blogs that share their prejudices.

You could dismiss my view as an admittedly self-serving claim coming from one of the dinosaurs of a dying media oligopoly. But the consequences are ominous for the country as well as for newspapers. Consider a poll two weeks before the 2004 election by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes: The survey found that 72 percent of President Bush's supporters believed that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or at least major illegal weapons programs. It also found that 75 percent of Bush voters believed that Iraq either gave al Qaeda "substantial support" or was directly involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Further, majorities of Bush supporters believed that U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer and the 9/11 commission backed them up on these points.

It's fine to argue about the merits of the Iraq war, but these views are just plain wrong. Duelfer did not find weapons or active programs to make them; the 9/11 commission found no "collaborative relationship" between al Qaeda and Iraq.

The poll's director, Steven Kull, argues that media fragmentation is at least in part to blame for these misperceptions. If the only "news" you get is from talk radio and conservative blogs, you could be forgiven for continuing to believe that Saddam Hussein was tight with al Qaeda and that Iraq really did have the banned weapons.

This is not to pick on Bush followers. Many on the left harbor their own fantasies that they consider fact -- about how Bush knew of 9/11 in advance, or how he was coached during one of the presidential debates via a transmitter between his shoulder blades.

Two decades ago, the late senator-scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Now, ideologues are claiming their own facts as well.

According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the proportion of people regularly reading newspapers has fallen to 42 percent from 58 percent in a decade, while viewership of network evening news has fallen to 34 percent from 60 percent. And with that decline comes a loss of the mainstream media's role as referee, helping to sort out fact from fiction in the nation's affairs.

"Today, a host of new forms of communication offer a way for newsmakers to reach the public," the Project for Excellence in Journalism observed in its annual report last week. "Journalism is a shrinking part of a growing world of media. And since journalists are trained to be skeptics and aspire at least, in the famous phrase, to speak truth to power, journalism is the one source those who want to manipulate the public are most prone to denounce."

In place of the traditional press, outlets once seen as alternative have become a new mainstream media. Conservatives tune in to Rush Limbaugh (20 million weekly listeners) or Sean Hannity (12 million), and log on to the Drudge Report (claiming near 10 million visits a day). Liberals opt for the late-night commentary of Jon Stewart, Web sites such as Salon and Daily Kos, and Michael Moore's films. Those on either side can scan the Google news headlines and click on those that fit their worldview.

These partisans are determined to see a connection between the declining audiences of traditional outlets and the pervasive accusations of bias. An ad for "Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media," a 2004 book by L. Brent Bozell III, says "the liberal media's audience will continue to defect to the emerging alternative news outlets -- outlets more in tune with their perspective on the world."

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