Sunday, March 20, 2005

Milbank Bemoans MSM's Undeserved Decline

Dana Milbank, writing today in the Washington Post's Outlook section, discusses his bias - in favor of mainstream media. "My Bias for Mainstream Media" is, taken as a whole, an attempted defense of the MSM and an admonition to not let it die on the vine. Now before you snort too loudly, bear this in mind: it is an opinion piece.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but if one wants theirs taken seriously, it had better hold up to more than a casual read. This opinion has got so many holes in it, it's hard to know where to start unless you want to do a line-by-line fisking. I haven't got that much time, so let's just hit the highlights. My first head-shake of the article was where Milbank relates that he's received e-mails from people accusing him of being a conservative lapdog. I have no idea where someone would get such an idea. Milbank's writing has been so consistently anti-Bush and - shall we say? - unsympathetic to conservative viewpoints that it defies rational explanation to consider him right-wing. I know we've got some folks who are way out in left field, but that far out in left field?

Right on cue, he then starts quoting from the University of Maryland survey taken a couple of weeks before the 2004 elections which showed that 72% of Bush supporters believed that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD before the invasion began. It also found that 75% of them believed (his words, now) "that Iraq either gave al Qaeda "substantial support" or was directly involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks." These views, he flatly states, are just plain wrong, as the Duefler report and the 9/11 commission showed. Sorry, Mr. Milbank, but that's painting with way too wide a brush. First, everyone believed Saddam had WMD stockpiles before the invasion. Our intel services, the UK's, France's, Russia's, Australia's, etc., etc., etc. We know he had them in his arsenal prior to the invasion because he'd used them. All the intel pointed to his still having them just prior to the invasion. The intel was wrong, we now know. But I certainly believed he had them, based on the intel that was available, and clearly so did a lot of other folks whose job it is to analyze that intel. The implication that the fact the intel turned out to be wrong is sufficient to invalidate the thinking before you knew the intel was wrong is ridiculous. Monday-morning quarterbacking at its best.

As for the 9/11 commission, what it actually said was that there was no evidence of collaboration between Saddam and Al Qaeda as regards the 9/11 attacks. That's all the commission had to say on the subject. There's quite a bit of evidence that Iraq was providing substantial support to Al Qaeda and to other terrorist organizations and the 9/11 commission suggested just that. However, those topics were outside the commission's scope and were not part of its report. Milbank's statement that the commission "found no collaborative relationship" between the two is incorrect in that it is overbroad and that's an example of exactly the kind of statement that's so common in the MSM and so commonly derided by the blogosphere.

Milbank mentioned the poll's director, Steven Kull, saying that "media fragmentation" is largely responsible. Turning away from the hallowed mainstream media and listening to that devil-of-the-airwaves, talk radio, and reading conservative blogs is what's warping people's minds. Milbank jumps right up here and says he's not picking on Bush supporters. (Yeeeaaaaahhh, riiiiight.) He points up to some of the left's "fantasies" such as that Bush knew about 9/11 before it happened and had a hidden radio strapped to his back in the first Presidential debate so he could be coached in his answers. (Damn that Karl Rove, anyway.) That's a subtle little piece of argumentational prestidigitation. There was never, in any circles whatsoever, any bit of evidence that Bush knew about 9/11 in advance. None. There was similarly no evidence that Bush was being coached in the first debate. Again, none. They are baseless hallucinations. By mentioning them here, right after making the comment about the poll's results, he accords these fairy tales the same level of believability as the positions that Saddam had WMD before the invasion and that Iraq provided support to terror groups. There's no comparison between the two, yet he engages in an exercise of equivalence just the same. This is yet another example what people are fed up with the MSM over. He clearly doesn't get that, either.

And you've just gotta love that reference in the middle of his opinion that left-wingers are complaining that the media helped Bush get re-elected. What media outlets were those people watching? You have a major media outlet who engages in fraudulent reporting and uses forged documents prominently in an anti-Bush expose, then stonewalls for 12 days over the legitimacy of those documents, and that's helping the Pres? Or the relentlessly negative coverage - 3-to-1 negative compared to the President's opponent? That is supposed to be helping Bush get re-elected? But, again, there's a reason for Milbank mentioning this. It counters the comment that right-wingers have been able to document hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples of media bias. By pairing these two events, he paints them as equivalents, two sides of the same coin. Combined, he says, they help to explain why "45 percent of Americans now say they can believe little or nothing of what they read in the papers, compared to just 16 percent two decades ago."

I would suggest that the reason 45% of Americans now view newpapers as untrustworthy is because the last 2 years have shown Americans that journalists can't report the facts. The unending negative reports on the President, the economy, the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq followed up with the realization that all of these things aren't as bad as is being reported would lead one to have less trust. The press played up the allegations regarding the President's Guard service and, when they couldn't find anything to prove their points, they jumped on the forgeries as evidence. Sloppy. They got burned. Couldn't trust them to get their facts straight. They said the economy was crashing and jobs were being forever lost. Didn't happen. Afghanistan was a quagmire that would kill tens of thousands of our soldiers and would never result in a democracy there in any case. Didn't and did, respectively. (The media so wanted their view to be proven that they couldn't bear to cover the inauguration of the first democratically-elected President in Afghanistan's history. If that's not news....) When that didn't pan out in Afghanistan, they moved the quagmire label to Iraq and made the very same claims of the Iraqis. They were incapable of handling a modern democracy. 30 January proved that one wrong but talking heads on the TV and editors in the paper just kept moving the goalposts.

I suggest that 45% of Americans can sense when they're being lied to, or when someone's hiding parts of the story and that is why they don't believe what they read.

Oh, but Milbank's not saying that there's no bias. No, no - perish the thought. It's just that the bias is against whoever's in power, not simply against conservatives. For support, he quotes none other than Ari Fleischer saying, "Many Republicans, especially conservatives, believe the press are liberals who oppose Republicans and Republican ideas. I think there's an element of truth to that, but it is complicated, secondary, and often nuanced. More important, the press's first and most pressing bias is in favor of conflict and fighting . . . No one can claim with a straight face that the White House press corps were easy on former President Bill Clinton." No one I know is seriously saying they were, although a comment that they were easier on Clinton than on Bush could certainly find support. I would hasten to point out that no major media outlet ever used manufactured documentation to report on President Clinton, and most assuredly not less than 60 days before his re-election bid. They also wouldn't have dreamt of deciding, en masse, to ignore a well-documented assertion that Clinton's opponent in the election had lied, repeatedly, about his past performances. Or that said opponent had met, on more than 1 occasion, with enemy governments in a time of war, in clear violation of the law. Yet those things are precisely what the media did in 2004. Let's see: run negative and damaging stories against the conservative, even if you have to use documents you have to ignore expert analysis on to use; hide stories damaging to the liberal. Sounds like a bias to me. I guess it sounds like one to 45% of my fellow Americans, too.

Now, Milbank's basic assertion here is actually one I agree with: it's a good thing to have a media where journalists report and where the resources to reach a mass audience are available. However, that assumes that you have a media reporting the facts as the facts. Milbank claims that the erosion of trust in the MSM is a result of... well, frankly he says it's a result of people not trusting the MSM. He cites the exit polls in the 2004 election and makes the claim, unbelievably in my view, that the blame for the polls being so out of whack belongs to conservatives who declined to participate. (You knew conservatives were at fault for this whole thing, didn't you?) It's all part of the cycle, he says, where conservatives started listening to that damn Rush Limbaugh, watching that damn Sean Hannity, and reading those horrible conservative blogs and were such sheep that they started not trusting the MSM's word on things. Then they go and screw up the polls so they could just reinforce their delusions that the MSM can't be trusted.

Nice hunch. Of course, one must ask why they started looking for alternatives in the first place. And none of this hypothesizing on his part addresses the Rathergate/Memogate/Easongate issues where the media made blatant statements of "fact" that were shown to be either utter fabrications (Eason's allegations of our military hunting down and eliminating journalists) or a blind rush to publish a damaging story without proper fact-checking (Dan Rather, call on line 1).

The fact is that people don't trust what they read because there are concrete examples of the media in the past 2 years attempting to fly lies and fabrications past them as if they were facts. Do that often enough, and the public develops a distrust of anything the media says. Milbank's opinion piece tries to pawn off the responsibility for that onto alternative media and, ultimately, the public. Well, the conservative public, anyway. He posits the question whether liberals or conservatives would really wish the absence of a media that "calls into questions the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's weapons and ties to al Qaeda? Would conservatives really favor the absence of a press that brought the Clinton scandals to light?" (Actually, wasn't it conservative blogger Matt Drudge who broke the story on the Clinton scandals?) It's a rhetorical question, but I'll answer it anyway: no, of course we don't want the press to disappear. What we want is for the press to report. Plain and simple, we want the media to tell us, to their honest best of ability, what has happened, not what they think it means. Editorials are a different matter, but news reporting needs to be reporting of the facts. Is that going to shine an unpleasant light on some conservatives? You betcha. Liberals, too. That's fine. That's more than fine. Hey, I'm a conservative and I support Bush but if there's something going on in the halls of government where the administration is breaking the law, we want to know about it. Is the social security plan being described to all of us in detail or is something being purposely left out? Is the Supreme Court using foreign law to justify changes to our Constitution by judicial fiat? (Oh, they are? More on that one later.) These are important stories that the American people need to know about but they need to know the facts, not the facts as Dana Milbank wants to portray them. Report those facts and let the public do their analysis. This is the crucial point that Milbank seems to miss. Until he and his colleagues get it, they're never going to earn back the trust they've squandered.