Monday, November 17, 2008

WANTED: Conservative Photographers

Last week, Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell admitted her newspaper tilted toward Obama. Published five days after the election, I thought it too little, too late. But Howell apparently believes in better late than never, because she critiqued her paper again on Sunday:
Thousands of conservatives and even some moderates have complained during my more than three-year term that The Post is too liberal; many have stopped subscribing, including more than 900 in the past four weeks.

It pains me to see lost subscribers and revenue, especially when newspapers are shrinking. Conservative complaints can be wrong: The mainstream media were not to blame for John McCain's loss; Barack Obama's more effective campaign and the financial crisis were.

But some of the conservatives' complaints about a liberal tilt are valid. Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I'll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don't even want to be quoted by name in a memo. . .

Yet opinion was still weighted toward Obama. It's not hard to see why conservatives feel disrespected.

Are there ways to tackle this? More conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two. The first is not easy: Editors hire not on the basis of beliefs but on talent in reporting, photography and editing, and hiring is at a standstill because of the economy. But newspapers have hired more minorities and women, so it can be done. . .

One more factor will kick in soon. After Obama is inaugurated, he will be the authority the news media challenge. It happens in every administration.
My thoughts:
  1. Job Description: A news ombudsman:
    receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports.
    If recommendations on remedies come only after-the-fact--in this case post-election--the Ombudsman becomes merely a press flack for the press. In the case of Ms. Howell, late might as well be never.

    Moreover, though Howell's column names some of the Post's most biased columnists, she blandly suggests slant could be cured by "more rigorous editing." That's weak, especially since whoever edited those pieces was incapable of spotting bias before, making it unlikely they would recognize it in the future. Although Instapundit's "media, heal thyself" was irony, does anyone really think the press can identify, much less cure, lefty bias? Especially because newspapers across the country are eliminating the Ombudsman position.

    Of course news Ombudsman can't themselves sanction biased reporters or reorganize the editorial staff. But Howell doesn't even try. Why didn't she recommend demanding more objectivity from the biased reporters/columnists/editors, putting them on notice at peril of continued employment? Or suggest adding a new hierarchy of editors specifically to inspect the partiality of biased Post authors?

  2. Remedy: Howell's preferred remedy is hiring more conservatives. Yet she despairs:
    Editors hire not on the basis of beliefs but on talent in reporting, photography and editing, and hiring is at a standstill because of the economy. But newspapers have hired more minorities and women, so it can be done.
    I suspect the Post's sole response will be to advertise for a conservative photographer. Big deal--especially if they keep the current liberal caption writers. And I'm not sure they know any conservatives, meaning that--even if they sought a right-of-center picture taker--they'd probably wind up with Jill Greenberg. Or these guys.

  3. Admission: The most revealing aspect of Howell's recommendation is that she assumes that only conservatives can write, or edit, conservatively. That suggests in turn that she believes liberals write and edit with a liberal slant.1 Missing from this picture is the myth of media objectivity. I think the demand for impartiality died long ago.2 Apparently, the Washington Post's Ombudsman agrees. Can we hold a funeral for impartiality, accept that the press doesn't fact-check liberal notions, and--because it treats Republicans differently from Democrats--is no more post-partisan than Obama? Which means, of course, never allowing progressives to rest their case by saying "our source was the New York Times."

  4. Rationale for skew: Howell minimizes the bias by suggesting that unbalanced anti-Republican reportage merely reflect anti-authority attitudes in the newsroom. I agree that today's reporters are anti-authority, a trait forged by Vietnam and Watergate. Yet Howell fails to recognize that when reporters challenge liberal politicians and left-of-center Administrations, it's mostly for being not lefty enough.
Conclusion: The Post's Ombudsman gets some points for confirming that the era of objective media is over. But Howell's claim that bias reflects only a useful anti-authoritarianism is undermined by her own column: she didn't challenge the authority most relevant to the Ombudsman--the Washington Post itself.

Deborah Howell has been in journalism more than 40 years. But as Ernest Hemingway said: "If you stay in newspapers long enough, you’ll only see words."

Oh well: at least one more photographer will have a job.

1 Hilariously, MSNBC's Keith Olberman claims to preserve his objectivity by not voting.

2 There is one exception: Leftists insist on objectivity from Fox News, and waive any objection to capital punishment.


OBloodyHell said...

Nice piece, Carl.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The part I found interesting was Howell's claim that Obama will now be the authority figure that newspeople challenge. Having seen that in action with their defenses of Bill Clinton and the non-challenges to Reid and Pelosi, I consider that unlikely. The exception, as you noted, is when they report heavily on all the critics who complain when they aren't lefty enough.

Carl said...




Agreed--and the free pass the media gives Harry Reid is a signature example of press bias.