Wash. Post ombudsman Howell misrepresented former Post reporter Edsall's conclusions on media bias

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

In her column, Deborah Howell misrepresented Thomas Edsall's views on the purported liberalism of most journalists. Although Edsall asserted, as Howell reported, that "most journalists he knew were liberal" during a radio appearance, he explained in a subsequent online chat that, while many of its members are indeed liberal, the press at large is "inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right" and that the right wing's "campaign against the media ... has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right."

In her November 12 column titled "Media 'Liberalism' Under the Microscope," Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell misrepresented former Post political reporter Thomas Edsall's stated views on the purported liberalism of most journalists. While discussing recent instances of "Republicans claiming bias," Howell noted that, on the September 21 broadcast of The Hugh Hewitt Show, Edsall asserted that "most journalists he knew were liberal," in Howell's words. But Howell did not report a subsequent online chat hosted by the washingtonpost.com's own "Book World" in which Edsall explained his remarks. Edsall asserted that, while many of its members are indeed liberal, the press at large is "inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right" and that the right wing's "campaign against the media ... has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right." Howell ended her column by asking readers to "tell me if you see bias, and I will write more on this subject important to the credibility of The Post and all journalists."

In his interview on The Hugh Hewitt Show, while discussing purported bias in the media, Edsall said, "I agree that whatever you want to call it, [the] mainstream media, presents itself as unbiased, when in fact, there are built into it, many biases, and they are overwhelmingly to the left." Later during the interview, at Hewitt's prompting, Edsall estimated that the ratio of reporters who identify themselves as Democrats to those who identify themselves as Republicans is "probably in the range of 15-25:1, Democrat."

Subsequently, while discussing his book, Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive For Permanent Power (Basic Books, August 2006), during an October 10 washingtonpost.com online chat, Edsall was asked by several readers about his interview on Hewitt's program, and expanded on his earlier remarks:

The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.

In her November 12 column, which purported to address readers' concerns about a so-called liberal bias in the media, Howell wrote, "In the past six months, [reader feedback] has shifted to Republicans claiming bias. Several readers also have mentioned remarks by former Post political reporter Tom Edsall, who in September said on a conservative talk show that most journalists he knew were liberal." Howell went on to write, "Most of the reporters and editors I know well are more liberal on social issues than the general populace, and that's the leaning you can sometimes see in stories. But many of them are political centrists and can lean conservative on issues that affect their pocketbooks." But Howell made no mention of Edsall's comments on washingtonpost.com.

From Deborah Howell's November 12 Washington Post ombudsman column:

Reader R.K. "Dick" Fazzone of Potomac taunted me recently: "Deborah, every day, The Post continues to practice news journalism with a liberal political bias without comment from you, The Post's ombudsman." Okay, Dick, here I go into the lion's den.

During my first six months here, I heard more from liberal Democrats who complained that The Post was going easy on the Bush administration. In the past six months, it has shifted to Republicans claiming bias. Several readers also have mentioned remarks by former Post political reporter Tom Edsall, who in September said on a conservative talk show that most journalists he knew were liberal.

First, facts. The most recent survey (2004) from the Pew Center on People and the Press, reflecting the findings of earlier surveys, said that about 54 percent of national and 61 percent of local-level journalists described themselves as moderate. The percentage identifying themselves as liberal increased from a 1995 survey: 34 percent of national journalists and 23 percent of local ones described themselves that way, compared with 22 percent and 14 percent nine years ago. "As was the case a decade ago, journalists as a group are much less conservative [7 percent nationally, 12 percent locally] than the general public [33 percent]," the Pew Center report said.

My experience is consistent with the Pew study. Most of the reporters and editors I know well are more liberal on social issues than the general populace, and that's the leaning you can sometimes see in stories. But many of them are political centrists and can lean conservative on issues that affect their pocketbooks.

Many political reporters and their editors don't talk about their partisan beliefs. And some, including Post Executive Editor Len Downie, don't vote. Others don't vote in primaries if they have to register with a party. And, let's face it, readers don't care about the political leanings of reporters who cover the Washington Redskins.

Conservative talk-show hosts love to criticize the media as too liberal because they see everything through an ideological lens; journalists do not. The answer to the bias question is much more complicated than that.

Journalism tends to draw to its ranks those who are idealistic, who want to right society's ills and who look upon their work as a calling. They look at journalism less as a job with a business than as a calling to public service, which can put them at odds with their own business executives.

Journalists possess two traits that are more important than political beliefs. By their very nature, good journalists are skeptical. The old newsroom saying goes: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." And they challenge authority in whatever form it exists. Ask any president. I've read The Post for 16 years, and Post journalists were every bit as tough on Bill Clinton as on the Bushes before and after him.

There's an old satirical line from Mr. Dooley, the character created by American humorist Finley Peter Dunne, that newspapers "comfort th' afflicted" and "afflicts th' comfortable." There's a lot of truth in that. Journalists tend to be softhearted toward the afflicted or the underdog, which tends to make them less critical of illegal immigrants or poor people in bad straits, and more hard-nosed toward those who wield power.

But don't some pols and other powerful people get better press than others? Sure. Reporters like best the ones who talk to them (duh) and are willing to mix it up. Witness the appeal of John McCain, not a liberal, who gets a lot of positive coverage.

[...]

This ombudsman believes the real issue is not what journalists believe or how they vote, but what is in the newspaper. It's my job to be the watchdog, so you tell me if you see bias, and I will write more on this subject important to the credibility of The Post and all journalists.

From the October 10 washingtonpost.com "Book World" chat:

San Francisco, Calif: Mr. Edsall, I've been a fan since I read "The New Politics of Inequality". I agree with your answer to an earlier question that transparency is the best policy in reporting. Being human, reporters will inevitably have opinions about areas in which they've done lots of research, as you have. "Objectivity" was an honorable goal, but never realistic.

It seems to me that the builders of red-state America used the theory of objectivity in reporting to advance some of the less honest parts of their agenda. What's your take on that? Also, to what extent do you think those builders are interested in transparency with respect to their motives and their funding?

Thomas B. Edsall: The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.

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The Washington Post
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Deborah Howell
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