When The Media Found Congressional Experts Interesting

If ever a more shining example of an inherent problem plaguing the media today exists, this is it. Just three weeks ago, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two well-respected, centrist political commentators with records of accomplishment going back decades, charged in a Washington Post op-ed that the Republican Party is to blame for our “dysfunctional” Congress -- just days before the release of their book detailing this thesis, It's Even Worse Than It Looks.

But “the most quoted men in Washington” can't even get a booking on the opinion-setting Sunday morning talk shows, as Washingtonpost.com blogger Greg Sargent explained. Media Matters' own research reveals that while journalists writing for the top five national U.S. newspapers have frequently quoted Mann or Ornstein in news articles in the past, the duo is entirely absent from these pages since they publicized their latest observation about the state of Congress.

Such a thesis would seem “likely to generate widespread discussion,” opined Steve Benen on Maddowblog recently. “Where's the debate?” he asked. That's a great question, and its examination reveals a structural problem with the way that journalists typically report the news.

A cursory review of Nexis transcripts for cable and broadcast news (which includes: all shows for CNN; only primetime programming for MSNBC and Fox News; and the morning, evening, and weekend broadcasts of network news) reveals a single interview of Ornstein on the May 2 edition of MSNBC's The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell.

MSNBC's Hardball twice mentioned the book or the op-ed (once in passing during an interview with former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele on May 2 and once as the lead-in for an interview with Democratic Representative Barney Frank from Massachusetts on May 3). CNN's Erin Burnett Outfront also briefly mentioned the op-ed on April 30 in a single question at the end of a discussion with Democratic strategist James Carville and David Frum, former economic speechwriter for former President George W. Bush.

Broadcast news -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- have not mentioned Mann or Ornstein or their thesis at all.

In contrast, in the months following the publication of their 2006 book, The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (in which Mann and Ornstein are critical of both Democrats and Republicans), cable news hosted and quoted the pair frequently over a range of topics.

CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight hosted Mann and Ornstein together on two separate occasions to talk about the ideas in the book. The network's Saturday Morning News, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, and In the Money booked Ornstein as a guest. They asked him about legislation that would bring transparency to government spending, the 2006 midterm elections, and campaign finance reform.

Hardball twice hosted Ornstein to talk about the use of subpoenas in the government's investigation of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, the impact of the first female Speaker of the House, the politics of a divided government, and The Broken Branch, among other topics.

Two programs quoted Mann discussing Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's potential appointment of Jane Harman to chair the House Intelligence Committee: CNN's The Situation Room and CNN Newsroom. And ABC's Good Morning America quoted Ornstein talking about political attacks in the 2006 midterm elections.

So what happened? Aside from a single interview on The Last Word, why haven't we seen Mann or Ornstein on cable or broadcast news to discuss their latest book? Why haven't any news stories quoted their expertise on the range of issues that dominate headlines today, especially as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up? Remember that, as Benen noted in his post:

Mann and Ornstein aren't just two random political scientists with a provocative op-ed. Mann and Ornstein enjoy almost unparalleled credibility with the Beltway establishment and are generally accepted as centrist observers, not ideologues or partisan bomb-throwers. For years, these two have been quoted constantly as objective experts.

The answer here again lies with Mann and Ornstein.

In that Washingtonpost.com blog lamenting the lack of Mann and Ornstein on the Sunday shows, Sargent wrote:

Their thesis takes on the media for falling into a false equivalence mindset and maintaining the pretense that both sides are equally to blame. Yet despite the frequent self-obsession of the media, even that angle has failed to generate any interest. What's more, some reporters have privately indicated their frustration with their editorial overlords' apparent deafness to this idea.

“The piece focused on press culpability -- it would be hard to find a more sensitive issue for the media than the question of whether they're doing their job,” Ornstein said. “We got tons of emails from some of the biggest reporters in the business, saying, 'We've raised this in the newsroom, and editors just brush it aside.'”

In an interview during the April 30 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition, Mann expressed this point succinctly:

STEVE INSKEEP [Morning Edition anchor]: Thomas Mann, you've written a paragraph here in which you assign blame for who is most responsible for this [dysfunctional Congress]. And I wonder if I can get you to read this passage to me.

THOMAS MANN: [Reading] However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

INSKEEP: That's pretty brutal, gentlemen.

MANN: We're not exactly neutral or balanced, are we? That's perhaps the central message of our book: That is norms operate in your business, in our business, press, nonpartisan groups of all sorts -- we have to be even-handed. We have to be fair-minded. That does a great disservice to the reality, and it feeds a public belief that they're all corrupt, they're all ineffective, the system is what's at work. It disarms the electorate in a democracy when you really need an ideological outlier to be reined in by an active, informed public.

Jay Rosen, journalism professor for New York University, has explained the problem as “he said, she said journalism,” where a story presents two opposing claims without assessing the truth of the dispute when a factual check is entirely possible. Recent examples persist: Look no further than this Wall Street Journal article as an example of such false balance between two points of view regarding President Barack Obama's birth certificate, which gives equal footing to the factually incorrect position that the president is not a natural-born U.S. citizen.

Mann is leveling a scathing critique of the press: That news media have given the Republicans a pass simply to avoid appearing biased, which has the result of doing “a great disservice to the reality” that one political party is more culpable than the other. To extend the observation to this story: Is the media passing on Mann and Ornstein to likewise avoid appearing biased?


Tim Graham, director of media analysis of the conservative Media Researcher Center, is miffed at the lack of inclusion of PBS in this post. Graham is correct that Mann and Ornstein together appeared on the May 3 edition of PBS' NewsHour to talk about It's Even Worse Than It Looks; however, Mann, Ornstein, or both appeared five times on PBS in the months after the publication of The Broken Branch (four of which make mention of that book).

Typically, Media Matters reports focus on the three big broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and cable news (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) because it is here that we most commonly find conservative misinformation taking root and spreading throughout the media landscape.

Also keep in mind that the cursory review of Nexis here in this post for the period after the publication of The Broken Branch only references transcripts that also make mention of that book. In total, 68 transcripts mention Mann or Ornstein in the months after The Broken Branch was published. In contrast, only four transcripts mention Mann or Ornstein following the publication of It's Even Worse Than It Looks.