NPR recently ran a two-part series on media bias. The reports, by David Folkenflik, were quite good, with a couple major flaws. Folkenflik ignored the question of who gets hired by the major media and why. Isn’t it time to do a nuts-and-bolts investigation of who gets brought on to the Washington Post, New York Times, CBS, et al, and who does not? Answering that question may answer why the media has lost its capacity to report fairly, not to mention delight, compel, and surprise — characteristics that, idiotic pronouncements about “objectivity” aside, are part of what makes good journalism.
In his report, Folkenflik compared American papers to British ones. The British papers are proudly partisan and don‘t hide it; one editor went so far as to say the partisanship affects how stories are reported — who gets quoted, what gets left out. According to Folkenflik, “Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger argued that British papers give more room than their American counterparts to voices that challenge conventional wisdom. ‘I think it’s quite a striking thing about the British press that you get this polemical battle over the basis for what news is, which I feel is to a large extent missing in the American scene,’ Rusbridger says. ‘No judgments are free of ideologies, so who you choose to quote and how you structure stories are highly political judgments. I think that’s the problem with trying to place too much faith in something called objectivity.’”
“Who you choose to quote and how you structure your stories.” That’s an honest and revealing sentence. Anyone who has ever been interviewed by a journalist knows that most of them distort facts to fit their biases. But I would even go deeper. Most of them simply ignore stories long before getting to the point where they want to trash someone.
Let me offer a personal example. I realize that in doing so I could be accused of simply resenting the fact that a book I wrote was not covered in the Washington Post. That would be a fair charge, but 1) I agree with the Brits that there’s no such thing as objectivity (there is, however, honor and fairness), and 2) my own hang-ups don’t make my point any less valid.
In 2005, two books were published with the word “Prep” in the title. The first was Curtis Sittenfeld’s prep school novel “Prep.” The second was my memoir “God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling.” Two books with “Prep” in the title, published six months apart in the same year. Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel got a review in the Washington Post, and the author a bio in the coveted Style section of the paper. This is as it should be: Sittenfeld had won the “Seventeen” magazine fiction writing contest and was teaching writing in Washington. Moreover, “Prep” is about the cannibalism of upper-class mean girls, which is always good copy.
When “God and Man at Georgetown Prep” was released a few months after “Prep,” the Post was silent. The book is my account of how liberalism almost drove a famous Catholic high school in Washington, D.C. off the rails in the 1980s. I have deep roots in Washington, going back to when my grandfather was drafted to come to the city and play baseball for the Washington Senators in 1915. My brother won the Helen Hayes Award for the best actor in Washington, and my dad worked for National Geographic. More, “God and Man” was a man-bites-dog story. Unlike the countless adolescent memoirs that criticize Catholic education from the left — the ones that get covered in the media — mine was a critique from the right. And my implicit warning that the corrupting liberalism causing problems at Prep could result in serious damage was validated, as I described in this piece in The Daily Caller.
Of course, people will say that the Post ignored my book — not to mention my latest one, A Tremor of Bliss — because they are liberals. And that would be true. But Folkenflik did not take it to the next step. How did that happen? He quotes Len Downie from the Washington Post pontificating about absolute objectivity: “I believe The Washington Post does make clear where we’re coming from,” says Leonard Downie, the Post‘s former executive editor. “Where we’re coming from, in our news reporting, is no partisanship or ideology of any kind. Our reporting speaks for itself. It is not coming from a point of view.”
So Len, why did the Post cover “Prep” but not “Prep”? As Count Basie once said, the notes you do not play are as important as the ones you do. And getting to the heart of why things are left out means analyzing who gets hired by the media. Years ago I was an intern at the Washington City Paper, a liberal hipster weekly, and I quickly learned that the paper was a farm team for the Post. Writers routinely went from the City Paper to the Post — or the New Yorker or the New York Times. Writers at the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, or National Review were never called up to the show (they would of course go to the conservative media, which makes no claim to objectivity and in its own way can be as boring as the liberal media).
It’s been interesting to see how the people I knew back then are now well-known media people: Kate Boo, an editor, went to the New Yorker. Liza Mundy, another editor, went to the Post. Jack Shafer, the editor of the City Paper when I was there, is at Slate — which is owned by the Washington Post. (Shafer is Slate’s media critic, but he didn’t write about the Journolist scandal; Slate’s response was to hire Dave Weigel, the reporter who hates the conservatives he covers.) One of Shafer’s replacements, David Carr, is at the New York Times. Carr’s replacement, Erik Wemple, was hired by Allbritton Communications, the Washington company that owns Politico and several television stations, to run TBD, a new website. After receiving hundreds if not thousands of applications, Wemple basically moved the staff of the City Paper to TBD. There are now basically two City Paper websites covering Washington. (Reading the tweets from some of these people is like seeing notes being passed among the high school in-crowd; there’s a reason insider Washington journalists were compared to a boy band.)
I wouldn’t mind this as much if only these guys would occasionally stretch out into unpredictable territory. One of the pivotal moments in my career as a journalist was when I read “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” the 1970 article by Hunter Thompson that is believed to be the first example of gonzo journalism, the method of mixing reporting with fantasy, humor, and strange yet compelling digressions. People worship Thompson, but they often fail to see that Thompson was a brutally honest and, yes, deeply honorable man, and that this clear moral pulse is what made his work extraordinary.
In his piece on the Kentucky Derby, Thompson set out to find the perfect face for a cartoon by artist Ralph Steadman: “[Steadman] had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.”
This is the kind of thing that has been aped by countless journalists, from Matt Taibbi to Ana Marie Cox. The formula is: mock the opposition, add some liberal self-righteousness, a tablespoon of snark, and a dash of Holden Caulfield. Next stop: Rolling Stone. But most of these people don’t remember how Thompson ends the piece. After a weekend of booze, drugs, and minor crimes, he finds the face of American decadence: “I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him — a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God — a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for — and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible…”
I remember reading this for the first time and almost crying out in delight. In his gonzo “fiction,” Thomson had tapped into a deeper truth. There is, indeed, a bit of the American retard in all of us. In one stroke Thomson claimed his independence, putting the drug-addled countercultural hippy, who in Thompson’s circles was considered untouchable, right next to the most degenerate and drunken redneck at the Kentucky Derby. It was a masterstroke, the sign of a writer of deep humor, empathy, and integrity. Can you imagine Ana Marie Cox doing something like that?
Indeed, who out there could not write Cox’s dispatch about the upcoming CPAC conservative conference even before she does? Hey, these people are religious freaks! Now I’ll make a dick joke! I mean, the thing’s already been written. But at least she’ll show up. Night after night Chris Matthews vents about the Tea Party; but Matthews, who lives in Washington, never felt compelled to spend $5.00 on subway fare to go to a Tea Party rally in D.C. and actually meet the people he’s screaming about.
When Len Downie of the Washington Post told NPR’s David Folkenflik that the Post was all about objectivity, Folkenflik should have stopped him right there. OK, Mr. Downie, he should have said, can I have a list of all the reporters at the Washington Post? I’d like to do some research on who they are and where they came from. I’ll also be eliciting stories from people who did not get jobs at the Post, and ask why. Then I will see if this affected coverage. Instead, Folkenflik just bought it.
As for me, I’m with the Brits. There is no objectivity. But there is honor, decency, hard work, and honesty. Readers will judge you on all of that. And if I had a few minutes with Downie — or with David Carr or with Slate or with TBD — I would ask a simple question. A few years ago I met a young woman named Dawn Eden. Eden was an award-winning journalist who for many years specialized in covering rock and roll. Then she had a conversion experience and became Catholic. After writing award-winning headlines for the New York Post and penning liner notes for over 80 albums, she wrote a book about chastity, moved to Washington and is now studying to be a professor of theology at the Dominican House of Studies.
Why is Dawn Eden not interesting enough to write about? Or hire as a columnist?
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.