Political Animal


November 22, 2011 10:10 AM Reality has a well-known liberal bias

By Steve Benen

As expected, the super-committee failed. And as expected, major news organizations are dutifully telling the public that “both sides” are to blame, as must always be the case in all instances.

In an online discussion yesterday, Washington Post reporter Paul Kane was asked to justify this kind of coverage, given that “there is no factual basis for blaming both parties equally.” Kane didn’t seem pleased with the question, responding:

“I think this point is just absurd and ridiculous. This is a big thing among folks calling it ‘moral equivalence’ (Fallows, Ornstein) and others calling it the ‘cult of balance’ (Krugman).

“It’s just stupid. If you want someone to tell you that Republicans stink, read opinion pages. Read blogs. Also, the underlying sentiment on the left is that this is the real reason why things went wrong in 2010: That the mainstream media is to blame. Sorry, I think that’s the sorta head-in-sand outlook that leads to longer term problems for a movement.

“Greg [Sargent] is a fine writer. He’s an opinion writer, in the opinion section of the web site. I encourage you to keep reading him. And I encourage you to keep reading the news coverage, which should always strive to present both sides of the story. If you really don’t want to hear anything about the other side of the story, I really do encourage you to stop reading the news section.”

My point is not to pick on Kane exclusively, because I’ve seen plenty of reporters offer similarly defensive responses to the same question. Kane’s response only stands out because it happened yesterday.

Regardless, his is a rather remarkable perspective. News consumers who want to know what both sides of a fight are saying should rely on the news section. Those who want to know which arguments have merit and who’s telling the truth should go elsewhere. To criticize this media dynamic is, in Kane’s words, “just stupid.”

It should be obvious why this is misguided. I can get press releases from politicians and parties, and see what “both sides” of a fight are saying. I’d like to rely on media professionals to go further — offering context, scrutiny, and analysis that helps make sense of the arguments, giving me a sense, not only of what the arguments are, but whether the arguments are accurate.

The failure of the super-committee offers a terrific example. The objective facts are not especially elusive, and even Republican members of the panel have admitted publicly that the GOP wouldn’t compromise on taxes, which is why the committee couldn’t reach an agreement.

But reporters don’t want to say this, because to tell the public that Republicans wouldn’t accept meaningful concessions — in other words, to tell the public what actually happened — would somehow be inappropriate.

Eugene Robinson understands the problem: “No, the sun didn’t rise in the west this morning. No, Republicans on the congressional supercommittee didn’t offer meaningful concessions on raising new tax revenue. And no, ‘both sides’ are not equally responsible for the failure to compromise.”

I’m not looking for news organizations to tell me “Republicans stink”; I’m looking for news organizations to tell me the truth. If the truth happens to be, in this instance, that Republicans stink, then so be it. If there’s an objective truth, it’s not evidence of bias for reporters to tell news consumers what that truth is.

Kane would have us believe that we shouldn’t look to professional journalists to help separate fact from fiction — trained media professionals, who know full well how to help their audience understand the truth — because it’s not their job. Want the talking points? Read the newspaper story. Want the truth? Read something else.

Newspapers, as an industry, are struggling badly right now. This kind of attitude won’t help.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • c u n d gulag on November 22, 2011 10:22 AM:

    So, for what 'he said/she said,' I need to read the newspaper.
    But for an analysis of what 'he said/she said' I should turn to the Op-eds and blogs.

    Good to know.

    Hell, if all I wanted was the talking points, I could go to the RNC and DNC websites, and save myself the effort and money of buying the stupid rag.

    When the final history of the WaPo is written, it will explain that it was Fred Hiatt who put a stake in that newspapers heart.
    And kept driving it in harder and harder with almost every person he hired to write for that paper.

  • howard on November 22, 2011 10:22 AM:

    Paul kane is stupid.

  • LL on November 22, 2011 10:22 AM:

    Some of this may be old-style journalistic wrong-headedness: "we can take sides, calling one side a bunch of traitors...we can't do that, even if it's true" but I suspect there is also the matter of corporate ownership of media. If some reporter WERE to write that the GOP consisted of a bunch of traitors to the country, and then went on to prove that, the story would never see print, or screen. Because editors know which side their bread is buttered on.

  • jcricket on November 22, 2011 10:24 AM:

    I'm sure that if Kane wants to know why newspapers and news organizations are closing their doors, he'll be reading it in his own article. Just as soon as it is published.

  • SadOldVet on November 22, 2011 10:25 AM:

    Shorter version...

    If you want the truth, don't bother reading the WaPost!

  • r on November 22, 2011 10:26 AM:

    Just ask them:

    If there was one party committed to undermining the economy and protecting the rich at all costs, how would the country be any different than it is right now?

  • R on November 22, 2011 10:28 AM:

    This morning on NPR, there was a report on potential cuts in defense spending. Did anyone else get the feeling that, except for a sentence or two, the "two sides" we heard were extreme right and center right? It's not just a focus on "both sides," facts be damned -- it's a decision to completely silence anyone to the left of Ben Nelson.

  • RollaMO on November 22, 2011 10:29 AM:

    It's not the first time he's gotten bitchy on this subject. His defensiveness must spring from some underlying recognition of the truth of the allegation.

  • burro on November 22, 2011 10:29 AM:

    The useless "reporters" should be glad we just have two parties. Otherwise they'd have to tell every story from 3 or 4 or however many sides it would take to provide "balance".
    Then they would get confused and write stuff that didn't make any sense.

  • T2 on November 22, 2011 10:30 AM:

    I wonder if the owners of the Corporations controlling the print and broadcast media are liberal or conservative. If they are conservative, that would explain a lot, huh?

  • low-tech cyclist on November 22, 2011 10:30 AM:

    Let's see now: to get each side's opinions, read the news section. But accurately describing what is going on, that’s opinion writing.

    Commenter Seonachan at Balloon Juice aptly said, "call it the Driveway/Parkway theorem of the corporate media."

  • Rich2506 on November 22, 2011 10:30 AM:

    Back when news bureaus were deciding whether or not to follow Sarah Palin's bus around (She wouldn't give them her itinerary, so they had to guess where her bus was driving to), I suggested that they could still do so, but with the equivalent to Jimmy Olsen's Newsboy Legion, i.e., get a small group of cub reporters with basic cameras and recorders in an ordinary sedan to follow Palin around. No need to use anything bulky or that's carrying any fancy equipment. Looks to me like the same problem/solution applies here.

  • Danp on November 22, 2011 10:36 AM:

    Journalists also have to decide which facts to report. Readers don't want to read 10 page articles on a daily basis, and accept a certain level of shallowness to their daily intake of news. But reporting on polls rather than educating readers about the issues is not good journalism. I frequently test friends who consider themselves high volume news comsumers, and consistently they can't answer questions like, what is a derivative?; how many towers collapsed at the WTC on 9/11; who is the head of state in Iraq; how many votes does it take to pass a bill through the Senate; name a country with relatively low tax and spend policies similar to what Republicans want (If anyone asks you this one, Russia would be a pretty good answer.)

  • DAY on November 22, 2011 10:38 AM:

    Picking up on T2's comment, it is always a good idea to "follow the money" when you are seeking the truth.
    As the Latins used to say, "Cui bono" (To whose benefit?). But they probably stole it from the Grecians. . .

  • Elizabelle on November 22, 2011 10:46 AM:

    Let's keep an eye on what other journalists (and "journalists") say about this one. Kane's answer has got to have hit a nerve with them.

    Be interesting if we hear of any whingeing to James Fallows and other journalism critics.

    Mr. Benen: maybe you could take Kane's answer as a plug for your excellent blog. Much easier to find a coherent and factual overview here than in the pages of the formerly good Washington Post. Stop looking there. Mr. Kane recommends you do so.

  • smedley on November 22, 2011 10:52 AM:

    Lost in this discussion is the issue of the "fake" $250 Billion Toomey offer. Where did the $250B come from? Was it scored by CBO? This needs to be examined because the Rs will claim that it was a legitimate offer, while it was, in fact, BS.

    As reported, the offer was to remove mortgage interest as an itemized deduction in exchange for lowering the top tax rate from 35% to 28%. The assertion that this would raise $250 billion over ten years is ridiculous.

  • James on November 22, 2011 10:56 AM:

    Mr. Kane suffers from the unfortunate combination of personality traits that are all too prevalent among political journalists: vanity, insecurity, and just-barely-above-average intelligence. It's difficult swimming in a competitive environment like Washington political journalism, trying to stay "in" and "seem" smart while avoiding your harsh GOP media monitors and the overwhelming conservative bias of your upper echelon betters. Liberals are nothing to worry about in that environment. There is no downside in the beltway for annoying liberals.

  • CDW on November 22, 2011 10:57 AM:

    Who exactly is saying that the D's 2010 train wreck was the media's fault? Maybe the Ds in congress and/or maybe the Obama administration. But I think most of the electorate knows exactly where the blame belongs and that is with the democratic party leadership. And the more they fiddle around with massive deficit reduction that falls on the backs of seniors and the middle class, the more likely the next disaster will be a tsunami.

  • Bruce K on November 22, 2011 11:00 AM:

    Steve, you're mostly right, with one minor exception. You say: "I’m not looking for news organizations to tell me “Republicans stink”; I’m looking for news organizations to tell me the truth. If the truth happens to be, in this instance, that Republicans stink, then so be it."

    No, I'm never looking for the news section to say Repubs stink; that's still opinion (allowing for syntax exaggeration ). I AM, however, looking for journalists to say that the Republicans' refusal to agree to any tax increases made a deal impossible. Some (Club for Growth) may find that a good thing, so maybe Repubs don't stink. Leave the opinion about the true facts out, but yes, give me the true facts.

  • Jon on November 22, 2011 11:04 AM:

    To say that the GOP does not want to compromise on taxes and thus doomed negotiations is not to say they "stink." It's merely a fact. Perhaps that refusal is admirable to some. That's supposed to be the reader's decision, not Kane's.

    It appears that Kane, and much of the media, so hugely fear making value judgments, that they assiduously avoid reporting facts they feel might come anywhere close to even implying a possible value judgment. And they don't do this even-handedly; they are considerably more afraid of implying a negative judgment of conservatives than they are of doing the same to liberals.

    Now that's what I call "just stupid." And cowardly, as well. No wonder he's in such a snit; deep down he knows he's got no leg to stand on. Methinks he protests too much.

  • jlt on November 22, 2011 11:12 AM:

    The reaction from Kane shows how desperate the right wing bias is to blame both sides...His controlled outrage is humourous to the degree he castigates others...and telling!

    When members of Congress honor a pledge over their Oath of office...you know what is to blame...the signatories to the pledge not the author! Though grover does blackmail them with threats of primaries at his Wednesday morning breakfasts!

    They signed it ..they own it!

  • meldoc on November 22, 2011 11:14 AM:

    Only a fool believes one should tell "both sides of a story." Any typical story contains twenty-seven sides or maybe three thousand and or, simply, one. Seldom does it have the classic "two." Unfortunately, shallow thinkers, and writers, fall back on trite phrases about "both sides," which permits them, and forces them to stop thinking.

  • Special One on November 22, 2011 11:22 AM:

    "Understanding is a three-edged sword; Your side, their side, and the truth."

    - Kosh Naranek

  • Captain Obvious on November 22, 2011 11:32 AM:

    Who What When Where ... But today's media typically ignores the WHY. and therefore does a half-assed job.

  • Quaker in a Basement on November 22, 2011 11:38 AM:

    But Steeeeeve. If we tell the truth we might lose aaaacesss!

  • zandru on November 22, 2011 11:43 AM:

    "Kane would have us believe that we shouldn’t look to professional journalists to help separate fact from fiction — trained media professionals, who know full well how to help their audience understand the truth — because it’s not their job."

    I've been hearing this argument more and more from media professionals (I can't bear to refer to them as "reporters"), including the NPR omsbud last year. That folks need to just go out and do their own research to check out the claims made by quoted parties in the news. That people need to fact-check any assertions made in news stories ("stories" - that really evokes a sense of fiction, doesn't it?)

    A complete abrogation of what people still assume news is, in other words. But only the media folks are aware that the meaning of "news" has changed - the rest of us, particularly the "most likely voters" - believe that if it's reported as news, it's factually correct.

    Thus, the Foxification of the United States.

  • Butch on November 22, 2011 11:44 AM:

    Looks like CDW swallowed the Republican spin hook, line, and stinker.

  • MuddyLee on November 22, 2011 11:48 AM:

    Steve explains why I go to washingtonmonthly.com frequently and to the Wash-Post infrequently. I want the truth - I want reality - I don't want "both sides are equally to blame" when that type of analysis has no basis in reality. This has become a problem on NPR too - they are so afraid of repubs-conservatives that they have forgotten about reporting the truth - and frankly, I am sick of hearing so many Weekly Standard guys on NPR/PRI programs. They should ALWAYS be required to say "and now from the mag that brought you the Iraq Invasion and Sarah Palin for VP, here is bozo-face from the Weekly Standard..."

  • Rich on November 22, 2011 12:49 PM:

    Kane's byline has turned up on any number of articles that obviously had their roots in some GOP Hill staffer's call to Kane's phone. Given the paper's non-coverage of issues as opposed to talking points and polling, he's in no position to bloviate about balance.

  • howard on November 22, 2011 1:01 PM:

    btw, anyone who'd care to email the stupid paul kane directly and share your thoughts can do so on an email form that can be found here:


    i just enjoyed the past 5 minutes writing to him myself, and i suggest each and every person posting here do the same.

  • howard on November 22, 2011 1:12 PM:

    following up on my 1:01, it gets better!

    here's what i wrote to paul kane:

    i don't normally send emails to people i've never met accusing them of stupidity, but i'm prepared to make an exception in this case, since paul kane accused me (and millions of other intelligent, sentient americans) of being "stupid."

    would you like to know what's stupid?

    stupid is saying that each story has two sides and they are both of equal merit.

    stupid is saying that your choices are to print press releases or to say that the gop stinks (you could simply have told the truth: the gop is uninterested in compromise if compromise means a tax increase on upper-income americans).

    stupid is saying that news reporters have no obligation to speak the truth, simply to type what people tell them, and if we want to know what the truth is, we should ask an editorial writer.

    stupid is an editor allowing this kind of moronic approach to the news to continue.

    stupid is a publisher for allowing the washington post to destroy its reputation (i, for example, will never, ever, ever spend a penny on the wapo in any way, shape, or form).

    stupid is accusing people who actually know the truth of the supercommittee of being the "stupid" ones.

    stupid, in short, is you.

    and here's his answer:

    None of this is what I said, but nonetheless, thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

    i've written back asking him to explain what it was that he didn't write that i claimed he wrote, and i copied for him exactly what he wrote.

    we'll see if he bothers to respond again.

    as i say: email the bum!

  • TCinLA on November 22, 2011 1:58 PM:

    Newspapers, as an industry, are struggling badly right now.

    Good riddance to bad rubbish when they go. Most of them aren't even good litter box liner. Putting morons like Kane back in the pool of otherwise-unemployables where they belong will be a good thing. Had this idiot been there 40 years ago, Nixon would have been declared President for Eternity.

  • Anonymous on November 22, 2011 2:05 PM:

    Great post Zandru and Howard etal, think Mr. Kane needs more input. I've not read it but plan to do so and will email him also. With all the paragraphs in these stories, it should not be asking to much to give the actual facts. I have yet to read an article about this committee that factually states the Republican's offer would actually raise the deficit which seems pertinent to me since, unless I'm mistaken, the reason for it's existence was to lower the deficit over the next ten years.

  • Mike on November 22, 2011 3:08 PM:

    Sorry, but I'm going to agree with Mr. Kane on this one. The "media" needn't be "blaming" anyone.

    And, quite frankly, I haven't heard any news outlet that isn't opinion-oriented blame both sides. I've heard them quote committee members and others who have blamed the "other side," but the news itself hasn't blamed anyone. Nor should it. The question of who's to blame is not up to the news, it is up to the news consumer.

    The fact, as you state it, is that Republicans wouldn't compromise on taxes. The fact that you don't mention is that Democrats wouldn't compromise on taxes, either. Republicans would not endorse an agreement with higher taxes, Democrats would not endorse an agreement without higher taxes. Given those facts, one could easily argue that since both sides refused to compromise, both sides are to blame.

    Now, don't get me wrong. I agree with you that Republicans were much less flexible and that is why the committee did not come up with an agreement. And I appreciate you saying so. However, you are an opinion writer. For a news outlet to make the same kind of statement would be inappropriate. If fact, it would be down-right Fox News-like.

    Mr. Kane's point is that it is the job of news organizations to report on what happened, period. I believe that they did so. To take it any farther is not their job.

  • Daryl McCullough on November 22, 2011 3:40 PM:

    Steve writes: "I’m not looking for news organizations to tell me “Republicans stink”; I’m looking for news organizations to tell me the truth."

    Make up your mind.

  • MCA1 on November 22, 2011 4:21 PM:

    @Mike - there are different levels of describing "what happened." What Kane seems to be endorsing is a play-by-play only version of reporting what happened. What most of us here would rather have is context added to the play-by-play. Is it so hard for the media to note the background to this supercommittee idiocy (the debt ceiling discussions of this summer) in a story about its failure? Would it hurt a journalist to lay out the ideal position of both sides and then describe where they were willing to land? Why would it be prohibited to describe where Republicans were just prior to these meetings and noting that they'd actually moved further to their right during them? There is a metastory here that has plenty of actual evidence behind it: the Republican Party is significantly more obstructionist, and significantly more extremist in its negotiating stands than Democrats are.

    Also, this: "The fact that you didn't mention is that Democrats wouldn't compromise on taxes, either...Democrats would not endorse an agreement without higher taxes." Are you serious? Democrats have compromised on what they want re: taxes over, and over, and over again the last 6 months. It's like a daily exercise for them. To not set their actions on the committee in that context is incredibly disingenuous. For a newspaper to not do so constitutes terrible journalism. Objective fact from the negotiations: Democrats were willing to compromise on Medicare and Social Security (!), two of their most sacred cows. When one has done so, one is generally accorded the freedom to make demands on the other side. That is not equal to "not compromising" re: taxes. Republicans wouldn't give one f'ing penny in tax reform. It takes great mental gymnastics to "argue that since both sides refused to compromise, both sides are to blame." One side pre-compromised on nearly everything and then compromised some more, and the other retrenched and went the other way. How does that lead to "both sides are to blame?"

  • Shea on November 22, 2011 4:27 PM:

    isn't benen guilty of just as bad a journalistic evil? he puts words in kane's mouth. "Kane would have us believe that we shouldn’t look to professional journalists to help separate fact from fiction." he would? from where in those vague quotes the article presented did benen get that?

    luckily, this is not a journalistic enterprise. it's a blog.

  • Bonnie on November 22, 2011 5:49 PM:

    With any luck Atrios will make this guy Wanker of the Day.

    I don't think the captcha letters I needed to copy to get this through were English or any symbols that I am familiar with. Is that on purpose?

  • howard on November 22, 2011 5:52 PM:

    shea, give me a frickin' break. what kane says is that it is the job of the news section to tell you "both sides of the story."

    he did not say the job of the news section is to tell you reality, because he doesn't think it is. he thinks that's an opinion.

    this passes for professionalism among journalists, and as someone upthread said earlier, in particular this passes for professionalism among the status-anxious less-smart-than-they-think-they-are mainstream political journalist class.

    but yes, kane made it perfectly clear that it's the job of reporters to report "both sides" of the story, not the facts of the story. opinions on shape of earth differ, indeed.

  • Shirley Jones-Pringle on November 23, 2011 12:56 AM:

    Wrong, the Super Committee was formed to NEGOTIATE a meaningful way to solve our spending problems, & one way still is to tax the wealthiest in our nation. Ask Warren Buffet. And, if we were to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1-2% of this nation, then REPUBS would not be trying to get the rest of the 99% in this nation to consider cutting spending on EVERY MEANINGFUL SOCIAL PROGRAM such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Soc. Sec., in order to put some order back into our fiscal arena. And that is exactly WHAT REPUBS want to do. And, that's why they REFUSED TO NEGOTIATE (To quote Speaker Boehner's famous one-liner), and THAT is why the Super Committee failed. Not because both sides refused to negotiate. Repubs have said time-and-time again they would NOT budge on tax increases, and that they would not negotiate, AND THAT IS BECAUSE THEY ARE IN THE TOP PERCENTILE AND WOULD BE HURTING THEMSELVES AND THEIR BUDDIES. Next time you vote, don't vote in the wealthiest 1-2% to run this country! The Bush Era, with all its many tax breaks did not leave us better off, it left us in the worst economic state ever, & that is what the wealthiest want to continue so they won't have to PAY IT BACK OR PAY IT FORWARD. It is a no-brainer, the Super Committee was doomed for failure because it had people on it who refused to consider any alternative other that WHAT THEY WANTED, which is to NOT HAVE TO PAY MORE TAXESm regardless of whether it brings the country down or not. They have forgotten that you don't get "something for nothing" and if this country fails, it will be their fault, not the 99% who were reasonable, who work for a living, or tried too before a HUGE portion of American jobs went overseas. Want to save money, stop spending HUGE amounts of money supporting a War that should never have been started to begin with! Thank God the 99% are speaking out & letting it be known that things must & will change, or there will be chaos in our streets! Americans must continue to find & use their voice & demand a stop to blind acceptance of the powerful wealthy elite of this nation from continuing the destructive path they've been on since the last Administration gave our country away! We are on a treacherous path, it must change, OR we will not be able to stop the dire consequences of continued failure to act appropriately & according to our present needs TODAY! Take heed all who oppose change, for change is coming. The wealthiest in our nation best know it & adopt a right & ethical philosophy toward returning this country to its once grand stature. Failure to do so is NOT an option. Failure to negotiate is NOT an option. Those who wave this banner of elitism will be replaced, sooner than later, so now is the time to correct errors in judgment & action.