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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Goldilocks Journalists

by digby

Greenwald took Mike Allen downtown yesterday for his absurd granting of anonymity to a former Bush administration official to blast Barack Obama. This one is so obvious that it ended up garnering a rather petulant public response from Allen, typical of the political press being oh so upset an being caught doing shoddy journalism.

But Allen's whine was nothing compared to the sniffling Dana Milbank, complaining mightily that his ombudsman told him to read the comments but they are all written by icky partisans who don't have a lick of sense.

He is very confused on one point. It seems he can't figure out why "the left" is so mad since they've got it all:

The comments are naturally an unscientific indicator, but the impression I got is consistent with what I've heard from colleagues: The vitriol of last year's presidential campaign has outlasted the election. For the right, this isn't terribly surprising; their guys lost the White House in 2008 and control of both chambers of Congress in 2006, so lashing out in frustration is to be expected. The left, however, is more difficult to explain. It made sense for them to be angry when George W. Bush was in the White House. But now, even under Obama, the anger on the left is, if anything, more personal and vitriolic than on the right.

A reader in an online chat brought this to my attention a couple of months ago, noting the animosity in the comments following a column. "Did you torture their cats and grandmothers? Most of the truly unhinged comments appear to come from Democrats, who apparently think you're Cindy McCain in reverse drag."

I replied that, to keep my blood pressure under control, I don't read the comments, and that I did, in fact, torture their cats.

Well, last week I read the comments. On April 10, I wrote a column about an Obama appearance urging Americans to refinance their mortgages -- a fairly gentle piece pointing out that the president sounded like a LendingTree.com pitchman. The comments compared me to Bernard Goldberg and Glenn Beck. One complained that "I gave Bush and the Republicans a pass."

Actually, a National Review column called me "the most anti-Bush reporter" in the White House press corps, but never mind that. "Uh oh, Milbank," wrote commenter "farfalle44." "Now the Obamabots have labeled you an Obama hater -- watch out!"

Far be it for me to defend angry, vitriolic commenters. I have certainly had my share and it's true that the commenters on the major media sites seem to be particularly turbo-charged. I suspect it's because many of them are not particularly sophisticated political observers who are still in love with internet's anonymity so they can say mean things with impunity. (Most blog readers are long past that point.)

However. It doesn't seem to occur to Milbank that "the left" might just not like the snotty, juvenile, shallow kind of journalism he practices, no matter who is in office. If they're mad at his reporting whether it's Bush or Obama, does it not occur to him that it might be him and not them?

I'm sure there are plenty of lefties in the comments who are jackasses. The right does not have a monopoly on such people. But the media critiques of the left and the right are substantially different. The right thinks the media is filled with liberal operatives pushing the Democratic agenda. The left thinks the media is filled with insular, shallow and out of touch stenographers. If it makes Milbank and his friends think the anger at the media stems from the last election it's just more proof that the left's critique is correct.

Also, if you didn't get a chance to read Jay Rosen's latest on "he said/she said" journalism, don't miss it. The affect on our discourse of this po-mo approach to very serious scientific controversies is severe. But I would just add that one of the important problems with the he said/she said in political coverage is that journalists commonly use the absence of official pushback as an excuse not to investigate important stories. When questioned as to why they didn't follow up, reporters will often say "well, the Democrats/Republicans weren't pushing it" as if the only framework within which they can possibly report political events is the partisan divide.

The he said/she said convention is extremely limiting and has caused a great deal of trouble over the past couple of decades as the Republicans developed their sophisticated noise machine and were able to create phony controversies and successful defensive actions while the Democrats desperately (and foolishly) worked to erase any partisan edge. For a long time this gave a tremendous advantage to the GOP and it's only the abject failure of their policies and the culmination of years of abuse of the political system that's brought them low. If the political press had been more professional and independent it would not have had to come to this point.