Jan 1 2007

A Note of Bias

ABC’s Mark Halperin calls for a purge of newsrooms

Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News and the main author of the widely read daily online briefing the Note, has more influence over the political tone of mainstream journalism than virtually any other individual. In his book Lapdogs, press critic Eric Boehlert called the Note “the agenda-setting morning round-up for the political class. . . . It’s impossible to overstate the behind-the-scenes influence of the Note.”

Nevertheless, when Halperin showed up to plug his new book on the show of second-string right-wing talk radio host Hugh Hewitt (10/30/06), he sounded less like a powerful media executive and more like an applicant for a job with Accuracy In Media. As Hewitt probed Halperin for signs of left-wing deviationalism, Halperin tried to establish his ideological soundness by professing his desire to purge journalism of liberals:

We need in this country strong news organizations that are not ideologically biased, that are not staffed by liberals, and that stand up to power of all sorts. . . . It is not a model that works if the organizations are either biased or perceived as biased. I want to help change that. I’ve worked throughout my career to help change it, and that means getting liberals out of the newsroom, not replacing them with conservatives, but getting people who understand the ethos of being a journalist for an organization that is powerful enough to stand up to big interests, and earn the respect of the American people.Many people I work with in ABC, and other old media organizations, are liberal on a range of issues,” Halperin declared. “And I think . . . the reality of how that affects media coverage, is outrageous, and that conservatives in this country for 40 years have felt that, and that it’s something that must change.

Despite Halperin’s embrace of the conservative party line on media, Hewitt still described Halperin as “very liberal”—on the basis of his family, the college he went to, and the fact that he works for the media—when writing up the interview for his blog (10/30/06, 10/31/06). In response, Halperin wrote to Hewitt begging him not to say such a mean thing about him:

I really enjoyed our radio talk and I appreciated the opportunity to appear with someone I respect so much. . . . As I said on the show, you and I agree on almost everything we discussed. . . . As for your repeated insistence that you could reach no other conclusion but one that says that I am “very liberal,” I’m sure if you think it over, you will reconsider.

Progressive blogger Glenn Greenwald (10/31/06) and others have commented on what Greenwald aptly characterized as “Halperin’s sad little crusade for right-wing blessings.” But equally interesting is the notion of “bias” on display here. Halperin refuses to discuss his political views, insisting that he doesn’t even vote. Anyone with identifiable views—particularly the “liberals” that he identifies as his colleagues—is apparently too “biased” to be taken seriously as a journalist.

But a point of view is not the same thing as a bias. Overwhelmingly, biologists have the point of view that organisms evolved through natural selection rather than being created in their present forms. But you can’t on that basis charge that biology is biased against creationists; it’s their weak science, not prejudice against their views, that marginalizes them in the field.

That’s not to say that believing, say, that George W. Bush is doing a good job is just like believing that the earth is 6,000 years old. But if reporters who are hired in part for their expertise on politics tend to think that he’s doing a bad job—even more than the average person, perhaps—that may be because he is doing a bad job, not because journalism as a profession is “biased.”

An actual bias is a systematic distortion of reality. As an example, take the October 23 edition of Halperin’s Note, which offered predictions about “how the (liberal) Old Media plans to cover the last two weeks of the election.” Reporters, it began, would “glowingly profile Speaker-Inevitable Nancy Pelosi, with loving mentions of her grandmotherly steel (see last night’s 60 Minutes), and fail to describe her as ‘ultra-liberal’ or ‘an extreme liberal,’ which would mirror the way Gingrich was painted twelve years ago.”

Actually, a Nexis search for “Gingrich” within six words of “ultra-conservative” or “extreme conservative” from October 25, 1994 until November 7, 1994 (the last two weeks before Election Day) turns up exactly one such identification of Newt Gingrich—in a letter to the editor in the Madison, Wisc. Capital Times (10/25/94).

So, when Halperin thinks back to the media’s coverage of Gingrich in 1994, he has a clear picture—which happens to be wrong. That’s bias, and Halperin would better serve journalism by acknowledging it, rather than appearing on right-wing talk radio to urge an ideological purge of newsrooms.