Thomas Frank to conservatives: Drop dead

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 16, 2009

The Wall Street Journal’s house liberal Thomas Frank, like many on the left, has taken a look at the media landscape and decided that the MSM has too many conservatives.

This is a terrible time for newspapers, but the solutions suggested over the last year by the deep thinkers of the floundering industry give one little hope.

Back in September, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, Andrew Alexander, lamented his paper's failure to keep up with conservative outlets after they described footage showing Acorn employees apparently advising people how to evade the law. The Post's slowness on the story, Mr. Alexander wrote, raised the possibility that the paper didn't "pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints."

Alexander’s column is here. For the record, neither Alexander or Frank appeared interested in pointing out that ACORN was advising a pimp and prostitute on how to hide the source of money gathered by prostituting out underage girls from South America. Frank describes this despicable practice as merely “evad(ing) the law” and Alexander characterized it as simply giving tax advice, albeit to a “prostitute and her pimp.”

So we see where Frank’s sympathies lie right off – prostitutes and their pimps are a protected class.

Continuing the next day on the newspaper's Web site, [link here] he decided that the blame for this unhappy situation lay with the newspaper industry's workforce, which is apparently made up of the wrong kind of people.

Imagine for a second that the story that the Post had failed to cover wasn’t the ACORN scandal but the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur. Does anyone doubt that someone like Frank would look at an overwhelmingly white newsroom and not say that the paper missed the story because it had a lack of diversity? Too many classical music buffs and not enough gangsta rap aficionados. The fact that the newspaper has a news blind spot – whether it be conservative blogs or gangsta rap – isn’t a condemnation of individual reporters and editors, but of a newsroom as a whole that fails to cover news that’s important to its readers.

According to "surveys," Mr. Alexander wrote, "newsrooms . . . are more liberal than the population." Newspapers might mean well, but they are handicapped by their monocultural politics. The obvious answer is to hire for political diversity.

Well, they hire for diversity when it’s skin deep or sexual preference, maybe they’d serve their readers better if they were as diverse as their readers are. And what’s with the scare quotes around “surveys,” does Frank honestly believe they are wrong?

Mr. Alexander's predecessor as ombudsman made the same point in 2008, and it's easy to understand why: It seems to dismiss an embarrassing failure with an uncontroversial idea. Everyone likes diversity, right? And this way no one is really to blame for botched coverage of any sort, least of all newspaper brass. Their intentions are pure, just poorly executed by their annoyingly conformist info-proles.

I’m confused now. Should the Post have covered the ACORN story at all? Is Frank conceding this was a case of botched coverage? If so, what’s his alternative solution? Alexander suggests that had the Post had a conservative in the newsroom, then it might have noticed the story sooner. Frank’s solution is to blame then newspaper brass? Info-proles? Frank blames the newspaper’s workforce just a couple of paragraphs after chiding Alexander for blaming the newspaper’s workforce.

Ordinarily, such a bad idea would not draw much concern. But it has now been repeated several times in the great organ of journalistic consensus. Clearly they mean it seriously.

Years ago, Mr. Alexander wrote, newspapers achieved racial and gender diversity, and "It's the same with ideology."

Actually, it isn't. Unlike race or gender, people choose their ideologies. What's more, they often change them as they go through life, and they sometimes find that it is to their pecuniary advantage to ditch the embarrassing political enthusiasms of their youth.

Let’s go back to the classical music/gangsta rap analogy for a second. Frank’s just fine with a newsroom full of classical music fans as long as there’s a variety of different skin colors and sexual preferences, but gangsta rap fans need not apply – no matter what their tint.

Which brings up the problem of Republicans in Name Only. Anyone setting out to appease bias-spotters on the right should know that the conservative movement feels that it is plagued by impostors and fakers, and it won't be satisfied until these RINOs, too, are chased from the newsrooms of the nation.

There are some political commentators who are periodically tagged with the RINO label, but can Frank identify one prominent news journalist (not editorial writer or features writer) who has confessed to voting for any GOP candidate in the past 30 years? I also don’t know of any bias-spotter on the right that would demand a RINO be chased from the newsroom. They’d probably want them to stop claiming the “R,” but the people who want journalists fired who don’t agree with their politics is the left, not the right.

Then, once all that is taken into account, there's the damnable problem of the bias-spotting left, like the Media Matters for America organization, which has documented the conservative tilt of the press in voluminous detail. How to deal with this? By ignoring it? Isn't that an act of bias on its own?

Ahhh, Media Matters. The media watchdog organization of the left that has exposed many self-described conservative commentators as “conservatives.” A check of Media Matters’ site Tuesday night revealed a total of one front-page story that presumed to discover right-wing bias in news coverage (the majority of the complaints is that conservative commentators say things with which they disagree). That complaint was that Fox News deigned to cover a Tea Party protest on Capitol Hill that drew hundreds of people on a Tuesday. I could find no evidence that CNN covered the protest on their Web site, but apparently ever acknowledging that conservatives exist is evidence of bias.

Besides, there's the mechanics of the job. How is the Post supposed to check up on its reporters' politics? I'm hoping for loyalty oaths and televised hearings, with stiff penalties for employees who refuse to talk or to name names: It would be the perfect spectacle for the end of the newspaper era.

How does the paper check up on a reporter’s politics? From my experience, the ones that are political will have evidence of that on their desks; look for the Obama “Hope” pictures and the Bush as chimp montages for a clue. After having sat in newsrooms for a decade and a half, it is not difficult to learn a reporter’s political leanings.

Craziest of all, though, is the prospect of the Post ditching its decades-long pursuit of the grail of objectivity . . . because it got scooped on the Acorn story. If that is all it takes to reduce the Washington Post's vaunted editorial philosophy to ashes, what is the newspaper industry planning to do to atone for its far more consequential failures?

Let me walk through this one. Newsrooms are overwhelmingly liberal, but if they hired a conservative that would be the “ditching” the pursuit
“objectivity” because liberals can be objective but conservatives can’t. I think that’s what Frank is saying … and it’s such an inane argument that I’m surprised that he stooped to trying to shovel it.

Remember, this disastrous decade saw two of them: First, the news media's failure to look critically at the Bush administration's rationale for the Iraq War; and then, the business press's failure to understand the depth of the subprime mortgage problem and to anticipate its massive consequences.

Would the solution currently on the table—hiring more Republicans and fewer Democrats—have helped the press behave differently in either situation? It's possible, of course, given the right Republicans.

But it is far more likely that it wouldn't have helped at all. To begin with, it would have been unrealistic to expect the press to scrutinize the Bush administration's claims about Iraq more vigorously had it agreed with the administration more. Even bias theorists understand that's not the way it's supposed to work.

It always comes back to Iraq. I’ve noted before that the press was as skeptical as it could’ve been about Iraq. The Bush administration honestly believed Saddam Hussein had WMDs – and so did everyone else, including the French and Russians who were opposed to the invasion. The press was supposed to believe Hussein over the intelligence agencies of the Western world? And actually only believe what Hussein said and not what he believed – because there is plenty of evidence that Hussein believed he had WMDs too.

And in the case of the subprime lending industry and its relationship to Wall Street, the public would probably have been better served by a perspective that regarded, say, predatory lending with suspicion instead of one that insisted on putting the phrase in quotation marks.

It might also have been better served by a press that was more skeptical of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Congress’s efforts to pressure banks to make loans to people with no evidence of their income and poor credit histories. It takes two to tango.

Which is another way of saying that the problem, in each of these massive failures, wasn't really ideological at all. The people who got it right, in both cases, were the ones willing to hold power accountable, to directly challenge the conventional wisdom.

And that’s why we get the AP assigning 11 fact checkers to the losing vice presidential candidate’s memoir and only two to the health care reform bill and five to the climategate scandal. Yeah, that’s really a media that’s challenging those who hold power accountable.

Not to mention the original story that prompted Frank’s little column: the ACORN scandal. Who’s holding those with power accountable? Here’s an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, has been implicated in both voter registration fraud and vote fraud and Frank appears to be suggesting that holding them accountable is a bad thing?

What the Post seems to be after is the opposite: A form of journalism that offends nobody, that comes crawling to the powerful, that mirrors the partisan breakdown of the population as a whole. If that's the future of journalism, we can be certain that ever more catastrophic failures await.

Again, Alexander was bemoaning his paper’s failure to cover a scandal that was rocking an organization that was one of President Obama’s biggest supporters, yet covering that scandal is “crawling to the powerful?” I’m sorry, but it seems that ignoring that scandal is “crawling to the powerful.”

It’s a good thing I’m out of journalism now. It’s obvious I was never good at it, because I tend to think that failing to report on a taxpayer-funded organization that gives people advice on how to run a whorehouse for underage Central American prostitutes is a “catastrophic failure.”

Frank seems to think that sweeping that “scandal” under the rug is good journalism.

Media. Wound. Self-inflicted.

One comment on “Thomas Frank to conservatives: Drop dead”

  1. As a faithful WSJ reader I try really hard to read Thomas Frank. I just don't get most of his columns. He is decidedly mediocre. I miss Al Hunt. The Journal should give up on the space until they find a liberal who can write somewhat coherently. Thomsa Frank is not that person.


[custom-twitter-feeds headertext="Hoystory On Twitter"]


December 2009



linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram