Those Civil, Non-Partisan Democrats

In today’s Washington Post, media critic Howard Kurtz headlined “a new Harvard study [which] says the conservative editorial pages are more intensely partisan, and far less willing to criticize a Republican administration than the liberal pages are to take on a Democratic administration.”
The “Harvard study” was done by Michael Tomasky, about whom more later. Tomasky compared editorials in two liberal newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, with editorials in two conservative newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. Tomasky subjectively categorized editorials in the four newspapers on 10 issues arising during the Clinton and Bush administrations that he deemed “roughly comparable.” The ten issues included five “policy” issues for each administration and five “process” issues for each administration. Tomasky’s paper is here (PDF format).
Kurtz’s summary of Tomasky’s findings is accurate; Tomasky claims that the liberal papers are more independent than the conservative papers, hew less strictly to the “party line,” and are more prone to criticize a President of their own party. In addition, Tomasky claims that the liberal papers are objective and measured in tone, reflecting the best traditions of journalism, while the conservative editorials are strident and partisan: “There is further the matter of tone. The conservative papers used harsher, sometimes far harsher, language toward Clinton….The New York Times and the Washington Post, if anything, more often take care to maintain a modulated tone when writing about Republicans, avoiding the personal and the ad hominem.”
Tomasky’s prime example of the harsh tone of conservative commentary is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal published shortly after Clinton took office; Tomasky quotes the Journal as follows: “The Clinton Administration had barely unpacked its bags when the Wall Street Journal referred to administration figures as ‘pod people from a Star Trek episode…genetically bred to inhabit the public sector.’ That sort of language does not appear on the liberal pages.”
Well. Let’s take these conclusions one at a time. First, what about the ten “roughly comparable” issues that form the backbone of Tomasky’s paper? Are they really comparable? If you look at the appendix that follows the paper, one fact immediately jumps out. While Tomasky goes through the motions of identifying ten “comparable” issues, in reality, there is one “policy” issue and one “process” issue that account for the bulk of the editorials.
On “policy” issues, a total of 239 editorials were analyzed. But of the 239, more than half related to the purportedly “comparable” issues of President Clinton’s 1993 “stimulus” plan, and President Bush’s 2001 tax cut. Moreover, all of the purported objectivity of the liberal papers came from their ambivalence about the 1993 “stimulus” package. But the comparison between the two policy initiatives is ridiculous. Bush’s 2001 tax cut was a major policy initiative and represented his principal pre-September 11 achievement. On the tax cut, the papers split down party lines: The Journal and the Washington Times wrote 27 positive editorials and three “mixed” editorials about the tax cut, while the Post and the New York Times wrote zero favorable editorials, one mixed editorial and 22 negative editorials.
Clinton’s 1993 stimulus package, in contrast, was trivial. It consisted of $15 billion worth of highway construction and summer jobs, and $15 billion worth of business tax credits. Here is where the liberal press showed its ambivalence, with 22 positive editorials and 21 negative. Someone with more patience than I have can go back and compute how many of those negative editorials criticized the package for not going far enough. I’ll bet it was most if not all of them.
Similarly, Tomasky goes through the motions of comparing editorials on five allegedly similar “process” issues. But here again, there is a single pair of “process” issues that account for 153 of the 271 editorials surveyed–well over half. And again, this pair of issues accounts for virtually all of the purported ambivalence of the Washington Post and the New York Times toward the Clinton administration. What is this “roughly comparable” pair of issues? The papers’ treatment of the first year in office of Janet Reno and John Ashcroft. But wait! Janet Reno’s first year included the Waco fiasco, which accounts for the Times’ and the Post’s relative lack of enthusiasm about her performance.
So this alleged “Harvard study” really demonstrates exactly two things: The New York Times and the Washington Post were only mildly enthusiastic about Clinton’s meaningless 1993 stimulus package, and they couldn’t help noting that Janet Reno’s handling of the Waco massacre was a disaster. On such a slender reed is the claim of magisterial objectivity in the liberal press erected.
Oh, one more thing. How about the question of tone? The suggestion that liberal papers avoid ad hominem attacks will come as a shock to those who have witnessed the vitriolic assaults on President Bush over the past year. But let’s stay with Tomasky’s chief example: the Wall Street Journal “pod” quote. Here is the Journal’s quote in full (we conservatives have learned to be suspicious of ellipses):
“The Clintonites, like pod people from a ‘Star Trek’ adventure, have peeled off the thin layer of centrist rhetoric that they wore for the presidential campaign. We now learn that they are people genetically bred to inhabit the public sector. Their oxygen source is the moisture of taxes, which are emitted by the aliens in the private sector.”
Now, this extended metaphor may or may not be considered amusing. But by contemporary standards, to suggest that it represents a gutter-dwelling partisanship to which a liberal newspaper would never descend is preposterous. Fairer to classify it as a relic of an earlier, less poisonous time.
And what of Mr. Tomasky himself? If we are to give any credence to his paper, we must have confidence in his selection of “comparable” issues and his subjective classification of “positive,” “negative” and “mixed” editorials. Who, exactly, is this advocate of objective journalism, shorn of ad hominem attacks and strong language?
Well, for starters he is a columnist for the left-wing American Prospect magazine. Here is one of his recent columns, titled: “Prevaricating President: Why Democrats Need to Seize on Bush’s WMD Lies.” Here are just a few samples of Mr. Tomasky’s non-partisan, ad hominen-free journalism:
“We’re living in times that I don’t even know how to describe….Under most normal circumstances…the Iraq War would have been a scandal. There are many reasons historically why war for a democracy should be a last resort….But when you bullied your way into office in obvious contravention of the will of the people, what difference does all that hoo-ha make?…And while Bush was in this serene state, he and his servants were out on the hustings selling the American people a story about an imminent threat that did not exist in order to gin up public support for sending young Americans off to risk death.”
So says our arbiter of what constitutes fair and balanced news coverage.
Liberals who publish “studies” rely on the fact that virtually no one will ever read them. Liberal newspapers–that is, all major papers except the Washington Times and the editorial section (only) of the Wall Street Journal–will dutifully report the alleged results without questioning whether there are any data to support them. And so, who can deny that liberal papers are objective and measured while conservative papers are shrill and partisan? That’s what a “Harvard study” has concluded. Just ask Howard Kurtz.

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