“Simple” Partisan Bias At The Washington Post

[Thanks to POWERLINE for the "pick"]

There they go again. Once again, by placing the responsibility for the impending government shutdown squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, the major media have demonstrated that they do not understand how the partisan bias of their reporters — sometimes implicit and unwitting, sometimes not — distorts their reporting of “simple” facts. Here, for example, is the lede of Lori Montgomery’s and David Farenthold lead article in the Washington Post this morning:

The U.S. government appeared on Sunday to be on the verge of shutting down for the first time in nearly two decades as House leaders were running out of time and options to keep it open.

Why is it only House leaders, i.e., Republicans, who are “running out of time and options”? In this telling, and it is the conventional telling reported almost everywhere, the Democrats have no “options.” Everything, in this telling, is on the shoulders of Republicans. The only question left is “whether Republicans would consider the only plan President Obama and other Democratic leaders insist they will accept: a simple bill that funds federal agencies without dismantling any part of Obama’s signature 2010 health-care law.” So, the Democrats’ position is “simple” but the Republicans’ is … what? Complex?

According to the Post and just about every organ of the major media, for some unexplained reason the Democrats simply do not have the “option” of choosing to accept the House bill that funds the entire federal government while repealing a tax on medical devices and delaying the implementation of Obamacare for one year. They would rather close down the government, while blaming the Republicans, rather than do that. But according to conventional press wisdom, the Republicans’ willingness to fund everything except the start of Obamacare bears the entire responsibility. Go, as I’ve argued before on this issue, figure.

The Post’s Montgomery and Farenthold are by no means alone in their failure to appreciate the implicit biases in virtually any attempt to report the responsibility for controversial events, a problem with which historians are quite familiar. The current controversy, in fact, is eerily reminiscent of  the debate over whether the ideologically rigid, moralistic abolitionists and the Republican Party to which they gave rise— premature Tea Partiers uncompromising in their desire to abolish the hated institution of slavery — were responsible for what may yet come to be called our first civil war.

A few months ago I discussed that very issue in The New York Times, Obamacare, And The Problem Of Causation. “What caused the Civil War, slavery or the moral (moralistic, if you’re pro-slavery) opposition to it?” I asked, noting that the coverage of the impending government shutdown in the mainstream press “reveals the same implicit biases and confusion over causation that are at the core of a number of historiographical controversies, especially the causes of the Civil War.” Mainstream media journalists, I continued, often “ let their partisan biases color their news judgment, leading them to write what purport to be factual statements about causation that are really no more than conclusions base on their partisan preferences.”

As any professional (or amateur or former) historian can tell you, causation is a tricky business, often fraught with more moral or political judgment than scientific analysis.

Slavery, for example, is widely thought to be “the” cause of the Civil War, but that view arguably assumes something that shouldn’t be assumed. The desire to protect the institution of slavery was at the core of the decision of the various Southern states to secede, but it was the Northern refusal to allow peaceful secession that precipitated the actual outbreak of hostilities. Slavery may have caused secession, but did secession cause the war, or was the response to secession the cause? These questions cannot be answered by accumulating more facts.

Similarly, the revisionist school of Civil War historians in the mid-20th century frequently blamed the often moralistic abolitionists for making compromise impossible, but there is no objective, scientific way to say their extreme response to evil was the cause of war rather than the extreme evil to which they were responding. To say they were “the” or even “a” cause of war is to say they shouldn’t have acted the way they did, but that is a matter of moral and political judgment, not fact.

By not going along with Obama, in short, the Republicans weren’t acting the way Broder would have had them act, just as the abolitionists didn’t respond to the evil of slavery in the calmer manner preferred by the revisionist historians.

Indeed, not only are Montgomery and Farenthold not alone in their fumbling inability to handle the issue of causation; they have joined what can be described as a veritable tradition at the Post of such reporting being undermined by partisan bias (a bias that is no less real for being unconscious). Almost exactly a year ago, for example, in The Causes Of Our Partisan Civil War I posted a long criticism of an even longer article by Post reporter Dan Balz suffering from the same problem, and two years before that, in Causation And Our Partisan Civil War, I demonstrated (at least to my own satisfaction; if you disagree, let me know) that the late David Broder — who the Post writes “set [the] ‘gold standard’ for political journalism” and “was often called the dean of the Washington press corps” — was snared by the same trap of allowing how he thought politicians should have behaved color his ostensibly neutral description of how they did behave.

Civil War revisionists who blame fanatical abolitionists for provoking secession and war implicitly assume that the evil of slavery was given but the degree and nature of opposition to it was contingent, an “option.” (And while we’re at it, is there an objective, unbiased, factually determined answer to the question, “which was the primary cause of the Civil War, the secession of the Southern states or the unwillingness of the North to allow secession?”)

In short, today’s major media journalists at the Post and elsewhere, writing what is commonly called “the first draft of history,” are writing bad history when they assume that the Democrats’ willingness to close down the government rather than accept any tinkering or delay with Obamacare is given and the Republican opposition to Obamacare, despite majority public opposition to it as confirmed by polls, is contingent and hence responsible for any shutdown.


Say What? (4)

  1. Peg September 30, 2013 at 11:46 pm | | Reply

    John – right on the money here (as usual). The “x” trillion dollar question, however – is what on earth can we do about it?

    Not sure if you are aware, but several years ago, I participated in a group at Poynter Institute for journalism. It met 2 years in a row – and what an eye opening experience. Out of roughly 25 participants, everyone excepting me ranged from “liberal” to “too bad Karl Marx isn’t around anymore” socialist. Waaaaay too many journalists aren’t attempting to slant or not “report”. But, they live in such a protected society, they rarely get exposed in a real and challenging way to ideas that are counter to their own.

    Anyway – I wish the MSM could somehow awaken and hire a few dastardly libertarians/conservatives so that the field could start to correct this serious issue.

  2. David O'Donoghue October 1, 2013 at 2:23 am | | Reply

    Thats all very well, and true. But this is not new. Surely after observing the msm over the past 5 years we should know that the gop was always going to be blamed. This is why any government shutdown was always going to be a disaster for the gop. What can we do about the media bias?
    1) well we cannot change it – the sooner we learn that it is structural and not temporary the better
    2) stop being surprised by it
    3) the gop needs to avoid situations like this, its just plain dumb not to know that in 2013, anyone other than the gop would be blamed for anything. This situation neede to be avoided.

  3. CaptDMO October 1, 2013 at 9:12 am | | Reply

    Please explain: Blah blah blah “NEW” Debt Ceiling isn’t under discussion right now.
    Previous Debt Ceiling somehow brought U.S. to a CR fight.
    Exactly WHY is there even a need for discussing/con-fabing yet another Continuing Resolution, a (so called)”clean” one (astonishingly bold statement from ANY Democrat), rather than say …oh….
    operating within the bounds of the semi-annual “reasoned” budget, based on actual “income”, as required by law?

    Oh, right. It’s those “House”…um… Republicans.

    Tell me again why the ENTIRE Senate isn’t in jail right now?

  4. LTEC October 2, 2013 at 11:38 pm | | Reply

    “And while we’re at it, is there an objective, unbiased, factually determined answer to the question, ‘which was the primary cause of the Civil War, the secession of the Southern states or the unwillingness of the North to allow secession?’ ”

    To my mind, this is not the interesting question. The better question is: what SHOULD have been the cause of the Civil War? What was worth fighting for, to the tune of 800,000 dead? Was anything the South wanted worth it? NO!

    Was it worth it in order to keep the country together, as the North wanted? For example, consider Canada, with about the same population now as the U.S. then. If Quebec votes to secede, would it be worth a million dead in order to keep the country together? I think everyone will answer NO. The only possible justification for anyone fighting the Civil War was to end slavery.

    (By the way, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a muddled mess. Without a mention of slavery, the bloodshed becomes incoherent. And I don’t buy that his speech was a coded plea against slavery. It was just empty, nice sounding rhetoric which should have been forgotten.)

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