Clumsy Coverage by the Washington Post

That there is bias in media coverage is almost a axiomatic, regardless of one’s political perspective. By definition, writing or broadcasting the news means making value judgments as to what issues are important and relevant enough to claim scarce coverage resources. These decisions rely on value judgments, informed by political perspective. This sort of bias is sometimes referred to as “bias by agenda.” The potential for bias by agenda is the reason that news rooms ought to have real diversity, a diversity of viewpoint.

Bias by agenda is hard to guard against, but incompetent or slanted coverage of any story, once chosen is inexcusable and one of the reasons there has been a flight from conventional news sources, the major papers and networks, toward the Internet and various alternative cable news networks.

Although the Washington Post has, and would probably concede in a moment of candor, a bias of agenda that leans to the Left, they are typically carefully balanced and fair within a story. Unfortunately, they have been guilty of such conspicuous coverage errors recently, that it is difficult to blame it on inadvertence or incompetence.

The first example concerns the confirmation hearings of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton has been harshly, sarcastically, and even undiplomatically critical of the UN. Indeed, Bolton has been so critical that many Democrats would like to prevent President George Bush’s nominee from becoming the UN ambassador. Given the general unpopularity of the UN and the recent UN scandal involving billions of dollars in the UN-managed Oil-for-Food Program, many Americans might just believe that the UN ought to be sharply criticized. This makes it politically inconvenient for Democrats to attack Bolton on the merits of his positions, so instead there is a frantic effort to seek out character issues that might disqualify Bolton.

The Democrats found an issue in one Melody Townsel who had a decade-old dispute with Bolton about a project in Kyrgyzstan. For the Washington Post to report the charge on April 20, 2005 was entirely appropriate. However, they neglected to mention that Ms. Townsel is an anti-Bush partisan who founded the Dallas-chapter of “Mothers Against Bush.” This does not make her charges necessarily false, but Washington Post readers were entitled to know Townsel’s background as part of their overall assessment of the credibility of her story. This was not a small oversight, it was a key neglected fact. It was not until Howard Kurtz cited a National Review passage about Townsel that the Post’s dedicated readers were made aware of Townsel’s partisanship. The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times also failed to mention Townsel’s partisan affiliation, but one had come to expect more from the Washington Post.

Perhaps a more damaging recent failure of the Washington Post is its reporting on a Washington Post-ABC poll. At present, there is a dispute on the use of the filibuster by Senate Democrats to block Bush judicial nominees. The use of the filibuster for this purpose is not traditional and the issue is a cause of a political confrontation between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are considering using their majority status to change the Senate rules to prevent the use of the filibuster against judicial nominees. Democrats argue that they are defending the rights of the minority party and Republicans argue that any president deserves an up-or-a-down vote on his nominees. The state of public opinion on this issue is important politically. Polling and coverage by the Post on this is necessary and proper.

On April 26, 2005, the Washington Post ran the page-one headline “Filibuster Rule Change Opposed: 66% in Poll Reject Senate GOP Plans to Ease Confirmation of Bush’s Judicial Nominees.” The headline and the article definitely gave the impression that Republicans are in political trouble over the issue. wp_post_2005-04-20.jpg

However, consider the exact wording of the poll question: “Would you support or oppose changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush’s judicial nominees?” The question does not mention the word filibuster and definitely paints the picture of special rules changes on Bush’s behalf without reference to the unprecedented use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees. It would not have been a fair question, but one could imagine different results for the poll if the question were: “Would you support or oppose a minority of Senators preventing an up-or-down vote on Presidential judicial nominees.” The Washington Post poll was a classic example of a poll designed to obtain a specific result.

Nonetheless, publishing the results of the poll, without a misleading headline would have been good journalistic practice, if the poll was put in the context of other polls yielding different results. For example, a plurality by a 2-1 ratio in a Rasmussen poll suggested that people believe the presidential nominees ought to receive an up-or-a-down vote on the Senate floor. Giving readers a broad perspective is good journalism and in this case the Post did not meet their obligation to their readers.

The most revealing fact is that in the week after the poll, Republicans moved more directly to changing the Senate rules and Democrats backed off trying to seek a compromise. This would not have been the case, if internal private polls commissioned by both parties did not contradict the Washington Post headline. Readers of the Washington Post were thus misinformed.

As a general rule, it is best never to assume maliciousness when incompetence is a sufficient explanation. Arguing the case for incompetence in the Washington Post’s coverage is becoming more and more difficult.

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