“We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”
Those are the words of former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, explaining to author Matt Miller how decisions are made about what belongs on the front page. Not allowing ourselves to think politically is a piece of pressthink that fascinates me, and this is a post about that.
I understand what Downie meant. He meant that the news should be, as far as humanly possible, an ideology-free zone. In making up the front page, the editors of the Washington Post are not trying to advance an agenda they have, or solve a problem they think needs solving, or rally people to a cause they find worthy. They are not fighting for justice or against the enemies of reason. They have cooler heads. They are thinking informationally.
I get all that. I understand how pursuing a political agenda in the guise of providing news is a bad idea, unlikely to generate trust in the provider. As I have written elsewhere, “Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism.” But even so, not being able to think politically can get you killed in big league journalism.
ABC News got killed this week. These events are worth reviewing because they point to a blind spot in the mind of the mainstream press that seems to be getting worse.
“Andrew Breitbart will be bringing analysis live from Arizona.”
The episode began when someone at ABC News—we don’t know who it was—invited the right wing activist and online publisher Andrew Breitbart to contribute to the network’s election night coverage as a guest at a town hall meeting in Arizona that would mostly run online. Portions of the town hall would also be shown on the air, ABC said. This was enough to trigger an announcement at his Big Journalism site that Breitbart would provide election night analysis on ABC, along with the editor of that site, Dana Loesch.
Loesch was also featured in a press release from ABC; and she did appear on the network’s election night broadcast, sitting alongside longtime Democratic operative Donna Brazile, presumably to provide some kind of ideological balance, although the two figures are so incommensurate with each other that it’s difficult to know what the producers were, um… thinking.
When the announcement at Big Journalism started to circulate online it immediately posed a problem for ABC. Why would the network want to associate itself with Breitbart? As Salon pointed out, “It was really not that long ago that he publicized a misleadingly edited video of an honorable woman named Shirley Sherrod in an attempt to smear her as an anti-white racist.” That turned into a debacle for Breitbart and the Obama administration, which fired her before realizing that it had been tricked.
It just seemed like a strange decision. If ABC wanted a smart conservative who is not a George Will type, but younger than Will and more representative of where the political right is now, it could have gone with, say, Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, or Jim Geraghty of National Review, or Ross Douthat of the New York Times, none of whom come with the explosive risks that a performance artist, culture warrior and media virus launcher like Breitbart carries.
“He has not been asked to analyze the results of the election.”
These risks soon became evident. Facing heavy criticism, especially from liberals familiar with Breitbart’s methods (and from me on Twitter) ABC News put out an awkward statement “attributable to Andrew Morse, Executive Producer, ABC News Digital.” It said:
Since conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart announced on his website that he was going to be a participant in ABC’s Town Hall meeting at Arizona State University, there has been considerable consternation and misinformation regarding my decision to ask him to participate in an election night Town Hall event for ABC News Digital. I want to explain what Mr. Breitbart’s role has always been as one of our guests at our digital town hall event:
Mr. Breitbart is not an ABC News analyst.
He is not an ABC News consultant.
He is not, in any way, affiliated with ABC News.
He is not being paid by ABC News.
He has not been asked to analyze the results of the election for ABC News.
Mr. Breitbart will not be a part of the ABC News broadcast coverage, anchored by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos…
Showing the kind of panic that set in once ABC woke up to what it had done, George Stephanopoulos posted on Twitter: “Breitbart NOT on ABC network broadcast….” But ABC News spokesman David Ford told Media Matters: “He will be one of many voices on our air, including Bill Adair of Politifact. If Andrew Breitbart says something that is incorrect, we have other voices to call him on it.”
This, of course, enraged Breitbart and his troops. From ABC Election Night Coverage to Feature Loesch, Breitbart on Oct. 29, Big Journalism moved to Email Reveals ABC News Walked Back ‘Bigs’ Publisher Participation in Election Night Coverage on Oct. 31. Breitbart went on the offensive against his would-be hosts, reprinting the ambiguous invitation he had received:
The show will be live on the web and ABC News Now as well as on the network from 4:00pm till 11:00pm MST. We would love for you to be a part of our program, and please let us know what we can do to accommodate your needs.
This is what culture warriors do: they escalate because war is the health of their state. ABC seemed to be utterly clueless about such a pattern. They had no idea who they were dealing with. But Big Journalism—which, remember, is edited by Dana Loesch, an ABC election night contributor—knew what to do. On election day it ran If You Can’t Beat Them, Silence Them: Left Blacklists Breitbart, ABC Caves, an attack on its usual suspects (Media Matters, George Soros) but also on ABC News, which was said to be “cowardly,” a “wuss,” spineless, engaged in “blacklisting.” ABC had “not only caved to the Left’s intimidation attempts, but also lied when they did so.”
At this point, Breitbart was still scheduled to be a participant in the online town hall on ABC News Now. But the situation was getting deeply absurd. Breitbart’s media criticism site was accusing ABC News of lying, cowardice and selling out the First Amendment. But ABC was going to extend to him a forum for commenting on the election? By Monday afternoon (here’s a timeline) ABC was in the position of simultaneously saying that Breitbart had sown public confusion about his intended role, and that he would provide a clear and valuable perspective the next day.
“We feel it best for you not to participate.”
The following letter was sent from ABC and received by Mr. Breitbart:
Dear Mr. Breitbart,
We have spent the past several days trying to make clear to you your limited role as a participant in our digital town hall to be streamed on ABCNews.com and Facebook. The post on your blog last Friday created a widespread impression that you would be analyzing the election on ABC News. We made it as clear as possible as quickly as possible that you had been invited along with numerous others to participate in our digital town hall. Instead of clarifying your role, you posted a blog on Sunday evening in which you continued to claim a bigger role in our coverage. As we are still unable to agree on your role, we feel it best for you not to participate.
I’m sure to the people at ABC News, that put an end to it. But it didn’t. Because on election night, there was Dana Loesch, the editor who ran one post calling ABC News “cowardly,” a “wuss,” spineless, a liar, a blacklister, and an enemy of the First Amendment, and another arguing that ABC had shown it could be “muscled and intimidated.” There she was, a culture warrior in open warfare with ABC News on the Net, sitting next to Donna Brazile, live on ABC’s air, even though she obviously held her hosts in high contempt. What a weird situation! And what a humiliation for the journalists at ABC.
How can we explain this sequence of events? After all, Breitbart’s aims are not a mystery. “I’m committed to the destruction of the old media guard,” he has said. ABC News is obviously a part of that old media guard, the destruction of which is Breitbart’s leading cause. Anyone who has watched him operate understands this. “Conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart has always wanted to take down the ‘liberal media establishment,'” said The Atlantic in June.
Only a political moron and culture war innocent would fail to realize that the “liberal media establishment” includes the people in charge of election coverage at ABC News— especially on-air personalities like Stephanopoulos, who co-anchored with Diane Sawyer. Breitbart openly seeks the demise of those who invited him to contribute to their election night journalism. Don’t you think that’s odd?
This is what I mean, then, by not thinking politically can hurt you badly. ABC News does not have an ombudsman, so chances are we won’t get any public accounting for how this could have happened. But we can surmise that someone at ABC thought the network would be showing how committed it is to fairness, to balance, to overcoming culture war allegations of liberal bias, to seeking out voices from a resurgent right wing. It’s likely that Breitbart’s “bad boy” image added to the appeal, since it offered even more proof of how fair-minded ABC was prepared to be on a night when the Republican party was about to retake control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate. It’s likely that the word “provocative” came up. How to cope with the Tea Party was probably involved, as well.
The children of Agnew
But this deluded and criminally naive estimate could only move forward because pro journalists equate “we are not allowing ourselves to think politically” with a commitment to truth, fairness and informational integrity. That equation is false, its reasoning rotten. The American press simply has to wake up to the fact that it has enemies within the political culture. Why is this so hard to grasp? Agnew was one, and the children of Agnew are now many. Culture war and the paranoid style in American politics cannot operate without elites to rage against. A growing portion of the Republican coalition has thus incorporated into its day-to-day agenda an attack on the establishment press. That’s what being “committed to the destruction of the old media guard” means.
I know, I know: there is anger and increasing hostility to mainstream journalism on the left, as well as the right. That is true. But let’s pull our chairs a little closer to the fire so we can see what we’re saying. Does mobilizing hatred for media elites play the same role within the progressive movement that it does for conservatives and Tea Party groups? (It does not.) Does running against the news media and refusing to face questions from journalists appeal equally to Republican and Democratic candidates? (Nope.) Is anyone on the left with the visibility of a Breitbart publicly committed to the destruction of the old media? (Can’t think of anyone.) There are even conservatives who recognize that “conservatives have become hostile to journalism as a profession.”
That the internal codes of that profession call on its practitioners to advertise their even handedness does not change in any way the fact that some people in the political system—and almost all of them are on the right—want the traditional press to roll over and die because they think it’s an ideological cadre aligned against them. And if Disney one day decided that having a news division at ABC was not worth the complaints and controversies generated by culture war politics, Andrew Breitbart and the people who staff his sites would raise their arms in triumph. They would be right to do so. Because it would be their victory.
ABC News had no idea what it was doing when it invited Breitbart to be a part of its coverage. It had no idea what it was doing when it gave the floor on election night to Big Journalism’s editor, Dana Loesch. By handing the microphone over to people who seek its destruction and are prepared in a flash to accuse it of lying, blacklisting, caving to political pressure and selling out the First Amendment, ABC acted out the stupidity of news professionals who believe that their refusal to think politically can only be a good and honorable thing. It is not a good and honorable thing. It’s dangerous to your reputation. You think Andrew Morse’s stock has risen at ABC News?
But notice how Breitbart wins either way. If he appears on ABC, he gains legitimacy for his campaign to undo the establishment press. If he is booted, he can gin up more outrage and fuel another round of extravagant charges. The producers didn’t think of that when they extended their invitation. They were on a reckless quest for innocence, which means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” that journalism is not an ideological trade. Well, it isn’t an ideological trade. But it still has enemies.
Wake up, journalists. You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed.