Guardians of the Truth, Or Protectors of Privilege?

In pre-computer times, when reporters smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey in public, the night city editor on the Chicago Daily News was Bill Mooney, a man who could type faster with one finger than anyone else in the place could with 10. One evening, when the news was slow and the teletype machines were hardly ringing their bells, Mooney-with little to occupy him at the moment-was taking a call from what we called an irate reader. He puffed and listened, puffed and listened to the voice at the other end of the phone until he could stand it no longer. “Lady,” he broke in to ask her, “just what the hell do you expect for a dime? The truth?”

Mooney, who was not given to the gaseous seminarizing of our own time (and who didn’t use the word “journalism” if he could get around it), nevertheless understood its limitations. He knew it is a lick-and-a-promise business in which one does one’s best, fails and moves on to try again. Mooney figured out early in his career a reporter couldn’t get it right-not really, really right.

Mooney lacked a Harvard education. I don’t think he went to any college, for he said that the first story he covered was as a copy boy in 1937. In those days, copy boys were male and in their teens. It was a helluva story which he only got to cover because it happened on a holiday, when the real reporters wanted to be off with their families, so the city editor sent Mooney out to the far South Side, to the Republic Steel plant, where the union people were trying to organize. He sent him there just in case something happened, which wasn’t likely- except it did happen. The cops opened fire on the union people and killed 10 of them, and the Memorial Day Massacre took its place as one of the pivotal events in the New Deal decade.

His introduction to reporting taught Mooney that he didn’t have to go to J-school to do this kind of work. Later on, he came to believe that a person might do it better if he didn’t think that reporters were members of a priestly caste.

Not everybody can be a competent reporter, but it isn’t rocket science. When the Watts race riot erupted in 1965, the Los Angeles Times- a paper decidedly behind the times-had to draft an African-American out of the advertising department to cover the fighting that had turned the center of the city into a battleground. The paper had no persons of color on its reportorial staff. That worked out well enough for the paper to be awarded prizes for its coverage. Reporting is a skill which is perfected by apprenticeship, and a lot more people can do it than Dana Milbank-who is much too young to have known Bill Mooney-seems to think.

For four years, Mr. Milbank was The Washington Post’s White House guy. His byline is a respected one, but he hasn’t learned to take his lumps even though he says he knows they “come with the territory.” Recently, he wrote a piece in his paper in which he said the accusatory cow pies of bias are flying at him and his colleagues at a greater pace than ever before, which led him to opine: “I think the growing volume and the vitriol of the bias accusations are part of a new-and dangerous-development. Partisans on the left and right have formed cottage industries devoted to discrediting what they dismissively call the ‘mainstream media’-the networks, daily newspapers and newsmagazines. Their goal: to steer readers and viewers toward ideologically driven outlets that will confirm their own views and protect them from disagreeable facts. In an increasingly fragmented media world, ideologues have already devolved into parallel universes, in which liberals and conservatives can select talk radio hosts, cable news pundits and blogs that share their prejudices.”

A word about the recent history of the word “mainstream.” Until it got turned back on them, mainstream institutions like Mr. Milbank’s Washington Post used the word to mean a newspaper or church or school of thought that was respectable, reliable and rational. The rest was beyond the pale. In due course, with the changing of the times and the invention of new means of communication, those living outside the pale have struck back at the mainstream, which for so long “dismissively” scored it off as down-market and disreputable.

Now it gets more interesting. Mr. Milbank writes that as a consequence of those pesky bloggers and the talk-radio yammerers, people’s heads are being filled with dangerous fictions. “You could dismiss my view as an admittedly self-serving claim coming from one of the dinosaurs of a dying media oligopoly,” the worried writer concedes. “But the consequences are ominous for the country as well as for newspapers. Consider a poll two weeks before the 2004 election by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes: The survey found that 72 percent of President Bush’s supporters believed that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or at least major illegal weapons programs.”

Where oh where did those 72 percent get such crazy, misinformed, downright wrong ideas as to the facts? From the bloggers? Maybe. From the talk-radio yakkers? Could be. Or they might have gotten it from their morning newspaper, from The Washington Post or The New York Times. Some may recall that The Times felt it was necessary to publish a long article apologizing to its readers for having misled them on the question of weapons of mass destruction. Shortly afterward, Mr. Milbank’s own newspaper did pretty much the same thing, confessing it had buried an important article by Walter Pincus in the weeks leading up to the Iraq invasion in which the W.M.D. premise was challenged.

In the light of these huge journalistical boo-boos, Mr. Milbank takes it upon himself to say that it is the non-mainstream media which “explain why 45 percent of Americans now say they can believe little or nothing of what they read in the papers, compared to just 16 percent two decades ago.”

It would be nice to think that this mass disbelief arises out of a newfound skepticism, a quality that Mr. Milbank finds in abundance among his fellows, even praising them for it. He brags that “our [meaning his fellow journalists] dominant bias is skepticism of whoever is in power,” but healthy skepticism for his crowd is dangerous tunnel vision in those out of the mainstream. Of their behavior, he writes that “the pervasive accusations of bias are making it increasingly difficult for the traditional media to play their role of gathering and reporting facts.” Whimper, whimper.

Beyond feeling sorry for ourselves, some might contest Mr. Milbank’s contention that the “dominant bias” of his craft is skepticism. It is true that reporters and editors are not as gullible as nursery-school kids, and it is also true that big media-newspapers especially-do some very good investigative work, but overall, as the W.M.D. coverage suggests, the desire of journalists to be liked and accepted mitigates against posing the tough questions. To be a skeptic is to reconcile one’s self to being an outsider. The thought of being outsiders makes the notoriously needy journalists operating in Washington bilious.

In the 1960′s, journalism had a blogger of sorts-an irredeemable outsider and far-left-winger, I.F. Stone was never invited to the dinner parties. He put out his own newsletter. It seems that every week, the newsletter carried a story about the government that only the skeptical, indomitable Stone could find. Mr. Milbank’s paper wouldn’t publish him-which was just as well, since this enhanced his underground following.

In our time, Sy Hersh is best known as a scoopster, the man who has followed up skepticism with the facts. While he’s had more acceptance from the mainstream than Stone did, he remains a fringe personality. He also has no rival whom I can think of-which tells us something about how few and far between are the examples of mainstream media rocking the boat. And how uncomfortable the irony when their own boat gets rocked, as when the spiders of the Internet exposed Dan Rather and his forged memos during the last election.

Mr. Milbank ends his essay by exclaiming: “Imagine that! An independent press looking for the truth rather than serving as stenographers for the powerful. It’s a quaint tradition Americans would be wise not to abandon.” Trips right off the pen, doesn’t it?

Had Mr. Milbank known Bill Mooney, he would know you don’t get the truth for a dime.