Dana Milbank and 'The Facts'

Can nothing spare us from the arrogance of liberal media figures, still parading around as Guardians of the Facts and Solely Anointed Professional Disseminators of the Truth? Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, in what reads like an early April Fools’ prank, wrote an article for the Post‘s Sunday “Outlook” section presenting himself as an objective reporter. The headline was “My Bias for Mainstream News.” In it, he complains that the “cottage industry” of watchdog groups on the right and left “are devoted almost entirely to attacking the press.” The most priceless sentence is this: “Regardless of the merits, the pervasive accusations of bias are making it increasingly difficult for the traditional media to play their role of gathering and reporting facts.” Media critics are wrong to criticize, regardless of the merits of their criticism? Well, yes, you see, because Milbank believes their nefarious goal is to “steer readers and viewers toward ideologically driven outlets that will confirm their own views and protect them from disagreeable facts.” The term “media elite” has its roots in insular thinking like this. Let’s take a brief look at what those of us on the alleged fact-unfriendly front have reported on Milbank lately. On Feb. 28, the Media Research Center’s Brent Baker noted that Milbank misled Post readers when reporting on Page One that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld had rudely left a Feb. 16 House hearing when he had “had enough.” Milbank’s whole story was devoted to creating — actually, enhancing — the perception that Rumsfeld is a contemptuous jerk. Congressman Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which was holding the hearing, wrote a letter to the Post explaining he and Rumsfeld agreed in advance the hearings would last only three hours because he had another hearing commitment before the Senate. “Therefore, the article’s suggestion that he got mad and left did a disservice to the truth and to the secretary.” The Post didn’t publish the letter or issue a correction. Mr. Milbank, permission to criticize? In the biggest media controversy of 2004 — Dan Rather’s unverifiable National Guard memos about President Bush — were the mainstream media acting as Guardians of The Facts? Apparently, this is unimportant. Regardless of the merits, it is the critics who blew the whistle on CBS’s fraud who are to be faulted. When the liberal media establishment circles the wagons and whines about losing their status as the unimpeachable oracles on Mt. Olympus, with nobody caring about The Facts anymore, they’re missing a key point. You can construct a news story with nothing but verifiable facts, and your report can still be unfair, unbalanced and misleading. You could report on the Terri Schiavo case by citing only the facts Michael Schiavo wants to share. You could report from Iraq, citing only the bad news about bombings, and leaving out all the other facts that might lead to hopefulness. And it’s done, constantly, by Mr. Milbank and his peers. Milbank is absolutely right that I wrote in my book Weapons of Mass Distortion that the liberal media’s audience will defect to emerging news outlets more in tune with their perspective on the world. But he can’t live with the notion that those news outlets could have just as much (or more) love for the truth as the Old Media do. He can’t believe there are other facts worth sharing that he never found, or didn’t imagine were worth finding. The media elite need to come to grips with this fact: You can’t present a trumped-up liberal version of “the facts” and expect everyone to see you as the only authoritative and professional journalists worth reading or watching. The audience is walking away, and the only way to fix it is with more balance and fairness … and greater care with the facts, too. Milbank believes the “growing volume and vitriol” of media criticism is a “new and dangerous development.” And yet, last year, when the Washington Post and others were pounding the White House into dust on Abu Ghraib and other issues, he didn’t see the “growing volume and vitriol” of news reporters as a “new and dangerous development.” Why not? Because the media are somehow the quintessential pillars of democracy whose fine brains and large hearts and good intentions must never be questioned, even though they are self-appointed as the official questioners of absolutely everyone and everything else. In a democracy, every player in the political system is held accountable by someone else. The media also need a check and a balance. If the media think it’s unfair that there’s someone “driving up their negatives” and damaging their credibility, they ought to realize they also live in that democracy. Get used to it.