Part 4—Is Jason Horowitz “biased:” It’s true! Republicans are constantly “crying bias,” just as Allen and VandeHei said in their famous Politico piece.
(To read their report, click here.)
Just as Allen and VandeHei said, this cry is a familiar part of Republican politics. “It fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism,” the Politico pundit pair wrote.
Having said that, is it possible that the GOP has a bit of a point with regard to some recent campaign coverage? In their now-famous Politico piece, Allen and VandeHei seemed to say yes.
This brings us to a thorny question: Is Jason Horowitz “biased?”
Jason Horowitz is a reporter for the Washington Post. On May 11, he wrote the sprawling, 5500-word front-page report which explored Mitt Romney’s conduct when he was in high school.
Horowitz reported that Romney engaged in a bullying incident in the spring of 65. As a result, his ginormous, sprawling report became a bit of a cause celebre.
The report is one of the recent reports which Allen and VandeHei limned in their Politico piece. So how about it? Is Jason Horowitz—and/or his editors—possibly guilty of “bias?”
Obviously, that is possible. Obviously, Horowitz or one of his editors could be in the grip of some bias. But despite this blindingly obvious fact, liberal leaders, punching their Hannity cards, rushed into print last week, loudly denouncing the ludicrous notion the Politico pair had advanced. After five minutes of thought and reflection, they called this suggestion “deeply stupid.” It was just baldly absurd.
Remember: In the deeply tribal world invented by demons like Limbaugh and Hannity, the other tribe can never be wronged. By definition, by all that is holy, all “bias” is aimed straight at ours!
That’s a profoundly unintelligent notion; only a fool could advance it. But within the pseudo-liberal world our corporate leaders are currently building, we’re all Sean Hannity now! Having observed that sad fact of life, let’s ask if the Politico pair could have been right, to some extent, about Horowitz and/or his editors.
Is Horowitz “biased” against Mitt Romney? We have no idea, and we make no such assertion. Last November, he wrote this 2400-word report, “Romney’s Mormon Evolution.” The piece appeared on the front page of Style.
It strikes us as sensible, intelligent, fair, perhaps even a bit "pro-Romney."
In April, Horowitz wrote a shorter front-page piece in Style, “Why can’t Mitt Romney loosen up?” As a general matter, the piece strikes us as inane but largely inoffensive. It sticks to familiar narratives:
HOROWITZ (6/8/12): Like many people who knew Romney in the past, Keele has a hard time recognizing the candidate on the trail.Those concepts came straight out of a can. Inside our “press corps,” reporters are routinely asked to puzzle out candidates judged to be stiff. Romney is one such stiff puppy.
"Mitt Romney is capable of relaxing," he said. "The stiffness that people see is simply Mitt trying too hard."
That said, it’s possible that Horowitz and/or his editors are “biased” in some way against Romney. Surely, no one can think that Romney is the type of guy who makes reporters go weak in the knees. He’s a serious throwback in various ways. In endless ways, he’s a truly horrible candidate, perhaps the worst of all time.
Rather plainly, Romney isn’t a major press favorite. Within the ranks of the mainstream “press corps,” there are surely some reporters who simply just don’t care for Mitt Romney.
Is Horowitz captured by this disease? As we look at the sprawling report which is involved in the current flap, we would ask, before all else, about the way he began, especially that highlighted sentence:
HOROWITZ (5/11/12): Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn't having it.Was John Lauber “perpetually teased” at this school? Horowitz spoke to many Cranbrook students; many spoke to him on the record. But in all of his 5500 words, none of them was quoted saying anything dimly like that.
That’s a relatively minor point. A stronger question turns on the statement about Lauber’s “presumed homosexuality.” Given our (improving) cultural norms, that is a highly significant claim. It appeared in Horowitz’s opening paragraph; it led to widespread claims that Romney engaged in anti-gay bullying. But in all those 5500 words, no one is quoted saying that Lauber was “presumed,” or believed, to be gay.
Horowitz interviewed many students. Remarkably, there is no sign that anyone told him that Lauber was believed to be gay.
Why was that highly significant claim advanced in the absence of published evidence? We have no idea, but it represents a major bit of journalistic malpractice. Unsurprisingly, we have seen no one mention this glaring problem with Horowitz’s report.
We just aren’t a very smart bunch. Our culture doesn’t work that way.
It may be that some former students did tell Horowitz that Lauber was believed to be gay. But if the failure to include such statements is simply a journalistic error, it is a very large, glaring error, though Howard Kurzt failed to notice.
Could it represent something more? We have no idea; there is no way to know. For all we know, some editor inserted that line in that opening paragraph. It may be that Horowitz didn’t author that claim at all!
For our money, the high school story was over-played by the Washington Post. As a general matter, we think reporting on presidential candidates should focus on their conduct as adults. In our view, the tendency to muck around in their behavior as teens is one of the roughly three million ways the modern “press corps” tries to avoid discussing the most relevant matters.
That said, the sprawling treatment given this story would not represent a decision by Horowitz. If the story’s length and placement represents some sort of “bias,” that bias would presumably belong to his editors.
Is it possible that Allen and VandeHei correctly sniffed out some sort of “bias” as they looked at the prominence given this story? We don’t know. But we’ll have to say that we were struck by Horowitz’s next report about Romney. It appeared on the front page of the Outlook section on Sunday, June 3. Headline: “When is Mormonism fair game?”
“Fair game?” We find that headline a trifle strange; presumably, Horowitz didn’t write it. But we thought several aspects of his piece reflected peculiar judgment:
Chumping the campaign: Horowitz started by chumping the Romney campaign in a way reporters rarely do. He published e-mails from Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul. In these e-mails, Saul had challenged some of the ways Solomon reported on Mormonism in his November report.
For ourselves, we don’t understand Saul's complaint—we see no problem with Horowitz’s November report—but then, we only get to see her e-mails as Horowitz chose to disclose them. We’ll only say this about that: It’s very rare for a major reporter to chump a campaign spokesperson this way.
In the fall of 2007, the Post’s Ann Kornblut did do something similar to a spokesperson for Candidate Hillary Clinton. But at that time, the “press corps” was working very hard to take this bad candidate down.
Chumping the campaign on a highly sensitive matter: Horowitz didn’t chump the Romney campaign on just any old topic; as the focus of his piece, he chumped the campaign on a very sensitive matter. You can read his piece for yourself to see what it is. We’d say he used bad judgment here, unless he was actually trying to suggest that the Romney campaign tends to be a bit insensitive with respect to another religion, one whose members have been persecuted all over the world.
Pretending that Romney should cop: Having built a peculiar framework around his piece, Horowitz proceeded to play a familiar old card. He pretended the candidate is refusing to discuss a topic he should be discussing.
In fairness, journalists play this silly old card all the time. Generally, though, this card is played against candidates whom the “press corps” disfavors.
According to Horowitz, what should Romney be talking about? According to Horowitz, he should be talking about his religion! Very few candidates ever do that, but Horowitz went to work pretending that Romney is acting strangely as he continues to clam.
What does he think about Joseph Smith? What did he think, three decades ago, about his church’s (now-abandoned) ban on blacks in the priesthood? In this passage, Horowitz marvels at Romney’s refusal to talk:
HOROWITZ (6/3/12): In February, after losing three states in one day to Rick Santorum, Romney highlighted his pastoral experience to supporters in Atlanta. "In my church," he said, "we don't have a professional ministry, and so people are asked to serve as the minister or the pastor of their congregation from time to time, and I had that privilege for over 10 years."Did Romney really “snap” at that man? Few words are more useful when journalists want to convey an impression. That said, let’s take ourselves to the place where rubber meets road:
But Romney clearly prefers to talk about his religion on his own terms.
At an event in Wisconsin in April, a man began asking the candidate about some of the more controversial aspects of Mormonism, including its past ban on blacks in the priesthood.
"I'm sorry, we're just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view, but if you have a question, I'll be happy to answer your question," Romney said.
"I guess my question is, do you believe it's a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?" the man asked.
"No," Romney snapped, turning to the other side of the room. "Next question."
Later at the event, he elaborated: "This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion. I'll talk about the practices of my faith.''
Romney has declined to clarify whether he believed that the ban—which was still in effect as he entered the local church hierarchy in Boston—was divine doctrine or flawed teaching. He has refused to comment on the policy beyond expressing relief that it was lifted. A friend of his at Brigham Young University has said that Romney considered it disrespectful to question the word of the church hierarchy and that he bristled against colleges that protested the ban by boycotting athletic competitions with BYU.
But Romney has also demonstrated an aversion to talking about subjects most Mormons proudly discuss, including the religion's founding story.
Romney “prefers to talk about his religion on his own terms?” Can you think of any candidate, of any faith, of whom that statement wouldn’t be accurate? Very few candidates flounce about, taking random questions from “men in Wisconsin” about their religion’s various doctrines and practices.
Romney “has declined to clarify whether he believed that the ban...was divine doctrine or flawed teaching?” In Campaign 04, how often did Candidate Kerry “agree to clarify” whether he believed that the ban on women in his church’s priesthood represents the infallible judgment sometimes ascribed to the Pope? In a similar vein, how often did Candidate Kerry discuss his views about the way his religion was founded? Candidates don’t discuss such things, for reasons which are blindingly obvious. They don’t tell you if they think the wine really turns into blood; Candidate Obama didn’t “agree to clarify” whether he thinks Jesus Christ was truly the son of God.
Does Obama think Mary was a virgin? Following Candidate Kerry’s precedent, he “declined to clarify” his views on that question too!
How many candidates go about discussing their religion's "founding story?" Let's form a quick estimate: None!
Candidates don’t discuss such things! In the case of Candidate Kerry, they tell you how they voted on funding for the war in Iraq. In response, members of Horowitz’s “press corps” gambol and play for several months, pretending the candidate has engaged in comical self-contradiction.
That’s the way our “discourse” works. Narrow aspects of religious doctrine are quite rarely discussed.
Horowitz’s report from last November strikes us as completely fair. We think his Outlook piece on Mormonism veered in a less worthy direction.
We assume that Horowitz is a good, decent person who tries to present good, decent reporting. We think he achieved that goal in November—in recent weeks, perhaps not so much.
That said, is it possible that Horowitz (or his editor) has a bit of a bug up his ass about Romney? Is it possible that he’s gripped by a bit of “bias” without even being aware? Of course it’s possible, though we certainly wouldn’t assert that it’s true. But having said that, we will say this: Liberals and progressives should be especially vigilant about such questions.
We liberals say that the corporate press corps lies in the grip of Big Money and Power. If we really believe that, we ought to be working to build a press culture which operates on solid restrictions and rules.
We ought to be working to restrict the press corps’ ability to flounce all about the countryside, writing about various wayward topics (at great length) while assuring us that the readers will sort the whole mess out.
If we give our corporate press corps that license, won’t they tend to exercise their license against more progressive candidates? In our view, that is what has happened over the course of the past several decades. If Romney is encountering a bit of “bias”—and surely, somewhere he is—that would represent a divergence from the norm of the past twenty years.
If we believe that the press is in thrall to Big Interests, we should work to restrict its scope. We should try to restrict its ability to blather about all sorts of distractions. (Why would Candidate Gore wear earth tones? Wazzup with those three-button suits?) We should try to restrict its ability to assert all manner of nonsense. (Why did John Kerry go wind-surfing? Why did he put the wrong cheese on his cheese steak? Why didn’t Michael Dukakis bunch Bernie Shaw right in the nose?)
But alas! We are all Sean Hannity now, at least on the level of “liberal leadership.” Joan Walsh is empty, daft, perhaps a tiny smidgeon corrupt—and she runs with a whole gang of friends! She affirmed the New York Times piece on dressage, thereby pleasing our empty heads and stuffing more dough in her pants.
Alas! Gaze on the brave new pseudo-lib world! Our “leaders” are endlessly dumb and corrupt. We are unable to see this.