Profiles in lack of competence: Ever since the 1960s, Americans have heard repeated claims concerning press corps bias.
It's a perfectly sensible type of discussion. Individual journalists can exhibit, or can seem to exhibit, various types of bias. All too often, the mainstream press corps has exhibited apparent types of bias collectively, as a group.
We often hear complaints about bias. Much less frequently, we see discussions of press corps competence.
That said, major journalists often display a remarkable lack of basic intellectual / journalistic skill. For starters, consider the remarkable recent column by the New York Times' new public editor.
The column, by public editor Liz Spayd, appeared on Sunday, September 11. The column has been widely criticized but not, we think, quite enough.
Spayd's column dealt with complaints from readers. Those readers allege that the Times has been exhibiting "false balance" in its treatment of Candidates Clinton and Trump.
Whatever one thinks of that allegation, Spayd's analysis was remarkable. She offered a rather fuzzy definition of that term, then offered this remarkable dismissal of the complaints she has received from readers of the Times:
SPAYD (9/11/16): The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers—remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.Good lord! In those highlighted sentences, Spayd dismisses all these complaints on the basis that the complaints were driven by partisan motives. She turns the complaints into a "doctrine"—a doctrine driven by partisan preference for Candidate Clinton.
She then suggests that the readers who have complained are completely irrational. If they think Trump's transgressions have been under-covered, that must mean that they don't want Clinton's emails mentioned at all! Spayd doesn't quote any example in which a reader actually said such a thing. She simply imagines this request, using it as a way to dismiss all "false balance" complaints.
When we read that column, we were amazed to think that the person who wrote it has risen so high in the press corps. Today, Spayd holds a high-profile post at the New York Times. In her previous two incarnations, she was managing editor of the Washington Post, then served as editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review!
How could a person with that resume possibly write a column like that? Let's put that a different way: How could a person with that level of skill possibly have attained such posts in the upper-end press corps?
In fairness, everyone can have a bad day. That said, Spayd's sneering column helps highlight the lack of intellectual skill commonly seen in the press corps.
Then too, there's the lack of journalistic skill. On Sunday's Meet the Press, Chuck Todd put that shortfall on startling display as he tried to interview Donald Trump's campaign chairman.
Todd attempted to interview Kellyanne Conway about Candidate Trump's five years as king of the birthers. Conway responded by chopping Todd to bits and leaving him for dead.
Conway's reaction to every question was perfectly predictable. She spent two or three seconds pivoting away from Todd's questions about Candidate Trump, then delivered critical orations concerning Candidate Clinton.
At some point, an interviewer has to tell such a guest to stop. He has to insist that she stop discussing the other guy and answer his actual questions about the person she represents.
Chuck Todd never did that. He kept letting Conway ignore the behavior of Candidate Trump while making accusations about Candidate Clinton, some of which were perhaps less than thoroughly accurate.
How bad was Todd's performance? In this, the very first exchange, we see one of the worst journalistic performances in the long, sometimes undistinguished history of the "Sunday shows:"
TODD (9/18/16): All right. Let me start with Friday's news first. How and when did Donald Trump conclude that the president was born in the United States?Good God! Journalistically, that exchange is stunning. For the full transcript, click here.
CONWAY: You will have to ask him that. That's a personal decision. But we heard very clearly the three things he said on his own timeline in his own terms on Friday:
Number one, that associates of the Clinton campaign started this birtherism question in 2007. Mark Penn in a famous memo questioning President—Senator Obama's American roots.
The Iowa volunteer coordinator and, then, of course, as the McClatchy D.C. bureau chief at the time, now former, Chuck, has confirmed that Sid Blumenthal, big Clinton confidant, on the payroll for The Clinton Foundation, went and told him that president—oh, Senator Obama was born in Kenya. And in fact, they sent somebody to Africa to check it out. So this—
You know, Donald Trump was not running for president against Barack Obama in a very bruising, vicious primary in 2008. That was Hillary Clinton.
Number two, Donald Trump said he put this to rest. Hillary Clinton couldn't close it, get the information he did.
And number three, you heard him say that President Obama was born in this country, period. And he is moving on to all the things he talked about this week, tax reform, child care tax credits. We got the endorsement of the FOP, the Fraternal Order of Police, huge endorsement. They did not endorse anybody four years ago.
They endorsed the more popular, more likable Clinton in 1996. And so we're very happy with developments like that.
TODD: I guess— What I'm curious about, though, is who cares about the Clinton incident?
Donald Trump, for five years, perpetuated this. This has been arguably part of his political identity for the last five years. So what difference does it make whether Clinton does it? Why do two wrongs make a right in this case?
Let's talk about— Forget the Clinton incident for a minute. Why did he perpetuate it for five years after some associates from Hillary Clinton in your words?
As noted, Conway spent about two seconds on the rather obvious question she had been asked. She said she didn't know how the candidate she represents reached the new conclusion he had just announced.
In all honesty, this first Q-and-A should have ended right there. A skillful interviewer would have asked Conway why she can't answer a basic question about a major announcement her candidate had just delivered.
Todd displayed no such skill. Instead, Conway proceeded to deliver an oration about the other candidate. Todd was willing to listen, then seemed to affirm what she said.
Sadly, the situation was worse than we have so far described. Conway's oration about Candidate Clinton was perhaps a bit fact-challenged, was perhaps even grossly misleading.
Whatever one thinks of Penn's "famous memo," it was a private document—and it said nothing about Obama's place of birth. The Iowa volunteer fleetingly mentioned by Conway was fired by the Clinton campaign.
Did Blumenthal do what Conway charged? One person says he did; Blumenthal says he didn't. But somehow, out of this rather thin stew, Conway created an oration in which she avoided the question Todd had asked and delivered an attack on Candidate Clinton, even taking the time to cite her lack of likability.
Technically, Conway started with an attack on some of Clinton's "associates." This is the specific charge with which her oration began:
"Associates of the Clinton campaign started this birtherism question in 2007."
As she began, Conway claimed that associates of Clinton started the birther movement. That claim is shaky enough, especially given Conway's flimsy "examples." But by the end of her speech, she had abandoned her initial attempts at nuance:
"That was Clinton," Conway said. Apparently, Clinton did it herself!
Conway had avoided Todd's question on Candidate Trump. Instead, she had delivered a fact-challenged attack on Candidate Clinton.
Conway's specific claims were misleading, unfounded, perhaps false. At no point did she cite anything that Clinton herself had ever said or done.
Readers, so what? When he reappeared on the scene, Todd challenged nothing Conway had said. Instead, he seemed to vouch for the accuracy of her account. In the process, he imposed The Reign of Moral Equivalence:
"Who cares about the Clinton incident?" Todd instantly said, thereby seeming to vouch for Conway's various statements. Then he made his most remarkable statement:
TODD: Donald Trump, for five years, perpetuated this. This has been arguably part of his political identity for the last five years. So what difference does it make whether Clinton does it? Why do two wrongs make a right in this case?There you see the moderator creating The Realm of False Balance. Clinton did it, as did Trump! "Why do two wrongs make a right?" the pistol-whipped schoolboy now memorably said.
Conway continued schooling Todd throughout their interview. You see, Conway is highly skilled at what she does. Todd displayed almost no journalistic skill at all.
It's pretty much as we've always said. The more these TV performers get paid, the less skill you're likely to see them display. When people are being paid millions of dollars to maintain ratings and execute various corporate strategies, journalistic incompetence has been built into the system.
Career liberal journalists will perhaps look past Todd's performance. We've seen few of them mention this remarkable session. We're going to take a cynical guess:
Some of them may want to appear on Meet the Press! Such appearances are good for careers. Criticism of Todd is not.