Commentary Magazine


How the Mainstream Media Misses the News

For a year, a small number of conservative media outlets have been reporting on the New Black Panther Party scandal – a slam-dunk voter-intimidation case documented on videotape, which the government won by default but that Obama administration appointees ordered career lawyers to dismiss against the NBPP and two individual defendants. (The injunction against a third individual was drastically curtailed.) On the web at CONTENTIONS, Hot Air.com, and National Review Online, and on the pages of the Weekly Standard and the Washington Times, readers could watch the story unfold as bit by bit an extraordinary tale came into focus and the stone wall erected by the Holder Justice Department crumbled.

The liberal media, meanwhile, ignored the story even though the allegations were explosive. Had the Obama team, in concert with the NAACP, quashed the case because of an ideological aversion to filing cases against minorities? Did the head of Obama’s Civil Rights division provide misleading testimony under oath when he said he had never heard of such a sentiment? Was there a new Obama policy to file only civil rights cases against white defendants? Had the Justice Department acted illegally in preventing its attorneys from testifying pursuant to a subpoena?

These and other issues, including the potential involvement of Attorney General Eric Holder (whom the Justice Department admitted in written responses was briefed on the matter), were explored on the pages of conservative print outlets and on right-leaning blogs. From the liberal media? Silence.

Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) dueled with the Justice Department, seeking answers about the case for a year. Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, was grilled by House Republicans before the House Judiciary Committee as to why the case had been dismissed and whether his attorneys were hostile to claims that didn’t support the “traditional” civil rights model (i.e., bigoted whites vs. minority victims). The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights launched an investigation. The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (whose investigation — botched, it turned out — of John Yoo and Jay Bybee was breathlessly reported by every newspaper and TV news network) did as well, although it didn’t bother to question the NBPP trial-team attorneys. None of this raised any eyebrows in the newsrooms of the broadcast networks or liberal news magazines. (During this period, Newsweek did, however, run a great many stories on Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.)

In June, a whistleblower, J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on the case, stepped forward to give public testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Fox News drilled down on the story, and cautiously CBS, the New York Times, and the Washington Post gave brief accounts.

Finally, last weekend the Post’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, and Howard Kurtz on CNN’s Reliable Sources raised the question that conservative reporters and columnists have been asking for a year: where have the mainstream media been? Bob Schieffer, under Kurtz’s questioning, said that had he known about the story, he would have questioned Holder on Face the Nation the prior week. He acknowledged it was a real story that he now “cared” about. Alexander forthrightly chastised his own paper for missing the boat. And finally this Tuesday, NBC Nightly News ran a segment on the story but eliminated any reference to the most explosive allegation, namely that the dismissal of the case stemmed from an aversion to a color-blind application of the law.

So what happened here, and will the mainstream media atone for their yearlong sin of omission?

As to the “why,” one could chalk up the liberal media’s sloth to a busy news year (“we had bigger stories to cover”) were it not for the fact that the non-coverage of the NBPP scandal fits a pattern. This isn’t the first time liberal outlets ignored a story harmful to the Obama administration that was covered almost exclusively by conservative media until the incident was virtually over. Chas Freeman, who had expressed radical views about China, 9/11, and Israel, was appointed and forced to withdraw from a national-security advisory role before the mainstream media caught up. The controversy over Van Jones, the radical “9/11 truther” working as the administration’s “Green Czar,” was ignored by the mainstream media until he resigned.

These episodes repeatedly place the liberal media in an uncomfortable position. When the news can no longer be ignored, they must catch up their readers and viewers on stories they haven’t covered while delicately sidestepping how their crack investigators missed a significant controversy. At times, the op-ed pages of these outlets slip in news to their readers that their reporters have ignored. (The Washington Post editorial page provided that service on the Chas Freeman debacle.)

The easiest explanation may be correct: these outlets don’t want to report “bad news” that might harm the Democratic agenda. Really, when was the last negative story about conservatives that the New York Times “missed”? If the missed news stories were evenly distributed between those “bad for conservatives” and those “bad for liberals,” the evidence of bias would not be so strong.

Such bias, however, need not be as conscious or blatant as the most aggrieved of the conservative critics claim. Liberal outlets have, in essence, insulated themselves from a whole segment of the news. Campaign-donation records and polling reveal that liberal news outlets don’t have many (in some cases, any) conservative-leaning staff members. It’s not hard to conclude that they therefore have few, if any sources, inclined to provide information harmful to liberals. They have, for example, plenty of contacts with the NAACP, but how many of them have Justice Department sources who object to a race-conscious enforcement of civil rights laws? I’m going out on a limb: none.

Moreover, the reporters and columnists who populate the New York Times or the Washington Post and broadcast-news networks are not inclined to follow, let alone take seriously, reporting from conservative outlets. Would the network news anchors have missed a year of the NBPP scandal if they or a single person on their staff read some of the right-leaning blogs or print publications? It would have been hard. If the reporters, producers, and editors of liberal media only read each other’s publications and watch each other’s programs — and they all have exactly the same narrow news “judgment” — a lot is going to slip by.

We shouldn’t be too optimistic that the liberal media outlets will correct their errors, hire more ideologically diverse staff, cast a wider net on investigative reporting, and be on the lookout for Obama scandals. Even in its mea culpa mode, the delinquent media did not exactly come clean. Schieffer claimed in his interview that he “missed” the NBPP story because he was away on vacation the week that Adams testified. Presumably he was not on vacation for a year. There was no hint that his network (and his competitors) not only missed the story but was also beaten to it — for a year. To have acknowledged that would have been to confess that they were not simply busy but blinded to a big story that conservative reporters spied very early on.

Nor did NBC fess up that the case had implications far beyond a single investigation. Again, it would involve dredging up much explosive news that had gone unreported for a very long time.

The problem is cumulative, and the pattern has a self-fulfilling quality to it. Whistleblowers in a liberal administration (who are often conservative, just as those in a conservative one may very well be liberal) are not going to beat a path to liberal outlets that they suspect will bury or distort their accounts. So even if they wanted to, at this point, liberal news organizations are seriously handicapped in uncovering such stories, no matter how important or intriguing. Once you forfeit your journalistic credibility, it is very hard to get sources – and readers – back.

About the Author

Jennifer Rubin is an attorney and journalist living in Virginia.