Modern journalists in a postmodern world…

Howard Kurtz considers the attitude of the press toward Al Gore (see my earlier post). There are two quotes in the column I find disturbing:

“Somewhere along the line,” says Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director, “the dominant political reporters for most dominant news organizations decided they didn’t like him, and they thought the story line on any given day was about his being a phony or a liar or a waffler. Within the subculture of political reporting, there was almost peer pressure not to say something neutral, let alone nice, about his ideas, his political skills, his motivations.”


Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank said on CNN in August: “I think that Gore is sanctimonious and that’s sort of the worst thing you can be in the eyes of the press. And he has been disliked all along, and it was because he gives a sense that he’s better than us.”

In the first quotation, note the prominence of the narrative bias. In other words, Halperin is saying that the master narrative that the press wrote for Gore dictated a certain point of view among political reporters. This master narrative ran counter to the intuitive assumption that Gore should get favorable coverage from a liberal press.

In the second quotation, Dana Milbank is not a columnist but a reporter. What a reporter thinks about Al Gore shouldn’t play a role in the “objective” process of news gathering, writing, and editing as long established by the profession. As we all know, however, one’s point of view cannot be escaped. And, as the postmodern thinkers tell us, one does not have a single point of view; one has multiple, even conflicting, points of view.

So in Milbank’s case, which is the more powerful point of view (assuming two for the moment)? I’ll assume (safely, I think) that Milbank is politically liberal. Don’t liberals automatically favor liberals because no human can observe the world objectively? An affirmative answer is roughly the position espoused by Michael Kelly in his recent columns about media bias (see here and here)

Standard criticism of media bias assumes a modernist subject position, i.e. a stable and consistent personality whose actions can be analyzed and predicted based on an understanding of the subject’s point of view. Well, it ain’t that easy.

Reporters may be overwhelmingly liberal, but that doesn’t mean that their political ideologies are always the dominant point of view, or the dominant influence on their work. I suggest that for many reporters the structural biases of journalism have far more influence on their coverage than ideology. I suppose my best argument for this contention is that ideology varies greatly among individuals, but professional practice, while still variable to an extent, is a shared context among professional practitioners.