Media Ignorance Is Worse When It’s Intentional

Published July 14, 2014

I hope you all took time to read Mollie Hemingway’s piece this week concerning the problem of media ignorance. The really troublesome aspect of it, as I see it, is not when people are unintentionally ignorant of the matters they cover, which is of course excusable. No one is expected to be an expert on everything they write about, and in practice, it just serves to foster the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, which you have surely experienced regularly if you are an expert in something and a consumer of media. Yes, it’s a problem when those youngsters in media who got promoted because they are really good at the Instagram don’t know about something because it’s on the second page of the Google results. But leaving something you didn’t know out of a story is more excusable than asserting something inaccurate out of ignorance, which is still more excusable than purposefully putting on blinders and ignoring anything that conflicts with your thesis because you’d rather not engage it. It’s one thing to not knowanother perspective exists – it’s another to purposefully pretend it doesn’texist.

I know this is a minor complaint in the scheme of things, but if you want an example of this in practice, I’d draw your attention to the recent staff changes at the Washington Post’s Wonkbook, which has been dramatically reduced in usefulness since Ezra Klein pulled a great deal of their talent into Vox. To his credit, Klein has always understood that even media in pursuit of an ideological agenda gets boring very quickly if it’s entirely one-sided. Good political media requires conflict – it needs someone to take the other position in a debate, which is why his criticisms of Paul Ryan would be followed with an interview with the subject and the like. The overall effect was to provide people with a fairly consistent look at what the major Washington think tanks were doing, and while the reporters obviously leaned in a direction, I’d argue they rarely pretended conservative views didn’t exist or lacked legitimacy.

Unfortunately, ever since Klein, Evan Soltas, and others departed Wonkbook, replaced by Puneet Kollipara, Matt O’Brien, and a new crop of writers, the once-useful morning email has very obviously felt the impact. It has drastically reduced the number of right-leaning links, diminishing them to the point of nonexistence or only featuring critiques of conservative views. It regularly reaches the point of laughability in the context of multi-day debates, in which you can only learn the existence of a perspective through the frame of a liberal critique, or only learn of something gone wrong with Obamacare through a piece explaining why it doesn’t matter.

To pick one recent example: On the day the reform conservatives released their Room to Grow agenda at AEI (a development of significance whatever you think of the actual agenda), Wonkbook didn’t link a single thing about it – not one oped or post in favor of it or any of the source materials. Over the course of the next few days, they gave a few scant nods to pieces in favor of it, while linking a litany of pieces from liberals reacting to the proposals, criticizing something that they hadn’t even acknowledged existed.

A purposefully cloistered attitude, where the only good conservative is the one making the case for lefty ideas, is a real disservice to debate. If most of your links are to a conservative making the case for a universal wage subsidy or a carbon tax or immigration reform, it’s simply not an accurate depiction of where the other side is. And it leads to your site and email sounding less like a fair-minded left-leaning traditional media outlet and more like, well, ThinkProgress.

The impression you get is of a place with an ideological perspective that overwhelms its ability to fairly depict policy debates. The other day, after the GOP announced that it would hold its 2016 convention in Cleveland, Wonkbook sent out their afternoon update with the subject line and first piece headlined “How the Republican platform fails Cleveland”, which to me sounds more like a DNC press release header than an evenhanded evaluation. The piece has since been renamed. But the first title is a more accurate reflection of their perspective, which is disappointing to say the least.

As a postscript: it’s not as if you need to be a younger writer to play pretend and ignore the legitimacy of a different perspective. Back in 2012, I had a particularly frustrating interaction with Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler in which he outright refused to consider an alternate perspective on a question. Kessler gave “Four Pinocchios” to then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for some testimony the governor gave about Medicaid fraud in his state, noting that people were driving BMWs while claiming they couldn’t afford copays. Kessler’s rationale was so twisted that I still can’t believe he advanced it: his view was that Barbour had to be lying, because BMWs are too expensive for people who qualify for Medicaid to afford. I’m serious – he even did the search. Despite citing a half dozen news stories to him from that very week of people being arrested for Medicaid fraud who owned flashy cars and McMansions, and pointing out that people can easily go onto Medicaid after buying BMWs earlier in life, Kessler refused to consider a world in which it is possible for Medicaid fraud or downward social mobility to exist, and got more than a little testy when challenged with the idea there was any gap in his logic.

Perhaps now that his own publication has run a piece about someone driving a Mercedes to pick up food stamps, he’ll reconsider his perspective. But I doubt it. Blinders can be awfully effective once you wear them long enough.

Update: Kessler has since offered a mea culpa.

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[Originally published at The Federalist]