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Newsweek Taps Bush Aide For Obama Reporting

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See if you can follow this logic.

A recent article in Newsweek states that Democrats could have won a "very significant number of Republican votes in Congress" for the stimulus -- had there only been a "meaningful tax-cut component." Political journalism is often imaginative, but this verges on delusion. After all, Obama labored to add about $280 billion in tax cuts to the stimulus -- over objections from many Democrats -- and still netted zero Republican votes in the House. Then, the piece asserts that Obama has no "coattails," based on 2009 elections, and reports "early signs of Obama fatigue are emerging." (Again, another observer might note that Democrats have won all 5 special congressional elections this year.) The article also predicts that gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey "will" make some Democrats "very nervous" about health care reform, which is a "political risk" for the party.

"We appear to be witnessing the beginnings of a significant Republican revival," continues the piece, bringing home its quirky counter-narrative. Lucky for struggling Democrats, however, this Newsweek item closes with some free political advice. "Liberals in Washington would do well to let go of the Republican breakdown narrative," notes the final sentence, "and pull back to the center--or suffer the consequences."

It's the kind of article that might leave you wondering if the author simply works for the G.O.P.

Newsweek's byline states that the writer, Yuval Levin, is "editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center." It all sounds quite journalistic and non-partisan. But Levin is also a former aide to President George W. Bush. (He served on the White House domestic policy staff as recently as 2006). If anything, this government experience makes Levin's political analysis more interesting. Why keep it from readers?

As it happens, Levin's first piece for Newsweek, back in March, was prominently billed as Obama analysis from "a Bush veteran." So I put the question to Newsweek, and spokesperson Katherine Barna shares their rationale:

Levin's previous article for Newsweek involved the issue of bioethics, his primary focus while at the White House. He disclosed his prior position in the body of that piece. His most recent article was not related to that topic. We believe our readers are aware of Mr. Levin's background, and are able to discern a reported news article from argument, which Levin's recent piece was. (Emphasis added.)

Really? Does anyone think most readers keep track of White House staff by name? Or that readers memorized Levin's affiliation from March? It's hard to tell if the magazine somehow believes this argument, or just doesn't care that it's not very believable.

And, of course, the whole point of a byline is to provide "background." Levin's article already lists two affiliations for background -- they are just less relevant than his affiliation serving in a senior position in Obama's opposing party, since Levin is purporting to advise "liberals in Washington."

While we're at it, Levin has also been leading the fight to squash Obama's health care plans. He coauthored a June column with another former G.O.P. official, Bill Kristol, declaring, "ObamaCare is wrong. It should and can be defeated." Levin fails to disclose that position during his Newsweek health care coverage, which argues that reform is a "political risk" for Democrats, (his political opponents).

Now yes, people may be so accustomed to paltry disclosure and conflicts of interest that this all draws a collective yawn. Surely there are bigger problems to blog today. And so on. But it is striking that, as public views of the press hit 20-year lows, major media organizations still will not take responsibility for giving their readers basic transparency and information about contributors. And it's especially rich when the proffered explanation is that readers already know.

Update: Since filing this piece, several other outlets have weighed in:

Newsweek defends ignoring Obama critic's ties to Bush, Raw Story
The Washington Post Company does not understand disclosure, Media Matters
Melber questions Newsweek disclosure for Bush aide, Politico
The Horror and The Outrage, RCP Blog


Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this piece first appeared. He Twitters politics at http://twitter.com/AriMelber

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