When it was apparent that Senator Barack Obama was going to win the race for the presidency, I figured the dubious claims of media's liberal bias would simmer down once he took office and an activist White House press corps started dogging him. With an apparent lull in news to write about now that the election is over, though, the corps has already begun it's critical coverage as it focuses on the president-elect's announcements of his cabinet posts. It is a historic situation and such a focus is to be expected.
This is where the liberal reverse bias comes in, however. That's what I call it when reporters and editors -- fearful of being called liberal -- try to appear to be balanced by writing stories that push the conservative line. On these occasions, they swing too far the other way to appease their critics. I understand that. A reporter's credibility is about all he or she has. It was that way when I started in this business nearly 30 years ago and that's just the way it is.
As understandable as this swing may be, however, there's no excuse for it. Witness the preposterous stories coming out of way too many news organizations that claim Obama is reneging on his promise of change by picking the people he has for his cabinet. Here's just a sampling of the stories circulating by reputable news organizations:
• Change From the Top, Washington Post, Nov. 28
• Obama's 'seasoned veterans' belie change, Calgary Herald, Nov. 27
• Obama's cabinet -- change or Clinton era retreads?, AFP, Nov. 22
• What Kind Of Change Is This?, National Journal, Nov 24
• Analysis: Obama opts for establishment advisers, The Associated Press, Nov. 26
In her meandering column Saturday in the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker leads with a catchy phrase: "Sound the alarms, man the barricades, alert the producers! Barack Obama, agent of change, isn't a-changin'."
Sounds cool, but it doesn't ring true. Obama has selected one holdover from the Bush administration in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who had nothing to do with the disastrous war plans and is viewed as more of a moderate. He is not a neo-con like Rumsfeld, for certain. Most of the others spent some time in the Clinton administration. If this isn't change from the current administration, I don't know what is. Did people want Obama to appoint people who have never served in government before? We've already seen how that works, with all the Texans Bush brought with him when he was ushered into office by the Supreme Court. Now is not the time to hand over the reigns from a failed administration to people inexperienced in how Washington works.
Obama could pick almost anybody and it would represent something new from the current lame ducks. But he has picked a sensible group of people that has garnered the plaudits of such conservatives as John McCain, pundit David Brooks and former Democrat Joe Lieberman. So what's the "liberal media" complaining about?
This could be attributable to sheer laziness, a natural affliction for too many reporters and editors. Reporters sometimes look for easy stories to write; editors are often too eager to fill the hole on the page. I was overcome by it on occasion myself, almost always with embarrassing results.
As a young reporter, I once wrote a story about a parent uprising over what could have been a controversial program in an elementary school. This was after talking with less than a handful of parents, including the PTA president, who were upset. In the news business, the saying goes that if two or three people say or do something it's a trend and therefore news. I needed a story that day so I wrote it and the editors dutifully printed it. The next day, I heard from three or four times as many parents that the exact opposite was actually going on. When I spent a subsequent day at the school to find out firsthand -- the process I should have followed from the outset -- I discovered out that the second group of parents was indeed correct.
Today -- as partisan sites from every angle compete with traditional news organizations for the eyes and minds of readers -- it is vital to their survival that reporters be diligent, deliberate and thorough when working their stories. Whatever the cause of these misguided stories on Obama's cabinet choices -- bias or sloth or something else, even -- readers deserve better.
Jeff Ballinger's first job in newspapers was in 1980 writing sports and pulling and sorting the newswire's perforated paper tape for the now-defunct Paso Robles Daily Press in Central California. Back then, reporters used manual typewriters and editors used red grease pencils. For most of the ensuing three decades, he was a reporter in Vermont for the St. Albans Messenger and in California for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Jeff has written obits and features, covered schools and murder trials and politics, and interviewed then-Governor George W. Bush days after he was nominated for the presidency by Republicans in 2000. He has also taught high school English in California, Washington and Oregon. Jeff moved over to the Web side of journalism four years ago and now lives and writes in New York City.