WASHINGTON — “I know it when I see it,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote when dodging a definition for “hard-core pornography.” Media critics, even practicing journalists and J-school professors are too often just as lazy when it comes to defining bias. In many cases, as on CNN or MSNBC, they blindly deny that their work has any bias at all.
Where the bias is more subtle, identifying it in news reports can resemble a walk into a field of weeds. Well, put on a pair of long pants let’s give it a try.
The Washington Post – Bias or Sloppy Reporting?
In a February 16, Sunday Washington Post story, “US boasting leaves E.U. leaders uneasy at policy conference” (A21), none of its three writers, were able to locate for comment even one supporter of President Trump’s foreign policy.
The story, which focuses principally on reaction to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s February 15 speech at the Munich Security Conference, cited rebukes of Pres. Trump’s foreign policy in speeches by French President Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The writers provided commentary to the three only from two U.S. Democrats: Sen. Robert Menendez, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a member of Obama’s National Security Council.
Naturally, the story evokes several questions:
1) Who besides Presidents Macron and Steinmeier spoke?
How many foreign leaders spoke? The story doesn’t say. Did any of them mention President Trump by name or did all speakers snub him and U.S. foreign policy?
2) What is illogical about President Trump demanding that that European Union countries uphold their end of the NATO partnership by providing proportionate funding?
Yes, a Macron quote spoke to the logic of having “an American partner saying you need to invest more in your own security and that is true.” But isn’t something else implied in the setup, that his “downplaying Washington…was telling [emphasis mine] at a conference that focuses on transatlantic relations
3) The 15th paragraph opens with, “Critics.”
Yet nowhere do readers find the logical balance then with “Supporters.” From what ethical school or philosophy of journalism does that story and so many others like it in The Washington Post represent?
4) Were no Trump administration supporters, i.e., Republicans, present to comment on Secretary Pompeo’s speech?
Was it all really Secretary Pompeo AGAINST nearly an entire EU audience, a pair of anonymous sources speaking against U.S. policy, and the two Democrats in the story? That is the context the story provides.
A second story with a Munich dateline and this one with a double byline, “ISIS is still dangerous despite Baghdadi killing, Iraq’s Kurdish leader warns” (A20), also mentions the Security Conference. An additional contributor, Souad Mehenmet, was in Munich, too, the tagline says. That’s six reporters contributing to two stories of modest length.
1) Was other support staff present? How many? Was at least one editor present? Two? More?
2) How is it, with all that manpower (six The Post identifies), reporters couldn’t find one person supporting the president’s foreign policy? There were none? Really?
All of this has nothing to do with the foreign policy itself, which would be a separate subject. The focus here is only on Washington Post reporting.
The Wall Street Journal offered a bit of media ethics when on September 10 it ran an op-ed piece by Walter Hussman Jr., “Impartiality is the source of a newspaper’s credibility.”
Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, focuses on three core values of journalism: impartiality, credibility and the pursuit of truth. Skipping the obvious platitudes, The Washington Post story on the Security Conference doesn’t seem very impartial.
One could point to similar stories in nearly every issue of that newspaper.
If the Security Conference story isn’t a manifestation of lazy reporting, then isn’t it evidence of bias?
Of course, The Washington Post can do better, because sometimes it does. Take, for example, Max Bearak’s A20 story also in the February 16 issue: “Congo’s Ebola outbreak finally wanes,” offers straight-forward, informed reporting on an important subject.
One could make a career writing criticism like this. (The Trump administration fared worse in The New York Times that weekend.) Unfortunately, there’s no money in it.
David Alan Coia is a writer, editor and educator based inside the National Capital Beltway.