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Caveat lector

18 November 1999

The Howler epilog: Discourse on bias

Synopsis: Some in the press have accused us of bias. We suggest they just deal with the things that we’ve said.

Story Time
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 10/18/99

Commentary by Walter Shapiro
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 11/12/99

Reply by Dana Milbank
Letters Column, The New Republic, 11/22/99

We say it again: we think the press story of the year, post-impeachment, has been the negative coverage of Gore. It began in mid-March with the farm chores debacle, which we think was the most striking press event of the year. For three solid months, CelebCorps accused Gore of being "deeply dishonest" (Donald Lambro) and "delusional" (Michael Medved). Why? For a comment that reflected a part of Gore's life that the Washington press corps had written about for twelve years! To this day, this bizarre press conduct has gone unremarked, unreviewed, unexplained, undiscussed. It stands as a tribute to the press corps' willingness to cover up its mistakes—and to tell readers the stories it likes.

We didn't make this strange episode occur, and we didn't create this summer's largely favorable Bush coverage—indeed, when the L.A. Times wrote a story about Bush that was loaded with spin, we spent four days critiquing it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/12/99, 7/13/99, 7/14/99, 7/15/99). Nowhere else could a Bush supporter have found so detailed an assault on the Times piece. But sometimes when you tell it just exactly like it us, that ol' celebrity press corps goes looking for reasons. And so it happened that this passage appeared in the pages of The New Republic, penned by TNR's Dana Milbank, whom we had criticized a few weeks before:

MILBANK (10/18): No doubt, the above portrait of the Gore campaign will bring an angry rebuke from one Bob Somerby of Baltimore. Somerby, Gore's roommate when they were students at Harvard University, runs a website that lashes out at media miscreants who dare to criticize the vice president's flawless campaign. In a recent dispatch, Somerby, employing a naughty word for equine feces, describes your correspondent's campaign coverage as "stomach-churning" and accuses me of making light of child molestation, having an obsession with naked presidential candidates, and worst of all, being too hard on Gore.

There was one more paragraph, which we'll reprint below. [See postscript]

Alas, poor Milbank! We simply must have him visit the sprawling campus of THE DAILY HOWLER's spectacular World Headquarters, nestled in the rolling foothills of Baltimore County's horse country, state-of-the-art in world press critique web sites! Like some others in the Washington press, he identifies THE DAILY HOWLER with this fellow Bob Somerby, the humble messenger who simply types up the critiques which our analysts bring him! Here and in a follow-up note (see below), Milbank implies that it is some bias of Somerby's that explains the views of THE HOWLER. We thought the time may well have come to address that issue forthwith.

But before we speak to Milbank's complaint, let's note a problem with allegations of bias. Such allegations are a form of the ad hominem argument; they choose to address a writer's motives, rather than his arguments or his facts. They are easy to make, virtually impossible to prove—and often provide a wonderful way of avoiding what a writer has said. Indeed, if anyone ever needed a perfect example of how seductive the ad hominem approach can be, Milbank's presentation in TNR provides a perfect illustration. Indeed, one would never guess, from what Milbank wrote, that the article which we termed "stomach-churning" was an article Milbank had written about Bush—that it was Milbank's "campaign coverage" of Bush that we had described so uncharitably. The article in question is "Touchy," which Milbank wrote in the 9/27 TNR, an article we critiqued on September 17 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/17/99). Weird, isn't it? By a slip of the pen, Milbank had accidentally given TNR readers the impression that we'd slammed him for his coverage of Gore! Of course, any TNR reader who wanted to check could see for himself what our article said. Except: Oops! Another big oversight! In his discussion, Milbank had completely forgotten to mention the name of THE HOWLER! Having completely misstated what THE HOWLER had said, he gave TNR readers no way to look for themselves. Ommigod! Image the chagrin TNR must have felt when it realized it had made this mistake!

We wrote a letter to TNR, published in the November 22 edition; Milbank responded in a short note which we must describe as the standard dispatch-from-Mars. Making no comment on the fact that we had principally criticized him for what he wrote about Bush, Milbank again accused us of bias toward Gore, proving his point to (we hope) puzzled readers by citing the fact that recent HOWLERs had criticized Gore's campaign coverage. He never said whether we were right or wrong in our claims—in fact, he essentially forgot to say what our claims were—but simply seemed to say that, because we'd so written, that apparently showed we were biased toward Gore. And so you see why logicians have long argued against ad hominem presentations—they lead to a note like this one Milbank penned, in which he doesn't seem to have heard that arguments are right or wrong, and should be addressed on the basis of evidence.

In basic reasoning, here's how "bias" works, friends. A writer's argument is either right or wrong. If you've actually shown that the argument is wrong, you may start wondering why the writer has made it. But in the culture of the celebrity press corps, writers often prefer to skip over arguments, looking for reasons to avoid having to address them. That's what Milbank did in these notes. And in his original 10/18 piece, he also completed a cyber trifecta—misstating what our critique of him said, and failing to mention the name of our site so TNR's readers could see for themselves.

Bottom line: we criticized Milbank for his "stomach-churning" coverage of Bush. He told readers we'd slammed him for his coverage of Gore. Do you see, dear readers, the crying need for one, two, many DAILY HOWLERs?


Bias, get your bias! We never mention Walter Shapiro without offering up our "sagacious" sobriquet, but the Sage One let us down a tad on Washington Journal last week. Responding to a caller who mentioned THE HOWLER, here's what the savvy scribe said:

SHAPIRO: The fellow from The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby, who's not only an accomplished media critic, he's a very good stand-up comedian and a terrifically nice guy, but he's also one of Al Gore's college roommates. So to some extent, though he's doing his best on media criticism, he's doing it from a perspective of really believing that Al Gore should be the next president. He also did it during impeachment, defending Bill Clinton, all of which is totally fine.

Several comments. First, Somerby wishes Shapiro had mentioned how handsome he is—why the curious omission of that? And Shapiro, like Milbank, seems to confuse poor Somerby with the incomparable DAILY HOWLER itself. But our views of Clinton last year, we think, generally agreed with Shapiro's views—we didn't think Clinton should be impeached or removed, but we think that was Shapiro's view also. (It was the view of roughly 65% of the country, by the way.) And we think we mentioned in passing what Somerby frequently said in the outside media—that we thought Clinton's conduct with Lewinsky was ridiculous, and dangerous, and suggested that something was wrong with Clinton, and that a better case for impeachment could have been made on the basis of national security. But THE DAILY HOWLER does not exist to evaluate pols—THE DAILY HOWLER exists to evaluate the press corps. We evaluated press coverage of Clinton last year, not Bill Clinton himself. As for Somerby's views on who should be president—Shapiro is basically guessing. Does Somerby "really believe that Al Gore should be the next president?" Somerby has said many times that he is a Democrat, who almost always votes for Democrats. (He has also said—on Washington Journal, for example—that he thinks it was a good thing for the country when the GOP took over the Congress. He did not get that from the DNC or from Gore.) But what do Somerby and THE DAILY HOWLER really think? We really think that there are a variety of qualified hopefuls out there; that they deserve to be covered in a rational way; that the election is about the candidates, not the pundits; and that people should vote for who they like.

One final note on the Gore-shill theory: THE DAILY HOWLER has repeatedly pointed out that Gore and Bradley both propose paying for health plans out of a projected surplus is built of budgeting gimmicks. (Bush says he would pay for tax cuts and certain spending the same way.) We have repeatedly said that the press corps should ask the hopefuls, including Gore, if they plan to stick to the 1997 spending caps, without which the projected surplus goes away. Anyone who thinks that Gore 2000 hatched this thought is living in a dream-like state. To our knowledge, no mainstream journalist has offered this critique—just us biased folks right here at THE HOWLER, shillin' away for ol' Gore.

Dana's point: Here is Milbank's reply to our letter in the 11/22 TNR:

MILBANK (11/22): Now why would anybody think Bob Somerby is biased because he was Gore's Harvard roommate? Perhaps because the last twelve stories on his website about candidates complain that the press is too mean to his pal Al. A few of the latest installments: "It's time to ask an awkward question. Is the press corps sand-bagging Gore?"; "The writers insist young Gore was stiff. Their reporting seems to say something different"; and "Gore said Bradley would spend too much on health. On three follow-up shows, nobody noticed."

Milbank avoids addressing the main point of our letter, the fact that we had principally criticized his coverage of Bush. But note the points he does raise. "Gore said Bradley would spend too much on health?" Our complaint concerned the vacuous commentary on the town hall forum; we expressly said we do not know if Gore's complaint about Bradley is accurate. If the press would stop talking about Gore's hair and clothes, maybe some day we'll find out. "The writers insist young Gore was stiff?" Their writing did seem to say something quite different. In this note, Milbank presents the ancient, ad hominem dispatch, completely ignoring the arguments we made. Logically, allegations of bias arise when an argument is proven wrong. Milbank likes quicker solutions.

As we promised: Here is the second paragraph of Milbank's 10/18 passage:

MILBANK (10/18): Now, the first two charges are fair enough, but Somerby's point about Gore demands rebuttal. True, the coverage of Gore's campaign has been excessively negative. But the Gore campaign has brought much of this on itself by being tactical and reactive rather than by articulating a vision.

In short, Milbank says we were right in complaining that he "made light of child molestation" and has "an obsession with naked presidential candidates" (principally in his coverage of Bush, let's recall). And he seems to agree that the coverage of Gore has been "excessively negative." We say he seems to agree because he then immediately says that the Gore campaign brought the coverage on itself. But if the Gore campaign brought the coverage on itself by its own conduct, then in what sense is the coverage "excessive?" Milbank's comment doesn't seem to make sense. At THE HOWLER, we don't have that problem.