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March 17, 2004

When it Goes Both Ways: A Blogger for the Liberal Media Thesis Meets Contrary Evidence at the LA Times

The Dog Trainer is the mock title blogger Patterico sometimes uses for the Los Angeles Times, which he monitors for liberal bias. Patterico saw bias. He e-mailed the editors. A front page story about Ruth Bader Ginsberg resulted. The blogger won a big victory. He also thought it would never happen. Why?

That is perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned in weblogs; it was the first lesson… I had a new relationship with my “public.” The public spoke; it argued; it agreed; it disagreed; it could be friendly; it could be generous; it could be trollish; it had names. But I now had a relationship with my public I’d never had before. And that public had a relationship with me it never could have before, when I was merely printed on paper: a two-way relationship.
Jeff Jarvis, at his weblog, Buzzmachine.

Ten days ago (March 7th) an item appeared in a weblog, Patterico’s Pontifications, that used a mock tone of pride and excitement to explain that soon the blogger in question, Patterico, would have news to report. “I may be about to break a big story in the Los Angeles Dog Trainer.” It was no joke. It was journalism he was talking about.

The Los Angeles Dog Trainer is the mock title Patterico sometimes uses for the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper he maintains a critical relationship with. Blogging anonymously, he is part of a collective of press watchers with weblogs; and he monitors the Times for liberal bias, plus other sins, like sloppy or dumb reporting.

The entry for March 7th was sarcastic. (But also serious, as we’ll see.) Tomorrow, the blogger said, the Times was to publish the third of three articles critical of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. (And it did.) Patterico happened to know it was based on facts—outside activities with an advocacy group with potential business before the Court—that were equally true, and easily confirmed, about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

You see, on January 29th of this year, Justice Ginsburg spoke at a dinner co-sponsored by the National Organization for Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Just fifteen days earlier, Justice Ginsburg participated in a decision in a case in which the NOW Legal Defense Fund had filed an amicus brief. In that decision, Justice Ginsburg (and the other Justices) ruled in favor of the NOW Legal Defense Fund’s position.

These facts turned out to be true— and for the Times they were newsworthy because of the Scalia coverage. I was reading Patterico’s blog the next day, March 8. There was the link to a front page account in the Los Angeles Times by staff writers Richard A. Serrano and David G. Savage (“Scalia Addressed Advocacy Group Before Key Decision”):

As the Supreme Court was weighing a landmark gay rights case last year, Justice Antonin Scalia gave a keynote dinner speech in Philadelphia for an advocacy group waging a legal battle against gay rights.

Back at Patterico’s post, I knew in a minute that if Ginsberg had done in January what Scalia did here, there would almost certainly be a story about it in the LA Times— backtracking, as it were, from the more recent news to the earlier episode. It would probably be soon, and by the same reporters. I became more intrigued when I realized that Patterico did not make the same calculation. He did not believe the second story would run. He chose sarcasm to say it:

Since the Los Angeles Times doesn’t print stories based on the ideological biases of its editors, you can bet that in the next 24-48 hours, their reporters will be bombarding legal experts with phone calls, asking their opinions regarding Justice Ginsburg’s ethics.

(Which is exactly what they did do.) The day after he wrote that, Patterico was back to explain his tone. “Irony doesn’t always come across well in print,” he said on March 9th. So he spelled it out. “I don’t really think that the L.A. Times cares that Justice Ginsburg may have done the same thing that the Times criticizes Justice Scalia for today.” They’re liberal allies, after all. Or at least the editors agree with her positions and values, he reasoned.

Here’s the phrase that should have tipped you off.
Since the Los Angeles Times doesn’t print stories based on the ideological biases of its editors …

If you can read a line like that and take it seriously, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

Now this made me think. I certainly felt I was reading the right blog. I had bookmarked it, so I could follow along. Patterico was on to something at his weblog; it was politics, it was journalism, it was blogging. I had written a lot at PressThink about “watch” blogs, and here was one about to break news because it was watching. I wanted to see what happened between him and the Los Angeles Times on March 9, 10, 11. And yet, having gone around in my mind about it for years, I do take seriously the statement: “the Los Angeles Times doesn’t print stories based on the ideological biases of its editors.” From what his blog tells me, this would flabbergast Patterico. “You’re probably reading the wrong blog.”

I take it seriously for several reasons: first because I know the editors of the Times do. If I have any business with the editors—especially the business of a critic—then I ought to know this about them, and think about it once in a while. The editors’ self-understanding is: “We don’t print news stories on the basis of ideology. Our codes and practices prevent it, and they work, most of the time.” I also know that critics like Patterico would find journalism at the Los Angeles Times a lot more honorable if they felt the statement, “we don’t print stories to fit out biases,” were empirically true. Or let’s say true more often than not.

So that’s two reasons to honor the statement. It expresses an ideal that is common to the blogger and the editors: unbiased journalism. A third reason came on March 11th when, relying on information from Patterico, a reader who writes (and who contacted his Reader Representative, as he should) the Times published this story, “Ginsburg Has Ties to Activist Group,” by the same two reporters. Surprise!

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lent her name and presence to a lecture series cosponsored by the liberal NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group that often argues before the high court in support of women’s rights that the justice embraces.

Patterico, whose weblog broke the story the Times published that day, never thought it would appear. But why? Well, if you knew Pontifications (Harangues that Just Make Sense) and what the people who hung out there believed, it was kind of self-evident (but also, they felt, there was abundant evidence for it) that the biases of the editors—left liberal, mostly—were not only a factor in what the Times prints, but a pervasive influence over news coverage and priorities.

It is worth noting that Patterico’s blog, making a daily case for this thesis, is part of a larger group effort, Oh, That Liberal Media. It blends the work of eleven writers and their weblogs. I find the contributors a fascinating mix, including the way they fan out over the nation and its journalism. Here are a few:

Stefan Sharkansky writes the Shark Blog from Seattle, where he comments on the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other fine publications.

David Hogberg lives in Iowa, where he writes the Cornfield Commentary blog. He comments on the Des Moines Register and other Hawkeye newspapers.

Harry Siegel lives in Brooklyn, where he edits the New Partisan web magazine. He comments on the New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York press.

Kimberly Swygert is a psychometrician and writes Number 2 Pencil blog, covering testing and education reform. She comments on bias in education journalism.

Oh, That Liberal Media is a weblog that replies to Eric Alterman’s book, What Liberal Media? which makes fun of the claim that the Left is in charge of the press. That’s something the Right has learned to keep saying, just to maintain the pressure for better treatment, says Alterman. “Working the refs,” he calls it. The ingenious thing about this comparison is that you work the refs whether your team is down by twenty, up by fifteen or tied at the half. To a coach riding the officials, the facts of the game are instrumental to an argument that erupts but never changes.

The subtitle of the Oh, That… blog is: “Answering the question ‘What Liberal Media?’, by highlighting liberal bias, agendas, distortions and erroneous reporting in the mainstream media.” That tells you where they are coming from. On March 11, the day the Times story on Ginsberg and NOW appeared, Patterico posted:

On the one hand, I have to hand it to the Los Angeles Times. They have run a front-page story about Justice Ginsburg’s speech to the NOW Legal Defense Fund.

On the other hand, why did I have to be the one to tell them about it?

The other day, when the Times ran a story about Justice Scalia’s having spoken before an advocacy group, I told you here that Justice Ginsburg had done substantially the same thing in January… I also told you that I had sent an e-mail to the Times’s “Reader’s Representative” about Justice Ginsburg’s speech. In a subsequent post, I explained that I didn’t really expect the Times to do anything about it.

I was wrong.

Why was Patterico so convinced that the story would never appear? After all, in the category of media watch blogging, his work last week was exemplary. It was also an act of public service to other readers of the Times. He e-mailed what he knew about news the paper had missed, alerting it: you have a problem of fairness here. The reader’s rep zapped it over to the national desk. One of the reporters on the Scalia story e-mailed Patterico, who sent him stuff. And bada-bing, another front page story for the two writers, which was also a way to demonstrate that the LA Times does not play favorites. The symmetry of the circumstances with Scalia and Ginsberg made it an easy call.

Then, as the blogger’s “influence run” continued, (complete with a coveted link from Instapundit) Justice Ginsberg found she had to address publicly the issue of her involvement with NOW, and the LA Times covered that too. (Go here and here and here.) She even offered her own press think about how the story came to be:

Noting that the first articles were about Scalia, her conservative colleague, Ginsburg described those stories as “on one side of the political spectrum.” The story about her relationship with the NOW legal defense fund came later, she said, because “the L.A. Times wanted to give equal treatment” to a liberal justice like herself.

Well, precisely. “I sent Serrano links to the relevant Supreme Court decision, and to the NOW web page in which they boasted of having filed an amicus brief in the case,” the blogger wrote. Even then he did not believe the story would fly. “I just didn’t think the editors would print it,” he said. But then he reflected on it. “I am impressed with the Times for running this story.”

I have to admit that I was shocked… The reporters called the same experts they had called for the Scalia story, and elicited the same opinions. The paper’s editors gave the story appropriate prominence: above the fold on the front page. I do think the reporters and editors deserve our respect for having been intellectually honest about this.

This was new information. Comments from readers at Pontifications included: “I’m gobsmacked.” “I give the dog trainer minimal credit.” “Score one for the little (internet) guy.” “Hey, Brit Hume on FNC just told the story of Scalia and Ginsberg!”

My comments are these. The blogger said to the LA Times: It goes both ways, guys. He wasn’t sure either speech was such a big deal. “But if they’re going to run one story, they have to run the other. That much seems obvious.” Obvious, yes, but not what the Liberal Media thesis led him to predict.

As Jeff Jarvis wrote today, “a two-way relationship” with a public is a new and potentially potent thing in journalism. Patterico found—and it shocked him—that in this instance he had a two-way relationship with the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper told him what the news was, and he told the newspaper about news it had missed.

If in the end he was impressed with the Times for doing the story, then Richard A. Serrano and David G. Savage had to be impressed with the tip they got from a reader who writes and links to what he writes about. So that’s two way. Look again at what Jarvis “discovered” as he got his mind around the two-way public. “The public spoke; it argued; it agreed; it disagreed; it could be friendly; it could be generous; it could be trollish; it had names.” That’s true of Patterico and the LA Times.

There is more to this “watchblog” thing than greets the eye. (See OJR’s roundup here.) It may be one way the press is adjusting—or being adjusted—to a two-way public: readers who are also writers. But the two-way weblogger has to adjust too, especially when there is new information, or a theory that fails to predict. It’s just one case, of course, one story. And within days Patterico was back, with “another potential controversy out there” involving Ginsberg, which the Times had not covered.

Back, but probably not in the same place. Journalism may be a lot more interesting once it gets interested in the many benefits of going both ways.

via Romenesko’s Letters, Harry Shearer notes that it was he who started calling the Los Angeles Times the Dog Trainer. Duly noted. Patterico credits Shearer at his blog.

Reason writer and weblogger Matt Welch at Kevin Roderick’s LA Observed: “Politically motivated media watching, while not always the most pleasant thing to read, produces an enormous amount of useful & corrective information. In fact, I would bet $50 that more media boo-boos are pointed out by those with a political agenda than by those who are trying consciously to be scrupulously non-partisan.”

Jeff Jarvis comments on this post: And the lion and the lamb shall report together.

Seth Finkelstein has questions about this post at Infothought: “Does the average journalist - pre-blog, pre-Internet, pre-New-Era, pre-this-changes-everything - really ordinarily think no readers can have something to say? Something intelligent to say?… I keep getting the image of a scene that would fit in the old Planet Of The Apes movie, where the sentient apes in a Council are expressing their astonishment at the existence of an intelligent human species.”

And in the comments at Infothought, cypherpunk says:

I think the truth is obvious. Journalism has always been about exercising power. It goes without saying that this is a significant motivation for many journalists. It’s not a high paying profession, generally, and working conditions aren’t great. But journalists have the power to influence people, to frame political and social questions, to bring problems to the attention of the public….

Given the reality that journalism is about power, it is unsurprising that input from the public is unwelcome. People are there to be molded and influenced, not to complain and argue. At best, public input is useful feedback to determine how well the journalists are exercising their influence and manipulative skills. And likewise, new forums for public voices (like blogs) are also perceived as a challenge rather than welcomed into the brotherhood.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 17, 2004 5:00 PM