Ornstein and Mann's False Claims about 'False Balance'
8:11 AM, Dec 11, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
Over at Huffington Post, Dan Froomkin has an interview with Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein titled, "How the Mainstream Press Bungled the Single Biggest Story of the 2012 Campaign." It turns out, the single biggest story the media ignored is the fact that Republicans lying liars, to paraphrase the title of a book by Senator Al Franken, who happens to be a close friend of Ornstein. This isn't a new theme for Mann and Ornstein—they wrote a Washington Post op-ed back in April called, "Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem," and they've been promoting a book on this theme.
I don't have a lot to say about the basic argument, other than you should be deeply skeptical of anyone who tries to prop up obviously ideological contentions as empirical straw men in order to discredit the political opposition. Mann and Ornstein seem to avoid specifics for the most part, though here's how Froomkin summarizes what they're saying about the GOP:
These are awfully reductive and debatable statements—if this is how the GOP is willfully disregarding the truth, than the current Democratic insistence that a slight increase in marginal tax rates for the rich is a serious solution to address our exploding debt is problematic by the same standards.
But what I really find astounding is that Ornstein and Mann decided to weigh in on media fact checking. Mann and Ornstein's reputations rest on their vocation as policy experts, and their conclusions expose them as both ignorant and ideological. I actually agree with their conclusion "the fact-checkers may have made things worse rather than better," and that it's no substitute for thorough reporting. But they quickly run off the rails:
Here's the problem: we actually can quantify fact checking pretty easily. And contra Ornstein, the results are that fact checkers are pretty willing to say Republicans are the problem, credibility be damned. I've noted this many times before, but the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs did a study on PolitiFact, the largest media fact checking organization, from January 2010 through January 2011. The study found "current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged 'false' or 'pants on fire' over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent)."
More recently, the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University tallied up 98 PolitiFact findings from June 1 to September 11:
I realize that this isn't as often as Ornstein's preferred 20 to three ratio, but it seems that PolitiFact is willing to come out and call Republicans liars over Democrats at a rate of three to one or two to one. Is Ornstein really suggesting that this isn't enough? Or is he just entirely ignorant of the fact that fact checkers are already pretty skewed? I'm going to go with the latter, because even the editor of PolitiFact seems ignorant of how tilted toward Democrats his own organization's conclusions are. (I'm not even going to get into what a demonstrably terrible job fact checkers did evaluating many of the specific claims made during this last campaign.) Ornstein's real problem seems to be fact checkers weren't as effective as he would like them to be at discrediting Republicans.
It gets better:
As it happens, I was interviewed about fact checking and "false balance" in the media by an ombudsman back in January. Perhaps Ornstein occasionally reads the New York Times? Well, in answer to the question "What the f--k is an ombudsman doing if he's not paying sufficient attention to Norm Ornstein?," the Times has a new ombudsman since I was quoted on the topic, and she's dedicated a blog post today to airing and agreeing with many of Ornstein's grievances. Though let it be noted Times public editor Margaret Sullivan does think he's too hard on fact checking—“one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”
Oh, and can someone lend me an electron microscope so I can find a Stradivarius suitable for this?:
I don't know about being used as source, but as I've previously noted, their views aren't exactly being ignored by the New York Times and Washington Post. And in May, Ornstein and Mann did a lengthy interview on the Wall Street Jounal's website promoting their book. Pariahs, they are not. To the miniscule extent they should feel alienated, I'd venture that making gross generalizations unsupported by facts in the process of insisting half the country is willfully disregarding the truth—well, that could have something to do with it. But again, there's no reason to cry for Mann and Ornstein:
They're selling a load of something, that's for sure.
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