Wednesday, December 06, 2006

High Broderism

This is slightly encouraging:
Jay Rosen: Do you think the political press has a “political perspective” or would you say that on the whole it doesn’t?

John Harris: In my experience, the vast majority of political reporters approach ideological questions with what you might call centrist bias. They are instinctually skeptical of what they see as ideological zealotry. They believe activist government can do good things but are quick to see how those aims are distorted by partisan corruption or bureaucratic incompetence. They tend to have a faith that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it is.

I sometimes think that if Washington political reporters ran the government their ideal would be to have a blue ribbon commission go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force base for a week and solve all problems. It would be chaired by Alan Greenspan and Sam Nunn. David Gergen would be communications director, and the policy staff would come from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute. They would not come back until they had come up with sober, centrist solutions to the entitlements debate, the Iraq war, and the gay marriage controversy.
It took me a while to realize how this instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics can itself be a form of bias. It is ideologues, rather than Washington technocrats, who make history. On the right, ideas about free markets that a generation ago were exotic are now mainstream. More recently, what started out as the left’s critique of the Iraq war increasingly defines the center.

I think this constant churning of the terms of debate should be chastening to journalists, and even to you as you urge a more advocacy-driven approach to covering news. Who needs a bunch of reporters popping off with their views? It is hard enough—and honorable enough—to aim to report and analyze politics fairly and with a disciplined effort to transcend bias. That is what we will do in this new venture.

Jay Rosen: To answer one of your questions: Why am I so concerned that most traditional newsrooms do not organize themselves around ideology, and that yours won’t either? I am neither demanding it nor expecting you to organize around an ideology. I was asking about the politics that is built into newsgathering in the way the political press has learned to do it.

I am happy to report that we have some common ground. The “instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics” can indeed be a form of bias. A “fixed idea” as Joan Didion says. Extreme centrism (as I would call it) is about hogging rationality to itself. (See Atrios on it.) This is the default form politics takes in the way the mainstream press conducts its reporting and explains the world to us. It’s software the system runs on. Maybe you plan to un-install it, or put it out of commission. That would be a development I would watch with great interest.

Though Harris reveals more than he intends to here. Note that the range of opinions runs from people who occupy what is generally called (rightly or wrongly) the center of political opinion to the extreme right. David Gergen is a Republican. Sam Nunn is a conservative Democrat who likes to run around with Warren Rudman telling people the Social Security is DOOOOMED. Alan Greenspan is an extreme conservatarian freak. Brookings prides itself on itself on straddling the political center and hosts such grand contributors to our current mess as Kenneth Pollack, while AEI is a right wing freak show filled with hackery of epic proportions.

In other words, as I've long said, the acceptable positions in Official Washington range from the New Republic to the Free Republic.