David Sirota: A Revelatory Look at D.C.’s Media Matrix: Yes, These People Really Believe They Decide the “Facts”

My newspaper column last week generated some Official Pushback from the biggest of big media. The column focused, in part, on how the Washington press corps plays a deleterious role in distorting the parameters of our political debate around economic issues like health care and taxes. Here was the paragraph where I cited some examples of the media implying that the proposed surtax on the wealthy to pay for universal health care is an attempt to persecute or disproportionately burden rich people:

Washington Post editors deride surtax proponents for allegedly believing “the rich alone can fund government.” Likewise, Wall Street Journal correspondent Jonathan Weisman wonders why the surtax “soak(s) the rich” by unduly “lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of (its) households?”

I think it’s far from controversial or crazy to believe these kinds of questions or assertions are loaded down with many Fox News talking points and right-wing assumptions – that is, loaded down with subjectivity and ideology. In fact, I think they are so slanted that the burden of proving “objectivity” should fall squarely on those who wrote/said them, not on those who calls out the bias.

But that’s not what the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman thought – and his and his parent company’s response gives us an amazingly candid look at how the Washington press corps really sees itself.

On Friday, when my column hit newspapers, Weisman sent me a series of emails in protest. In his first note, he seemed to suggest that it wasn’t ethical or permissible to quote him asking his rigged question at a televised press conference because “it’s not from anything I’ve actually written.” Then, in a subsequent message, he said he wasn’t making “a statement of anything at all” (which I, of course, made clear in my column when I said he was “wondering” not “stating). Finally, and most importantly, he insisted he was merely asking a question and “a question is designed to elicit a response.”

“If I ask Robert Gibbs what he thinks of the birth certificate issue, does that mean I don’t believe Barack Obama was born in the United States?” Weisman asked me in his email.

A few hours later, me and my editors at Creators Syndicate received a series of emails from Dow Jones the parent company of the Wall Street Journal) formally demanding a published “correction” to my column for “misquoting” Weisman. For reference, here is what I wrote juxtaposed to the official White House transcript of Weisman’s question:

SIROTA COLUMN: “Wall Street Journal correspondent Jonathan Weisman wonders why the surtax ‘soak(s) the rich’ by unduly ‘lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of (its) households?'”

WEISMAN QUOTE FROM THE OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE TRANSCRIPT: “My point is, is there a point where you really are soaking the rich, where the carrying capacity of this small group of people has been exceeded and there’s just no way you can keep lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of those households?”

Dow Jones did not dispute that I wrote what I wrote, and did not dispute that Weisman publicly wondered this. Additionally, Dow Jones was not asking for a “correction” for the syntax change (ie. the change from “soaking” to “soak(s)” and from “those” to “(its)”. No, Dow Jones wanted a much broader “correction,” stating in its emails to me and my editors that “What you presented in your article can be easily interpreted by your readers as an opinion of our reporter or a statement that was made in the Wall Street Journal and as we both know is not accurate.”

So what have we learned? I’d say a few things:

1. Apparently, some D.C. reporters believe they can say anything on television or in a very public, agenda-shaping forum like a White House press briefing, and not only never be asked or challenged about what they’re saying, but not even quoted. This makes absolutely no sense to me at all, since reporters quote anyone and everyone else they can at such events.

2. Many D.C. reporters and media executives believe that by virtue of something being posed as a question, it is an empirical fact that it includes no opinion – and further, if someone says otherwise, that person is factually incorrect and therefore required to issue a formal correction/apology. As the Dow Jones Vice President wrote in his letter to me and my editors, it is simply “not accurate” for anyone to “interpret” Weisman’s question as conveying any opinion. Again, I think this makes absolutely no sense at all for obvious reasons.

For example, a reporter could have asked President Bush, “Why do you love killing Iraqi children?” and another reporter could have asked Bush “Why have you taken such extraordinarily brave steps to limit civilian casualties in Iraq?” Likewise, a reporter can ask the White House “Are you pushing a tax on the top 1 percent of Americans because those people have benefitted so disproportionately over the last three decades?” or he can ask if the White House is “soaking the rich” by “lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of those households?” The point here is that questions can quite obviously convey ideology – and the idea that they can’t simply because they are questions “designed to elicit a response” is preposterous.

3. Many Washington reporters don’t really have a basic understanding – or are willfully ignorant – of the role they play in framing the political debate, and how that role involves ideology/opinion/subjectivity. To Weisman, questions at press conferences are questions – they exist in a vacuum and play no subjective role in steering the debate or elevating topics or legitimizing frames. He makes this clear with his hypothetical: he says that if he asked the White House at a televised event what the president “thinks of the birth certificate issue,” it doesn’t necessarily mean he believes Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. That may actually be true. But he seems to imply further that it doesn’t mean he’s conveying any ideology/subjectivity at all – which is silly. If he asks that question, he is making an ideological/subjective decision to raise an empirically fantastical issue into the public debate. Similarly, when he paints a tax on the richest 1 percent as “soaking the rich” and trying to unduly balance the budget on the backs on too small a group of people, he’s elevating that entire narrative into the public debate – and worse, he’s trying to do it under the guise and plausible deniability of “objectivity.”

4. Some D.C. reporters cannot stand having their own statements put under the scrutiny they pride themselves on putting other people’s public statements under.* We can see this from the over-the-top response from Weisman and Dow Jones. Remember, they didn’t write a letter to the editor to voice their opposing opinion – they demanded a full-on “correction” for “misquoting” Weisman – even as they actually acknowledged that I quoted him word-for-word and made sure to let readers know he was posing it as a question. These people seem to believe they are above being questioned – and when they are questioned, they see their own opinions as having the weight of pure, unquestionable fact.

5. Out of all the revelatory aspects of this exchange, I find the most interesting one the possibility that Weisman really believes not only that questions are, by virtue of being questions, automatically objective, but that his particular question was completely objective. He really seems to believe that the way he rigged his question was completely “fair and balanced,” as the saying goes. And that suggests what many of us have been saying for years: Namely, that the political debate has been so pervasively rigged and corrupted as to make the,propagada system invisible to those supporting it. It’s like the Matrix, really. In this case, the debate over tax fairness has for so long been so totally tilted to frames that support the status quo, that this reporter seems to have positively no idea that he’s asking a question loaded down with all sorts of ideological, opinion-based assumptions and frames.

In the end, my editors at Creators backed me up 100%. We are refusing to publish any kind of “correction” because, as noted, I quoted Weisman word-for-word and made clear he was asking a question.

As we told Dow Jones, they should feel free to write a public letter to the editor stating that it is their opinion that Weisman wasn’t forwarding any kind of opinion or subjectivity when he asked his question at the televised White House press conference. And I want to be very clear: That is absolutely their right. I don’t purport to have a monopoly on the truth – my column is an opinion column, and it is my opinion that Weisman was conveying subjectivity and ideology in his question. Dow Jones – and anyone else, for that matter – has a right to disagree with that opinion. But what they don’t have a right to do is claim that their opinion is so clearly the open-and-shut truth that the person who disagrees with them is required to admit factual error.

We reminded Dow Jones of this – specifically, reminding them that when there are disputes over opinion, rather than verifiable fact, the standard way newspapers (including their very own Wall Street Journal) deal with such matters is to solicit publishable letters from those with an opposing opinion. And in reminding them of that, we reminded them that their opinion is, in fact, opinion – not verifiable, unquestionable fact.

They may not believe that – they may believe that because they are a Very Important Washington Media Outlet that whatever they say is automatically Objective Fact. But to those of us who live outside the Matrix, it’s pretty obvious to see that’s not true.

* As an aside, I think while many D.C. journalists do, indeed, pride themselves on putting people’s statements under a microscope, I think too many of them don’t actually put many people’s statements under the microscope at all. If anything, too many reporters reassure themselves that they are being hard-hitting gumshoes – all while publishing the words of the powerful and famous people they worship with no context/analysis/fact comparison at all.

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