The Republicans were saying only what was convenient, thus the “he said.” The Democratic leadership was saying little, so there was no “she said.” “Journalists are never going to fill the vacuum left by a weak political opposition,” says The New York Times’s Steven R. Weisman. But why not? If something important is being ignored, doesn’t the press have an obligation to force our elected officials to address it? We have the ability, even on considerably less important matters than war and nation-building. Think of the dozens of articles The New York Times published between July 10, 2002 and March 31 about the Augusta National Country Club’s exclusion of women members, including the one from November 25 that carried the headline “CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta.” Why couldn’t there have been headlines last fall that read: “Bush Still Mum on Aftermath,” or “Beyond Saddam: What Could Go Right, and What Could Go Wrong?” And while you’re at it, consider the criticism the Times’s mini-crusade on Augusta engendered in the media world, as though an editor’s passion for an issue never drives coverage.
This is not inconsequential nitpicking. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, who has written in support of going to war with Iraq, wrote of the aftermath in the March 31 issue: “An American presence in Baghdad will carry with it risks and responsibilities that will shape the future of the United States in the world.” The press not only could have prepared the nation and its leadership for the aftermath we are now witnessing, but should have.
The Real Bias
In the early 1990s, I was a statehouse reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia. Every time a bill was introduced in the House to restrict access to abortion, the speaker, who was solidly pro-choice, sent the bill to the health committee, which was chaired by a woman who was also pro-choice. Of course, the bills never emerged from that committee. I was green and, yes, pro-choice, so it took a couple of years of witnessing this before it sunk in that — as the antiabortion activists had been telling me from day one — the committee was stacked with pro-choice votes and that this was how “liberal” leadership killed the abortion bills every year while appearing to let the legislative process run its course. Once I understood, I eagerly wrote that story, not only because I knew it would get me on page one, but also because such political maneuverings offended my reporter’s sense of fairness. The bias, ultimately, was toward the story.