Michael Kinsley on Slate vs. the L.A. Times, Calling a Lie a Lie, and Opinion Journalism as Indulgence

Michael Kinsley has been the editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times since June. He founded Slate in 1995, and served as its editor for six years. He has also served as editor of the New Republic and Harper’s and as managing editor of the Washington Monthly, and has been a columnist for numerous publications including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He also co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” for six years. Kinsley spoke with Campaign Desk as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators covering the campaign.

Brian Montopoli: In Sunday’s Washington Post, David Broder complained of “a widespread loss of confidence in both the values of journalism and the economic viability of the news business.” He also argued that “When the Internet opened the door to scores of ‘journalists’ who had no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering, the bars were already down in many old-line media organizations.” What is your response to that?

Michael Kinsley: I saw that piece and I saw some commentary about it, and someone made a very good point, which is that all these scandals have involved old media types, and the argument that the arrival of the internet is responsible for all the recent media and newspaper in particular scandals doesn’t really hold water. I don’t know. I don’t want to dis David Broder, but, you know, [people always say] things are always getting worse.

BM: What’s the biggest problem with campaign journalism right now — particularly what appears on page A1?

MK: The biggest problem is — and I don’t know what the solution is, so it’s not a criticism, as much as it is a puzzle — is that the conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie. And they require balance, which is often just not justified by reality. The classic thing is the Swift Boats. If you follow what all the papers say, they inch close to saying what they really think by saying, “it’s controversial,” or “many have challenged it,” euphemisms like that. And then they always need to pair it with something else. “Candidate X murdered three people at a rally yesterday, and candidate Y sneezed without using a Kleenex. This is why many people are saying this is the roughest campaign ever.”

BM: After running a relatively lean, nimble operation like Slate, does the Los Angeles Times ever seen to you like a cumbersome, calcified dinosaur?

MK: Certainly not. The Los Angeles Times had a reputation for being lavish — which I was looking forward to. But I think it is lean and getting leaner. And Microsoft was a pretty lavish place too, in ways. Although I think the key opinion journalism is always going to be an indulgence to some extent.

BM: The Bush administration, according to a recent New Yorker piece, sees the press as just another special interest, and it’s responded accordingly, with tight message control and adherence to spin. Have reporters and editors adapted effectively to that, or have they been outflanked?

MK: I think it’s absolutely true that Bush and his administration are better than anyone ever has been in sticking to the party line. I would be quicker to criticize people for not adapting if I could think of a way to adapt. They stick to the party line because they really believe it, possibly. Or even, to stretch plausibility as far as it can be stretched, because it’s true. Those are two possibilities. So I think all you can do is point it out and let people draw their own conclusion.

BM: Do you feel that conservative and liberal views should be equally represented on an op-ed page? Does that constitute fairness?

MK: I think that, possibly, if your editorial page is one way, the op-ed page should tilt slightly the other way. But I also think you want to have a general standard of fairness, but you don’t want to start counting articles and having rigid quotas, because the most important thing is to find ideas that are interesting and important.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.