More on YearlyKos: columnists, reporters and labels

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I’ve read the comments and some postings elsewhere about my appearance on that YearlyKos panel and an interview I did later for TPMtv. A couple of points. First, one commenter reads too much into a statement I made on the panel to the effect that “Time will always have conservative columnists”. I was asked about columnists like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, the fact that they were terribly wrong on Iraq (and, to this audience, wrong in general on most subjects) and why Time continued to publish their columns. When I said Time would always have conservative columnists, I meant, simply, that as long as there is a stable of columnists at Time, there will be some among them representing conservative political views. The fact that conservative pundits appear in Time does not make the magazine itself conservative. The reader who claims that I “admitted Time is and always will be a conservative magazine” must be having a Gonzales moment.

(Time has always been more about its reporting than its columnists — it won the 2006 National Magazine award for general excellence thanks to its cover story on the classified al-Khatani interrogation logs from Guantanamo obtained by Adam Zagorin, a Washington bureau senior correspondent. Columnists, while important and all, do not define Time magazine.)

But, since we’re on the subject, Time happens to be bringing on board a new foreign affairs columnist, Samantha Power (and here). I can’t imagine Power being labeled a conservative. But we’ll see. She’s set to start later this year, once she finishes a book. Finally, a reader who also attended the panel asked how Time chooses its columnists. The answer: the person who runs the magazine, the managing editor, gets to choose, although he seeks out opinions from others on the staff.

Meanwhile, I want to address another bit of fallout from my time in Chicago. Jay Rosen over at PressThink devotes some digital ink to something else I said (this time to TPMtv from the sidewalk outside the Swampland party). Others have joined in. After noting that I called the blogsophere’s critique of the MSM “overwhelmingly healthy”, Rosen then pulls out another comment I made on the sidewalk which, I would argue, he substantially overinterprets. Here, from Rosen’s post:

He then added something unintentionally revealing of how political journalists got themselves into the very trouble that’s forcing at least some of them to look inward. “Karen Tumulty and I— we’re not advocates, we’re not columnists.” (Tumulty, a contributor to Swampland, is Time’s national political correspondent.) “It’s our responsibility not to be labeled left or right.”

Rosen says that this statement is “a case of a political journalist blurting out a deep truth about his profession.” His meta-point is that, by considering it our responsibility not to be labeled right or left, we in the MSM who are not advocates and who try to be objective have been cowed into not reporting the truth. I understand this general argument and I think there are certainly downsides to journalism that struggles to be objective and non-partisan. But I do think Rosen is twisting a simple comment into a pretzel in order to make it fit with an all-purpose critique of the MSM.

What I meant about having a responsibility not to be labeled left or right is that our responsibility is to the truth — that we should write what we see, not what we want to see or wish to be true, and that, if we do so, attempts to label us as partisan will fail. The purpose of labeling in most of these cases, after all, is to diminish and belittle the work we do. This is part of the motivation behind the multi-decade attack by the right on the MSM — i.e., conservatives have long argued that the MSM is biased and the news stories in the NYT and WP and Time and Newsweek, as well as on CNN and the broadcast networks, should be discounted and ignored (if, of course, they reflect badly on the GOP or conservative policies) because the reporters who produce them are disproportionately liberal and, therefore, biased accordingly. But quality rises. The label doesn’t stick if the work is grounded in truths that withstand the accusation of bias.

I concede that my sentence structure wasn’t perfect. I was, after all, speaking off the cuff from the sidewalk outside a cocktail party, at the request of TPMtv, not writing an essay for CJR. We obviously can’t control the labels assigned to us by critics who don’t like what we write and say, and we shouldn’t try. But by being faithful to the facts and our judgment about where the truth lies, rather than to a political cause, party or ideology, we have some control over whether those labels ring true to the broader world of readers. I absolutely agree that it is a mistake to bend over backwards in search of “balance” — to report every charge and counter-charge with equal weight. Balance is not the same as fairness. We should and must call “b.s.” when a claim made by a politician or government official is provably false. But we need also to judge the merits of each claim, and not make broad assumptions based on our own preferences for one side or politician or ideology over another.

To go back to the sidewalk: Karen and I are reporters, not columnists or partisans. If we’re doing our jobs as political reporters, attempts to label us as left or right will fail because our stories will be grounded in solid reporting.