These are chaotic days for political reporters and editors, and you have made them more so for me by your sensible but inflammatorily stated comments on various conservative television and radio platforms. I've been getting tons of e-mails from the liberal side of the spectrum, all quite upset with my famous co-author and wondering if I share his views.
As a general proposition: I do. On specific points of emphasis: not always.
In particular, people get lathered up by the way you describe point No. 3 in the Halperin (and Harris) journalistic canon. You said we should be scrupulously fair and "conscious of conservative complaints about media bias and liberal complaints about media softness on George W. Bush."
What could be wrong with that? My problem with the way you state it is that it tends to give credence to a popular view among ideologues of all stripes that the key to dealing with Old Media is "working the ref." Partisans, disguised as media critics, believe that by howling loudly enough, they can intimidate us into pulling punches. As a practical matter, I should say, I just don't think the "work the ref" strategy works, since in most Old Media newsrooms, we tend to dismiss the howlers as nut cases, even when they might have decent points. Beyond that, I fear that your injunction to be conscious of conservative complaints inadvertently creates the impression that coverage is a negotiation and critics should feel free to come to the table with loudspeaker in hand.
Not to sound like a Boy Scout, but the key for us Old Media dinosaurs is to have discipline and self-confidence in living up to our own standards of responsible journalism and not worry too much about being conscious of who is griping or how loudly. That does not mean we don't listen to complaints, but we do not organize our coverage around them. I am sure we have no disagreement about that, but I fear that the way you state it—whether out of conviction or a sense of mischief—creates a misimpression.
The big journalistic failure of recent years is one also shared by numerous other people and institutions. That was the media's failure—with some prominent exceptions, including several at the Post—to challenge and illuminate the administration's premises for the Iraq war before the invasion. That is not an ideological statement, or even a criticism of the war. It's just a statement of fact. The Post's editor, Len Downie—who is even more scrupulously fair-minded and politically neutral than you are—has acknowledged this publicly.
For what it's worth, I think our failures in campaign and government coverage usually have less to do with ideology and more to do with journalistic conventions. We follow noise, as witnessed by the coverage of the Kerry-Iraq uproar in recent days. (Though please note that this classic freak-show story ran inside the Post today, not on the front page.) And our professional habits and stylebook rules sometimes inhibit us from telling the truth—and from saying that someone is lying—in plain, conversational language. We let it become a matter of controversy whether it is sunny or rainy, when sometimes it's a matter of fact. This is one area of the liberal critique of Old Media that often is pretty compelling.
There have been some complaints in the "comments" section of our exchanges that we have not been responsive to each other's questions. It seems likely that these complaints are valid. I will take pains to answer all three of the questions you posed, posted below in italics.
1. What encouraging lessons can you draw from yesterday's Kerry-McCain-Bush dust-up?
None so far, but let's see how this plays out. It's not at all clear how consequential this will be.
2. Based on his performance in the last 24 hours, does Sen. McCain seem inclined to deploy the freak show or fight against it?
John McCain is in precisely the same situation as Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has previously had his public image hijacked by the freak show. Based on that experience, he has learned how to navigate the freak show and even exploit it to his advantage. Like Hillary Clinton, he has concluded that the role of navigator-exploiter is more enjoyable than the role of victim.
3. What did you think John Kerry's chances were to be the Democratic nominee in 2008 two days ago, and what do you think they are now?
Before: very low. Now: very, very low. But life is full of surprises.
And you are full of provocative ideas, which is why I remain your loyal friend and correspondent.