Washington Post’s Transparency Experiment: Labeling Columnists

Post op ed stances
Give the Washington Post editorial page some credit for labeling its columnists as “left-leaning” and “right-leaning” — it’s an attempt to offer a little truth in labeling. The exercise makes the paper look more silly than transparent, though it nicely illuminates the way Washington insiders work and think.

Let’s start with the idea that Richard Cohen — a reliable supporter of torture, among other non-liberal stances — can be remotely considered left of anything but the far right. He’s a statist, a militarist and a member in good standing of the inside-the-Beltway crowd that insists rules and laws are for little people, not the ones in power.

The larger issue, of course, is the assumption that these labels hold any meaning whatever at this point. They certainly don’t in Washington policy circles, where what once was called the near-radical right controls the Supreme Court and one legislative chamber; where the Democratic president has embraced and extended the civil liberties abuses of his predecessor and refused to serious investigate, much less prosecute, not just torturers but also the Wall Street barons who looted the nation and nearly wrecked the economy. Washington’s main fealty today is to the corporate interests that have bought the government.

As Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan points out today, the Post’s new policy, which extends even to Twitter feeds, pushes further the an anachronistic notion about journalism:

This, at last, is the full realization of the simplistic and rotten Washington journalistic ethos: as long as we have an equal amount of “left” and “right,” we are completely and totally balanced, and insulated from any legitimate criticism. True journalistic perfection. Anyone whose beliefs fall anywhere outside of these boxes is simply not to be taken seriously.

The most unfortunate element of the Post’s policy, however, is that it ignores the real elephant in the newsroom: the human biases and world views that are never acknowledged. The Post’s news pages, during the run-up to the Iraq war, pounded the war drums more loudly than almost any other major newspaper, pushing the Bush administration’s fear-mongering on page one while relegating serious questions to deep inside the paper. The paper’s world view was obvious, yet it was never stated.

Tell us the world views of the top news section editors — which are reflected in the journalism at every major news organization — and then the Post will be doing something novel, at least in America.

If the Post editorial page pursued real transparency, meanwhile, it would consider being a little more forthcoming about the editorials it writes, not just what the op-ed writers say. For example, the Post might consider correcting its mistakes, such as the embarrassment of October 2009, when it published an editorial based on an entirely false premise — a flagrant error it has never even acknowledged, much less corrected. Transparency? When?

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