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The Troubled New Republic

The New Republic has done something odd for a liberal magazine. They've put "The Trouble With Bias" on the cover. But it's a reference to Bernard Goldberg's best-selling CBS-insider book entitled "Bias."

The author of the cover story, Jonathan Chait, wishes to dismiss the evidence behind Goldberg's expose of the liberal media, insisting that conservative media critics "don't distinguish between biased reporting and reporting that contradicts their views." In other words, anything that makes conservatives mad is sloppily defined as media bias.

As proof of this theory, Chait explores Goldberg's paradigmatic example, the infamous Eric Engberg story mocking the "wacky" Steve Forbes flat tax plan on February 8, 1996. Chait doesn't try to argue the story was balanced. Engberg left out Forbes backers, but brought on a Brookings Institution economist and a former IRS commissioner to add heft to his ridicule. Engberg concluded by suggesting "the flat tax is one giant untested theory. One economist suggested that before we risk putting it in, we ought to try it out someplace, like maybe Albania."

In short, it was a one-sided, ridicule-heavy hatchet job. But Chait thinks that Goldberg is wrong to cite it as a classic example of liberal bias because Engberg was right on the economics. The "wacky" Forbes promise that a tax cut could allow some people to work less, since they'd have more disposable income, was "transparently silly," he wrote, since if it really inspired Americans to work less, "it would reduce, rather than increase, economic growth."

Let's see if we can follow TNR's logic here. There is a conservative position in favor of the flat tax. Liberals oppose the flat tax. CBS's Engberg opposes the flat tax, but he's not liberally biased because Chait agrees with his opinion. "Transparently silly" defines that thinking pretty well, don't you think?

But Chait's arguments get even more strained. He then claims the Engberg hit piece isn't really a low point of liberal bias because the proposal was controversial "even within the GOP... Had Forbes somehow become the GOP nominee, however, a segment like Engberg's almost certainly could not have run."

Except it did, regularly. When nominee Bob Dole offered a tax cut in the fall, CBS reporters routinely responded with the same Reaganomics-bashing attitude. In September, Lesley Stahl was pounding Dole on "60 Minutes" with eleven inquiries doubting the tax cut, demanding he explain how he's going to pay for it. She even told him flat out, on the air, that he was correct in the 1980s to oppose Reaganomics: "You were right. It did explode the deficit."

Chait thinks conservative media criticism is weak because the job of criticism requires "Olympian detachment." But what it requires is evidence, patiently recorded instead of imagined. If Chait had done that, he wouldn't have written the empirically false statement that "we invariably see more stories about poverty and environmental despoliation during Republican administrations, and more stories about government bloat and military unpreparedness during Democratic ones." I challenge Chait to produce all the "military unpreparedness stories" the networks reported in the Clinton years. He might locate one, somewhere. There wasn't much talk of government bloat, either, just salesmanship for "reinventing government" initiatives.

Even as he denigrates liberal-bias complaints as "simplistic," Chait doesn't really challenge them. He doesn't disagree that conservatives are regularly identified as such, while liberals receive no ideological warning label. He makes excuses for it, suggesting that American liberals aren't really all that liberal, at least compared to Europe. But Chait needs to look at exactly opposing poles on say, abortion. One side opposes it in all cases - the "far right" - and the other side believes it should be legal for any reason at any time - the "women's rights groups."

Chait suggests he's found one "kernel of truth" in Goldberg's book, but he's found more than one. He admits that the right has their strongest case on media bias against reporters and editors, ignoring media owners and consumers. (Memo to Chait: if that's the left's strong point, when will they do a survey that would labor to prove it?) He admits reporters have a loathing of the cultural right, which "disproportionately benefits Democrats and liberals." He admits "reporters are predisposed to seeing conservatives as temperamentally mean-spirited - an idiotic notion ... but a deeply rooted one nonetheless."

With all these kernels of truth, Chait's working on a whole cob of corn. The "trouble" with dismissing liberal bias is that it's everywhere. The argument isn't simplistic. It's simple.