The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple and I have covered the same beat for a number of years now, and although we disagree more than agree, he is someone I have come to respect. My issues are generally with Wemple’s conclusions, not his methods. In that respect, I have found him honest, trustworthy, and willing to do the hard work of digging into his subject. He’s also willing to critically cover outlets like Media Matters and tell inconvenient truths.
For decades, Wemple worked as a reporter, columnist, media writer and editor before arriving at the Washington Post. His background was obvious during our back and forth last week. You’ll see that (with my encouragement) he asked me as many questions as I asked him.
Wemple walked into the interview requesting no preconditions and was more than generous with his time. Breitbart News thanks him for what turned out to be terrific and informative conversation.
This is part one of a three-part interview.
IS THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA BIASED?
BREITBART NEWS NETWORK: Let’s start big. Do you believe the traditional mainstream media that presents itself as objective has a bias? Am I insane? A lunatic? A paranoid? Wasting my life?
THE WASHINGTON POST’S ERIK WEMPLE: I believe there’s bias everywhere in every media organization. I don’t see it everywhere you do. The Rolling Stone rape story was biased. The bias in the Hillary Clinton email scandal is in favor of transparency and not messing with media FOIA requests.
With respect to Obama now, I think the bias is similar to what we’re seeing with Hillary Clinton. Reporters are getting frustrated with the lack of information and that is creating more reports against the White House. You may disagree with that, but I don’t think there’s anything quite as valuable among White House reporters these days as a good scoop, including one that casts the White House in a negative or skeptical light.
BNN: Sure. But you can look at a newspaper and find stories covering all kinds of things that give the impression of balance. What I look at, though, is The Narrative. The stories chosen by the media to drive the news cycle, and most especially how they are covered. For the life of me I cannot remember the media ever pushing a Narrative that said the federal government is too powerful.
EW: That is an interesting point.
BNN: Never government is bad or government is not the solution or government is the problem. With national; security, sure. But never the welfare state or the IRS or anything else.
EW: It’s always that the government is not doing enough.
BNN: The Catholic Church child molestation scandal was horrific, and the Church deserved all the bad publicity they got. But how many teachers have raped students through the years — especially female teachers taking advantage of underage male students. Sure, the media covers these stories as one-offs, but where’s the media narrative about a potential institutional problem in our public school system?
EW: So a bias is in favor of government being a good thing — yeah, I think that’s correct. Washington is a company town and the company is government. But you can’t discount countless articles and series from all corners of the media that are critical of the way government programs are run.
BNN: Fair enough but I’m looking for something more along the lines of a news cycle in the wake of the IRS scandal questioning if the IRS has too much power, not if it’s poorly administered. I have never seen that.
EW: That’s very interesting. Big vs. small government bias is something worth considering. You don’t hear much talk about it, and that might be the issue your pinpointing.
The thing that I try to dispel, and I’m not taking issue with the findings that show a cosmopolitan leftism in our newsrooms, but the main notion I’m trying to dispel — and I see this a lot on Twitter — is that when a news reporter gets a scoop that hurts a Democrat in some way, the notion that somehow that’s not rewarded in the same way as when a Republican is exposed. That’s just not true. That culture does not exist. A story exposing corruption on either side is a huge scoop regardless of party. Your point appears to be story selection.
BNN: What’s at the top of the page, the top of the hour.
EW:. Bill O’Reilly frequently points out that he is a centrist and that others at Fox News, like Greta and Bret Baier, are right down the middle, but the beliefs of the personalities don’t matter. What matters is what the people in the executive suites decide to emphasize during the day’s story meeting. Barring breaking news — and this is not just Fox News, this is at every news outlet — they decide what they are covering. And you know damn well that can be very political.
BNN: And in a mainstream media that portrays itself as objective, I can’t remember the last narrative that bolstered a conservative social or political cause.
CHRIS CUOMO & INDIANA’S RELIGIOUS FREEDOM BILL
BNN: What are your thoughts on the way the overall MSM handled Indiana’s Religious Freedom law?
EW: Well, I’ve read your stuff one — especially the Sally Kohn piece. And I want to say that you are always polite and respectful to people who cooperate with your journalism, which is exactly the way to go.
BNN: As an institution, the media is evil, but that doesn’t mean the people who work for it are. Most everyone I’ve dealt with one-on-one I personally like.
EW: I do see your points on the religious freedom bill, but are you sure it’s all the media? I see people outside the media reacting against this based on what they see as the merits. You think this is something the media is whipping up? I’m not sure I’m there with you.
BNN: My focus is only on an all-consuming narrative across all media outlets that says these religious freedom laws are de facto discrimination. That narrative is not just, in my opinion, a blatant lie. It is destructive to our culture. We get along remarkably well in this country, but if you turn on CNN, you’d think we are a nation is perpetual conflict. For instance if you watch Chris Cuomo cover this…
EW: He’s your favorite.
BNN: Cuomo and Joe Scarborough are great ways to get my blood moving in the morning. But no matter who Cuomo interviews on Indiana, the premise is that the religious freedom law is evil. So Christians are treated like the Klan and everyone else is treated like Martin Luther King. We saw the same in Ferguson, especially on CNN and from Cuomo. Facts be damned, we have a narrative to push. Man alive, talk about destructive.
EW: But John, there is so much media out there. I think in terms of any controversy, there are probably more people reading the actual text of the bill than watching CNN. Citizens now have access to the core facts of any controversy. There’s more awareness today than there’s ever been before. I’m not saying that awareness is high and that the media doesn’t have an opportunity to shape things. It certainly does. But the tools are there now for figuring out exactly what you think of something, and to find different viewpoints on it.
BNN: If you fly over it at 30,000 feet, is all of the media getting both sides out? Yes. You make an excellent point and we should keep that in mind. I guess that what I’m focusing here on is the MSM. It’s my job to watch them, and Narrative Journalism is now the name of the game, and nothing is ever allowed in that might alter a chosen Narrative that is almost always based on a left-wing premise.
It took the horror of two cops being shot to get the media off of Ferguson. Now in Indiana, the narrative is that Christians are bigots, which is why a pizzeria being terrorized gets almost no coverage. Christians being victims of gay rights groups upsets the Narrative.
EW: But here you are railing against the media, but it’s so easy nowadays to find yours or Hannity’s or [Indiana Governor Mike] Pence’s defense of the religious freedom bill… I think you overplay the media’s influence. I see your stuff all over the place. I see both sides all over the place. And I think the average news consumer gets to see both sides, as well.
BNN: I actually agree with that. I do think the media has a lot less influence than they once did, which is a wonderful thing.
EW: It is a wonderful thing.
BNN: You recently wrote a piece critical of Media Matters. You’re one of the few media reporters who covers them critically and realistically.
EW: I watch them and Newsbusters very closely, and carefully. I think it’s important to watch Media Matters. I wanted to take a look at their Hillary Clinton stuff, at least with respect to the issue of her emails at the State Department. Their reaction to the New York Times’ story breaking the scandal seemed out of proportion. It seemed like Media Matters was going overboard to hammer the New York Times over something that appeared to be pretty small bore.
BNN: Like every swarm campaign Media Matters engages in, I see it as them sending a message.
EW: They sends those sorts of messages every day. They can do this because they have a lot of staff and therefore a lot of firepower. They have 75 staffers and what I covered in my piece was how this was a classic example of them going really hard, starting with [Media Matters founder] David Brock sending a letter to the Times demanding a correction.
Of everything that has prompted a David Brock letter, the story about Hillary’s emails would have to be the smallest. The Times said Hillary Clinton might have violated rules or might have broken laws. Let’s face it, the legalscape on this is a little murky. So I thought that the original Times story was pretty good, especially for a breaking piece of news like that.
BNN: I see Media Matters as tax-exempt bullies. The hysterical overreaction to the Times story seemed to me to be a calculated move to send a message to the media that there will be a price to pay if you go after our girl Hillary. They have been prepping the battlefield for Hillary for a couple years now.
EW: The [James] Carville column [published at Media Matters] was not analytically strong. Keep in mind, though, that their tax exempt status does allow for viewpoints and advocacy. I’m not a tax lawyer, but the way I understand it, you can do advocacy but you cannot work for the private benefit of someone or the benefit of a campaign. So they can do their advocacy hammering Fox News, and that’s okay because the tax law is very hospitable.
One of the things that interested me while I was researching this — and this ought to drive a guy like you nuts — is that the IRS can revoke an organization’s tax exempt status if it finds their arguments are based on emotion and not fact. So we have someone in the government deciding if advocacy groups are appealing to emotion. That to me does not sound like a proper role for government.
BNN: What does the mainstream media think of Media Matters compared to, say, a NewsBusters.
EW: That’s a good question. I haven’t had many discussions with people about NewsBusters or Media Matters. I have, though, attended events with both organizations. My sense is that among my colleagues there is a healthy cynicism and disdain for all non-profits because they are always coming at you looking for something — a link or a piece based on something they did. I don’t get a sense that my colleagues just love Media Matters.
I think that one of the reasons Media Matters has more visibility, and perhaps more perceived influence than a NewsBusters, is that it has the advantage of inveighing against the most popular and most-watched cable news network on the dial. If you’re inveighing against Fox News all the time, that’s an instant audience. If you’re inveighing against MSNBC, well…
HARRY REID AND THE MEDIA’S LOVE OF REPUBLICAN OVERREACH
BNN: Where do you think this MSM preoccupation with “Republican overreach” comes from? Harry Reid goes on the Senate floor and lies his ass off about Mitt Romney not paying his taxes–
EW: Citing an anonymous source.
BNN: Right. And everyone in the media knew Reid was lying. Everyone in the media knew the IRS had seen Romney’s taxes and that they had passed muster.
EW: And Reid expressed no regret.
BNN: No regret. And what Reid did, and I’m trying to be as objective as possible, is the worst thing I have seen a politician do in five years. Reid faced no real backlash from the media at the time. The media just went right on beating Romney up over his wealth and taxes. And yet, every time a Democrat gets into a trouble, be it Hillary and her emails or the IRS scandal, the media always goes on “Republican Overreach Watch.”
EW: I think I know where you’re going: What about Democrat overreach?
BNN: That’s part of the question. The worst part of this is how the media uses this contrived notion of Republican Overreach to save the Democrat from the scandal or the negative news cycle. The topic changes to GOP overreach and the Democrat is off the hook.
If a Republican Senator got on the Senate floor and lied about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama not paying their taxes, the MSM would have melted down. The political price this Republican would have paid — and rightly so — would have been devastating. I’ve never seen a Republican scandal go away because the media blew it back on an overreaching Democrat.
EW: I haven’t done the research, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find the word “overreach” connected to the GOP more often than Democrats. An objective analysis might conclude it’s fitting. But your example of Harry Reid is a good example.
In part two, Wemple asks me about two subjects he has covered in-depth: Tucker Carlson & Bill O’Reilly. I ask him if the IRS scandal got the coverage it deserved. Then we narrowly avoid bad-mouthing each other’s mothers.