Conservatives see bias in McClellan coverage

Unsurprisingly, as they continue to push back against the former White House press secretary's memoir, conservatives are complaining about liberal slant.

Published May 29, 2008 12:36AM (EDT)

I wrote earlier about the push-back Republicans are already engaging in against former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's forthcoming tell-all. What I examined then was the criticism of McClellan (some of which is justified), but there's another angle to the arguments against McClellan's book that are coming from the right, a sort of misdirection trick: "Hey, look at the liberal media!"

The typical complaint that I've seen thus far is that McClellan's book is getting a disproportionately heavy amount of coverage because it's critical of the administration. At the conservative blog Powerline, for instance, Paul Mirengoff wrote, "It will be interesting to compare the degree to which the MSM reviews and reports on McClellan's book with the negligible extent to which it has reviewed and reported on [former undersecretary of defense for policy] Douglas Feith's inside look at the conduct of the war on terrorism." The National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez made a <a href="similar point in a blog post of her own.

Rich Noyes, the research director at the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog, took a similar tack. Posting at Newsbusters, the MRC's blog, Noyes examined the amount of attention given a book written by McClellan's predecessor, Ari Fleischer, when it was released in 2005. "Unlike McClellan, Fleischer did not take pot shots at his former employer, but did include some telling examples of the liberal bias of press," Noyes wrote. "Perhaps not surprisingly, then, while McClellan's yet-to-be-officially-published book has already become the liberal media's favorite story of the day, a Nexis search shows that Fleischer's memoir generated virtually no broadcast or cable news coverage, and no front-page coverage in the nation's newspapers."

Noyes says that "TV coverage the week after Fleischer’s book was released was limited to just eight interviews, none given that much prominence." It's an odd take, because according to Noyes Fleischer appeared on all three major cable news networks -- specifically, he appeared three times on Fox News, the highest-rated news network, and twice on runner-up CNN -- and on two out of the three network morning shows, which are a plum spot. Most authors would commit unspeakable acts for that kind of coverage.

As so often happens when people with little or no experience in the actual news business criticize it, the critics' lack of knowledge has led to a fundamental flaw in their argument. A former White House press secretary coming out and slagging his former boss and former colleagues is news, especially when he offers revelations about the workings of the White House. That's why McClellan's book has gotten so much coverage, and the same thing would have happened in the Clinton administration.

The books written by Feith and Fleischer are a different story altogether. Feith came in to his book with a less-than-stellar reputation for his work in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, reportedly called Feith "the stupidest fucking guy on the planet," and the assessments Feith's office produced during the run-up to the war were criticized in a report from the Pentagon's inspector general. Those things by themselves don't necessarily mean that any book Feith wrote wouldn't be newsworthy. But what he wrote was an apologia that attempted to shift the blame for the quagmire in Iraq onto others. (He actually still argues that part of the reason for the problems in Iraq is that the administration ultimately decided not to go with the plan he favored and install a group heavy on Iraqi exiles as a provisional government immediately after the invasion; that group would have included the repeatedly disgraced Ahmed Chalabi.) For that reason, the collective yawn the book inspired from the press shouldn't have come as any sort of surprise.

And Fleischer's book, too, was devoid of any new information of real substance. In a biting review of it for the New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that the book was "essentially a collection of talking points hastily pasted together with large slatherings of the vitriol and exasperation the author seems to have accumulated ... It's an extended exercise in Mr. Fleischer's spinning his own earlier spin."

The sort of thing both Feith and Fleischer wrote, regardless of who the spin favors, doesn't make for big headlines and it certainly doesn't grab readers. In short, it's not news. McClellan's book is. That, not bias, accounts for the difference in coverage.

Update: An earlier version of this post included quotes I attributed to the Pentagon inspector general's report about Feith's office. As a reader pointed out, the Washington Post story I used as my source was later corrected, and the quotes were not in fact from the IG's report but from one issued by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). As the quotes were only tangential to the point, I've gone ahead and removed them.

Separately, there's a new allegation of bias about McClellan's book now. Seems the editor of the book is -- gasp -- a liberal! Worse, the publishing house may be affiliated with liberals, perhaps even the dark hand of financier George Soros. At Newsbusters, Mark Finkelstein says questions about the book's publisher "could have put matters in an explosive new light," and Brent Baker wrote:

Peter Osnos, who wrote Wednesday that he “worked very closely” with Scott McClellan on McClellan's new book published by PublicAffairs which Osnos founded, is a liberal whose publishing house is affiliated with the far-left The Nation magazine and the publisher of The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. PublicAffairs has a roster of authors who are nearly all liberals and/or liberal-leaning mainstream media figures, including six books by far-left bank-roller George Soros.

(Emphasis in the original.)

I'm not sure why anyone would think this should matter when talking about the book's credibility, unless they're also now questioning the integrity of anything published by, say, the staunchly conservative publishing house Regnery.

But if we really have to hear this line of argument, then it's probably worth pointing out something none of the critics did. Perseus Books, the parent company of PublicAffairs, which is the connection between PublicAffairs and The Nation that Baker mentioned, has also published a few other books besides the ones he listed. In fact, offhand I count that it recently put out four books written by one William F. Buckley. That's not to say that the publisher leans to the right -- it's just that those who've made these accusations of bias immediately assumed there's some liberal agenda at work, skipping entirely over the idea that perhaps people could be in the business to make a profit.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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