18 November 1999
The Howler epilog: Discourse on bias
Synopsis: Some in the press have accused us of bias. We suggest they just deal with the things that weve said.
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 10/18/99
Commentary by Walter Shapiro
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 11/12/99
Reply by Dana Milbank
Letters Column, The New Republic, 11/22/99
We say it again: we think the press story of the year, post-impeachment,
has been the negative coverage of Gore. It began in mid-March
with the farm chores debacle, which we think was the most striking
press event of the year. For three solid months, CelebCorps accused
Gore of being "deeply dishonest" (Donald Lambro) and
"delusional" (Michael Medved). Why? For a comment that
reflected a part of Gore's life that the Washington press corps
had written about for twelve years! To this day, this bizarre
press conduct has gone unremarked, unreviewed, unexplained, undiscussed.
It stands as a tribute to the press corps' willingness to cover
up its mistakesand to tell readers the stories it likes.
We didn't make this strange episode occur, and we didn't create
this summer's largely favorable Bush coverageindeed, when the
L.A. Times wrote a story about Bush that was loaded with spin,
we spent four days critiquing it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/12/99, 7/13/99, 7/14/99, 7/15/99).
Nowhere else could a Bush supporter have found so detailed an
assault on the Times piece. But sometimes when you tell it just
exactly like it us, that ol' celebrity press corps goes looking
for reasons. And so it happened that this passage appeared
in the pages of The New Republic, penned by TNR's
Dana Milbank, whom we had criticized a few weeks before:
MILBANK (10/18): No doubt, the above portrait of the Gore campaign
will bring an angry rebuke from one Bob Somerby of Baltimore.
Somerby, Gore's roommate when they were students at Harvard University,
runs a website that lashes out at media miscreants who dare to
criticize the vice president's flawless campaign. In a recent
dispatch, Somerby, employing a naughty word for equine feces,
describes your correspondent's campaign coverage as "stomach-churning"
and accuses me of making light of child molestation, having an
obsession with naked presidential candidates, and worst of all,
being too hard on Gore.
There was one more paragraph, which we'll reprint below. [See postscript]
Alas, poor Milbank! We simply must have him visit the sprawling
campus of THE DAILY HOWLER's spectacular World Headquarters, nestled
in the rolling foothills of Baltimore County's horse country,
state-of-the-art in world press critique web sites! Like some
others in the Washington press, he identifies THE DAILY HOWLER
with this fellow Bob Somerby, the humble messenger who simply
types up the critiques which our analysts bring him! Here and
in a follow-up note (see below), Milbank implies that it is some
bias of Somerby's that explains the views of THE HOWLER. We thought
the time may well have come to address that issue forthwith.
But before we speak to Milbank's complaint, let's note a problem
with allegations of bias. Such allegations are a form of the ad
hominem argument; they choose to address a writer's motives,
rather than his arguments or his facts. They are easy to make,
virtually impossible to proveand often provide a wonderful way
of avoiding what a writer has said. Indeed, if anyone ever needed
a perfect example of how seductive the ad hominem approach
can be, Milbank's presentation in TNR provides a perfect
illustration. Indeed, one would never guess, from what Milbank
wrote, that the article which we termed "stomach-churning"
was an article Milbank had written about Bushthat it was
Milbank's "campaign coverage" of Bush that we
had described so uncharitably. The article in question is "Touchy,"
which Milbank wrote in the 9/27 TNR, an article we critiqued
on September 17 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/17/99). Weird, isn't
it? By a slip of the pen, Milbank had accidentally given TNR
readers the impression that we'd slammed him for his coverage
of Gore! Of course, any TNR reader who wanted to check
could see for himself what our article said. Except: Oops! Another
big oversight! In his discussion, Milbank had completely forgotten
to mention the name of THE HOWLER! Having completely misstated
what THE HOWLER had said, he gave TNR readers no way to
look for themselves. Ommigod! Image the chagrin TNR must
have felt when it realized it had made this mistake!
We wrote a letter to TNR, published in the November
22 edition; Milbank responded in a short note which we must describe
as the standard dispatch-from-Mars. Making no comment on the fact
that we had principally criticized him for what he wrote about
Bush, Milbank again accused us of bias toward Gore, proving his
point to (we hope) puzzled readers by citing the fact that recent
HOWLERs had criticized Gore's campaign coverage. He never said
whether we were right or wrong in our claimsin fact, he essentially
forgot to say what our claims werebut simply seemed to say that,
because we'd so written, that apparently showed we were biased
toward Gore. And so you see why logicians have long argued against
ad hominem presentationsthey lead to a note like this
one Milbank penned, in which he doesn't seem to have heard that
arguments are right or wrong, and should be addressed on the basis
In basic reasoning, here's how "bias" works, friends.
A writer's argument is either right or wrong. If you've actually
shown that the argument is wrong, you may start wondering
why the writer has made it. But in the culture of the celebrity
press corps, writers often prefer to skip over arguments, looking
for reasons to avoid having to address them. That's what Milbank
did in these notes. And in his original 10/18 piece, he also completed
a cyber trifectamisstating what our critique of him said, and
failing to mention the name of our site so TNR's readers
could see for themselves.
Bottom line: we criticized Milbank for his "stomach-churning"
coverage of Bush. He told readers we'd slammed him for
his coverage of Gore. Do you see, dear readers, the crying
need for one, two, many DAILY HOWLERs?
Bias, get your bias! We never mention Walter Shapiro
without offering up our "sagacious" sobriquet, but the
Sage One let us down a tad on Washington Journal last week.
Responding to a caller who mentioned THE HOWLER, here's what the
savvy scribe said:
SHAPIRO: The fellow from The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby, who's
not only an accomplished media critic, he's a very good stand-up
comedian and a terrifically nice guy, but he's also one of Al
Gore's college roommates. So to some extent, though he's doing
his best on media criticism, he's doing it from a perspective
of really believing that Al Gore should be the next president.
He also did it during impeachment, defending Bill Clinton, all
of which is totally fine.
Several comments. First, Somerby wishes Shapiro had mentioned
how handsome he iswhy the curious omission of that? And Shapiro,
like Milbank, seems to confuse poor Somerby with the incomparable
DAILY HOWLER itself. But our views of Clinton last year, we think,
generally agreed with Shapiro's viewswe didn't think Clinton
should be impeached or removed, but we think that was Shapiro's
view also. (It was the view of roughly 65% of the country, by
the way.) And we think we mentioned in passing what Somerby frequently
said in the outside mediathat we thought Clinton's conduct with
Lewinsky was ridiculous, and dangerous, and suggested that something
was wrong with Clinton, and that a better case for impeachment
could have been made on the basis of national security. But THE
DAILY HOWLER does not exist to evaluate polsTHE DAILY
HOWLER exists to evaluate the press corps. We evaluated press
coverage of Clinton last year, not Bill Clinton himself. As for
Somerby's views on who should be presidentShapiro is basically
guessing. Does Somerby "really believe that Al Gore should
be the next president?" Somerby has said many times that
he is a Democrat, who almost always votes for Democrats. (He has
also saidon Washington Journal, for examplethat he thinks
it was a good thing for the country when the GOP took over the
Congress. He did not get that from the DNC or from Gore.)
But what do Somerby and THE DAILY HOWLER really think? We really
think that there are a variety of qualified hopefuls out there;
that they deserve to be covered in a rational way; that the election
is about the candidates, not the pundits; and that people should
vote for who they like.
One final note on the Gore-shill theory: THE DAILY HOWLER has
repeatedly pointed out that Gore and Bradley both propose paying
for health plans out of a projected surplus is built of budgeting
gimmicks. (Bush says he would pay for tax cuts and certain spending
the same way.) We have repeatedly said that the press corps should
ask the hopefuls, including Gore, if they plan to stick to the
1997 spending caps, without which the projected surplus goes away.
Anyone who thinks that Gore 2000 hatched this thought is living
in a dream-like state. To our knowledge, no mainstream journalist
has offered this critiquejust us biased folks right here at THE
HOWLER, shillin' away for ol' Gore.
Dana's point: Here is Milbank's reply to our letter
in the 11/22 TNR:
MILBANK (11/22): Now why would anybody think Bob Somerby is
biased because he was Gore's Harvard roommate? Perhaps because
the last twelve stories on his website about candidates complain
that the press is too mean to his pal Al. A few of the latest
installments: "It's time to ask an awkward question. Is the
press corps sand-bagging Gore?"; "The writers insist
young Gore was stiff. Their reporting seems to say something different";
and "Gore said Bradley would spend too much on health. On
three follow-up shows, nobody noticed."
Milbank avoids addressing the main point of our letter, the
fact that we had principally criticized his coverage of Bush.
But note the points he does raise. "Gore said Bradley would
spend too much on health?" Our complaint concerned the vacuous
commentary on the town hall forum; we expressly said we do
not know if Gore's complaint about Bradley is accurate. If
the press would stop talking about Gore's hair and clothes, maybe
some day we'll find out. "The writers insist young Gore was
stiff?" Their writing did seem to say something quite
different. In this note, Milbank presents the ancient, ad hominem
dispatch, completely ignoring the arguments we made. Logically,
allegations of bias arise when an argument is proven wrong.
Milbank likes quicker solutions.
As we promised: Here is the second paragraph of Milbank's
MILBANK (10/18): Now, the first two charges are fair enough,
but Somerby's point about Gore demands rebuttal. True, the coverage
of Gore's campaign has been excessively negative. But the Gore
campaign has brought much of this on itself by being tactical
and reactive rather than by articulating a vision.
In short, Milbank says we were right in complaining that he
"made light of child molestation" and has "an obsession
with naked presidential candidates" (principally in his coverage
of Bush, let's recall). And he seems to agree that the
coverage of Gore has been "excessively negative." We
say he seems to agree because he then immediately says
that the Gore campaign brought the coverage on itself. But if
the Gore campaign brought the coverage on itself by its own conduct,
then in what sense is the coverage "excessive?" Milbank's
comment doesn't seem to make sense. At THE HOWLER, we don't have