Pajamas Media panel

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Last night I was one of the participants in a Pajamas Media panel, at the National Press Club. The overall impresario was Roger Simon, and the moderator was none less than Glenn Reynolds. Other participants were Tom Bevan, Mark Blumenthal, Jane Hall, Cliff May, Paul Mirengoff, and Claudia Rosett. The stated subject was "How partisan is too partisan?" but much of the discussion was about the biases of the mainstream media.

Hall, whom I had not previously met, thought it was unfair to tar everyone in the MSM as biased, and she questioned my assertion that about 90 percent of MSM personnel is Democrats and liberals (I was surprised she wasn't familiar with the research that supports this). Rosett recalled an election night party in 1980 of Wall Street Journal reporters based in Chicago, at which only she and Paul Gigot were Reagan supporters–and were accordingly thrown out of the party.

I made some points that I have often made in my columns, in this blog, and in speeches. Americans are currently divided almost evenly between the parties, primarily along cultural lines, and the demographic factor that correlates most highly with voting behavior is religion. This has generated angry partisanship, because the things that divide us are things we really care about. The harshness of the partisanship has been exacerbated by the fact that our two most recent presidents–both born in the first year of the baby boom (1946) and both graduating in the high school class with the peak SAT scores (1964)—just happen to have personal characteristics and political instincts that people on the other side of the cultural divide absolutely loathe.

There is a kind of culture war among leading-edge boomers that has been going on since the 1960s, when one side took an adversarial posture to our society and the other side took a supportive posture, and in our political dialogue both sides are not just trying to beat the other side; they're trying to prove it's illegitimate. As others pointed out, accurately, not all citizens or voters are caught up in this culture war; many have nuanced or equivocal positions on issues like abortion and the Iraq war. But this is the culture war that dominates our political dialogue and that is reflected in the almost totally static political division and political contours that have prevailed in the five biennial elections from 1996 to 2004.

I also tore into the MSM and at one point called them "a joke"—hyperbole, I admit; my critiques of the MSM, as I hope this blog makes clear, are more specific and qualified. I made the point that anyone who wants to understand MSM bias need only look at Hugh Hewitt's interview with the admirable Tom Edsall, longtime Washington Post political reporter and now writing for the New Republic. Edsall's an excellent reporter and a self-described liberal (more, it seems, on economics than on cultural issues), and his reporting on his longtime MSM colleagues is impeccable.

I also referenced Blumenthal's comments approaching these issues as a pollster rather than as a media critic. Blumenthal, whose blog is truly excellent, is also a Democratic pollster, and he pointed out that he owes his clients an objective view. I made the point that if Blumenthal and the others in his firm interpreted polls in the same way as the New York Times, he'd be out of a job. Political consultants are subject to a market test, and in a market with well-informed purchasers.

But if you provide poll coverage that is unduly optimistic for the Democrats in the Times, you're promoted. That's why I find leading Democratic campaign consultants, including Blumenthal, to be far more objective and clearsighted than most reporters in the MSM.

The Times is not, or does not regard itself, as subject to such a market test. But maybe it is starting to be.

Hall pointed out, accurately, that newspaper stocks are in trouble with investors, even though they currently make large profits. True, but for some combination of technological reasons (are they losing their advertising base? Can they make money as readers migrate from print to the Web?) and political bias (who wants to read a paper that constantly calls your views fascist?), investors fear they won't make that kind of profit in the future. The MSM are in trouble, and if their managers don't recognize that one reason they're in trouble (not the only one) is that 90 percent of the people they hire are Democrats when half their potential readers or viewers are Republicans, then they are in well-deserved trouble. As Reynolds suggested, maybe they need affirmative action for conservatives. Here's a suggestion on how they could do that.

After the panel a bunch of us went to dinner, after some false starts, at the rooftop deck on the Hotel Washington overlooking the Treasury and the White House. I sat at one end of the table with Austin Bay, with whom I've talked but had never met in person before, Reynolds, and John Freire, who works for New York Times columnist John Tierney. Much stimulating conversation, including Bay's service as a reserve colonel in Iraq and his next novel, but I'll let him tell you about that in his own blog.

I've lived in Washington since January 1973 and have had close contact with MSM personnel over every bit of that time. But I have to say I feel more at home with my friends in the blogosphere, who by no means share all of my views on issues, than with most of the people in the MSM.

The blogosphere in action

An example of the blogosphere in action. In this post, blogger Ray Robison picked up on my Monday post about the Washington Post's lead story on the anthrax attacks of September 2001. So far as I can remember, I have never heard of Robison; I found his post through a post by Thomas Lifson on the admirable American Thinker blog. Here's Robison's bio from his website:

Hi folks, I am a military operations research analyst with a defense contractor in aviation and missile research. Before that I was an army officer and also a member of the Iraq Survey Group.

I also write a column for Foxnews.com called "The Saddam Dossier" in which I provide research and analysis to captured documents from Iraq and Afghanistan. I also do some on-air work, mostly on Fox and Friends when we have some interesting finds. Scared the hell out of me at first but I am getting better.

Like me, Robison has long been skeptical of the FBI's theory that the anthrax attacks were probably launched by a U.S. research scientist. He points out that smuggling anthrax out of a federal laboratory would have been particularly difficult given the high security precautions taken on Sept. 11, 2001, and that there was probably a very small amount of weaponized anthrax in those laboratories. He goes on to make a point that I failed to make but that now seems to me obvious:

Motivation is the key problem in my view. Defense scientists at this level have Top Secret clearances, usually for compartmentalized information. It takes an extreme level of vetting to be granted this clearance. The scientist would surely be a Ph.D. That's a lot of years of demonstrated hard work to throw it all away for a bioweapons attack without a solid motivation. The real people involved with this type of research are smart, dedicated, successful and patriotic, not like a character in a bad movie who is motivated to hurt the United States because they were overlooked for a promotion or saw some sort of poetic justice at using U.S. anthrax on the United States.

Instead, he thinks it's far more likely that terrorists obtained the anthrax from a terrorist-sponsoring state, and he thinks the most likely nominees for those two roles are al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I agree and also agree with Robison when he says that we do not know that; it's just a reasonable suspicion. Here's his concluding paragraph:

What does your common sense tell you? Most of my friends (usually military) at the time of the attacks believed the anthrax was a continuing, near simultaneous attack with the plane hijackings of 9/11. It seemed like a combined arms attack, a fundamental of modern warfare. Could it just be so simple that al Qaeda hit us not once, but twice in a week? And what would the effect of such a scenario be on an FBI charged with the domestic counterterrorism mission? Would a second al Qaeda attack rub salt on an already horrible wound? And wouldn't it be better for the FBI if the second attack was done by a military scientist, thus the Department of Defense's fault and not a subsequent FBI counterterrorism failure? There are still a lot of questions and for me the answer is and always will be that until I see the proof I will never believe an American scientist did this instead of al Qaeda. I just don't believe it.

I haven't read anything along these lines in the mainstream media, though perhaps I've missed something; I'd be grateful if readers could pass any relevant links along. In any case, Robison has added information to my speculative column and leaves me even more troubled about the anthrax attacks and their implications. An example of how the blogosphere exchanges information and adds to knowledge.