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Tim Rutten and Edward John Smith

Saturday, August 27, 2005  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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The Los Angeles Time’s Tim Rutten has his column up on the state of talk radio. Tim interviewed me for the piece, which I agreed to do only if we could tape the interview for broadcast, which is what we did. It will air on Monday. (The transcript of the interview may appear even earlier depending on whether Radioblogger can tear himself away from Bristol.)

Tim’s piece accurately quotes me, but I suspect that anyone who hears the interview or reads the transcript will be surprised at what he thought important enough to include in the column, and what he left out.

The reason the profile of me in the New Yorker, “Right Hook: Going after the liberal media,” has generated some extravagant response along the lines of Wash Your Bowl’s way-over-the-top assessemnt that “[a] hundred years from now historians will find it a useful distillation of the trends now roiling the media landscape, especially the conservative media’s attack on traditional journalistic standards,” is simply because Lemann’s piece is blunt about the debate underway and fair in representing new media’s indictment of old media. Nick got immediately to the argument between new and old media, and it played out throughout the piece. And, refreshingly, an old media prince was confident enough to allow the argument to be made at length and in full.

Of our 45 minutes, Rutten and I spent at least 30 on the failings and decline of his newspaper, which are far more pronounced and urgent than the alleged mild drop in ratings for political talk shows overall between August 2004 and August 2005. (The one thing Tim might have described more completely in the interest of full reporting on the actual subject of his column is my assertion that the talk radio “cycle” is four years long, and that the audience for center-right talk in August, 2005 is much bigger than it was in August 2001. Political talk is the middle of a long and, I believe, sustainable growth period as hosts who practice the craft as Bennett, Prager, Medved and I do –and as Rush, Sean, and Laura Ingraham do– attract the audience that wants reliable, up-to-the-minute information delivered with timing and wit, not screaming rants.)

Unlike Lemann’s accurate representation of new media’s argument about the deeply diseased condition of old media, here’s Rutten’s central paragraph on that debate:

You know this particular argument like a mantra: All humans have personal beliefs, including political ones, which inevitably bias anything they write or broadcast. Therefore, everyone who reports or analyzes the news must publicly declare everything they believe and all their personal associations so that their readers or audience can ‘” to borrow Hewitt’s phrase ‘” “correct” for the journalist’s bias. The notion that the former ‘” all people have biases ‘” might be true, but not the latter ‘” they always determine absolutely everything you say or do ‘” never is considered. Nor is the possibility that personal discipline and the conventions of the craft already accomplish that “correction” among journalists who observe them. It’s simply not an admissible idea here. (Let’s not even touch the common-sense proposition that it’s the normality of the mainstream media’s workaday, unbiased journalism that makes the biased stuff stand out so clearly ‘” and offensively ‘” when it occurs.)

This is a relentlessly political and deeply reductionist view of human affairs.

I will leave it to the interested to review the transcript of our interview to see if my critique is fairly represented here, or if Tim instead erects a straw man easily knocked down. In fact, I grant the Times permission to reproduce the entire interview in next Sunday’s “Current” section if they really want to strike a blow for the full exchange of views in print. When you read it or hear it, I suspect you’ll know why I am confident the offer will not be accepted.

Patterico is looking forward to the interview. I am looking forward to the day when Patterico, or Carol Platt Liebau, or Cathy Seipp or RogerLSimon or any of the scores of talented center-right writers of Los Angeles has a weekly space budget equal to Tim’s, or Patt Morrison’s, or Robert Scheer’s, or Steve Lopez’s or Ron Brownstein’s or George Skelton’s or Dana Parson’s or Jonathan Chait’s etc etc etc.

There truly are none who are so blind as those that will not see.

The irony is that the Los Angeles Times could be not just a good newspaper, but a great, great newspaper, maybe even the best. It has within a thirty minute drive of its headquarters the greatest concentration of writing and creative talent on the globe. It has the advantage of the latest deadline, and the technology center of the world is an hour away. It could sparkle and inform, entertain and guide, but it chooses instead to stew.

One note on The New Yorker profile. I have been asked by many why did I “chance” such a piece? Answer: Before I agreed I read everything Nicholas Lemann had produced for the magazine over the previous four years, and found all of them to be rigourously fair and of course spectacularly well written. Lemann really does practice “the craft” that so many in old media claim to follow in the way that 2,000,000 Angelenos claim to have been at Chavez Ravine when Gibson hit his home run.

One example of Lemann’s accurate reporting is particularly relevant to the never-ending debate about why the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003. Lemann filed a “Letter from Washington” on February 10, 2003 on why the Bush Administration was going to war. The piece accurately reports on the multi-level argumet for war in a way that silences the “no WMD/no reason for war” nutters on the left. Given Lemann’s impeccable old media credentials an The New Yorker’s status as voice of the Manhatten elite, every defender of the historical record needs to keep Lemann’s opening four paragrpahs close:

AFTER IRAQThe plan to remake the Middle East.by NICHOLAS LEMANNIssue of 2003-02-17 and 24Posted 2003-02-10

Has a war ever been as elaborately justified in advance as the coming war with Iraq? Because this war is not being undertaken in direct response to a single shattering event (it’s been nearly a year and a half since the September 11th attacks), and because the possibility of military action against Saddam Hussein has been Washington’s main preoccupation for the better part of a year, the case for war has grown so large and variegated that its very multiplicity has become a part of the case against it. In his State of the Union address, President Bush offered at least four justifications, none of them overlapping: the cruelty of Saddam against his own people; his flouting of treaties and United Nations Security Council resolutions; the military threat that he poses to his neighbors; and his ties to terrorists in general and to Al Qaeda in particular. In addition, Bush hinted at the possibility that Saddam might attack the United States or enable someone else to do so. There are so many reasons for going to war floating around'”at least some of which, taken alone, either are nothing new or do not seem to point to Iraq specifically as the obvious place to wage it'”that those inclined to suspect the motives of the Administration have plenty of material with which to argue that it is being disingenuous. So, along with all the stated reasons, there is a brisk secondary traffic in “real” reasons, which are similarly numerous and do not overlap: the country is going to war because of a desire to control Iraqi oil, or to help Israel, or to avenge Saddam’s 1993 assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush.

Yet another argument for war, which has emerged during the last few months, is that removing Saddam could help bring about a wholesale change for the better in the political, cultural, and economic climate of the Arab Middle East. To give one of many possible examples, Fouad Ajami, an expert on the Arab world who is highly respected inside the Bush Administration, proposes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the United States might lead “a reformist project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape. Iraq would be the starting point, and beyond Iraq lies an Arab political and economic tradition and a culture whose agonies have been on cruel display.” The Administration’s main public proponent of this view is Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, who often speaks about the possibility that war in Iraq could help bring democracy to the Arab Middle East. President Bush appeared to be making the same point in the State of the Union address when he remarked that “all people have a right to choose their own government, and determine their own destiny'”and the United States supports their aspirations to live in freedom.”

Even those suffering from justification fatigue ought to pay special attention to this one, because it goes beyond the category of reasons offered in support of a course of action that has already been decided upon and set in motion. Unlike the other justifications, it is both a reason for war and a plan for the future. It also cries out for elaboration. Democracy is a wonderful idea, but none of the countries in the Middle East, except Israel and Turkey, resemble anything that would look like a democracy to Americans. Some Middle Eastern countries are now and have always been ruled by monarchs. Some are under the control of an ethnic or religious group that represents a minority of the population. Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan are the world’s only major nations named after a single family, and in Saudi Arabia the royal family functions as, in effect, the country’s owner. Most Middle Eastern countries don’t even make the pretense of having freely elected parliaments; in Iran, for example, candidates have to be approved by the mullahs. And the very problem that democracy in the Middle East is meant to solve'”rising Islamic radicalism, encouraged or tolerated by governments that see it as a way to propitiate their increasingly poorer and younger populations'”makes the prospect of elections dangerous, because anti-American Islamists might win.

People in the Administration are quick to explain that, where the Middle East is concerned, they don’t mean immediate, American-style electoral democracy but, rather, a deliberate building of “civil society” or “democratic institutions,” like a free press, political parties, open markets, and a system of written laws and courts that administer them, with national parliamentary elections as the final, and somewhat distant, step. That seems a worthwhile project, but if it takes place in the aftermath of a war it should be understood as involving the making of choices and the use of power by the United States, rather than merely polite encouragement.

Unlike what Tim Rutten would have you believe I believe about old media –wherein every reporter of every MSM outlet is a deeply dishonest lefty conspiring to subvert Bush and his allies in every paragraph– old media has many fine reporters doing much good work life this piece by Lemann, but their numbers are dwindling as successive generations of new hires move the newsrooms farther and farther to the left, and as agenda journalism goes uncorrected because it is undetected, so complete is the shared values and ideologies of the rank and file of the newsroom staffs.

I don’t have, as Tim puts it, “messianic confidence that new media ‘” mainly talk radio and the Internet ‘” inevitably will undermine and destroy the economic health of mainstream media ‘” especially newspapers.”

I do have confidence in free markets. Which is why the Times’ circulation is at 900,000, down more than 50,000 subscribers in one year. Indeed, the Times has been stagnant or moving backwards for a decade, even though the population growth in the region has been enormous.

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