Media Defenders of the Liberal Faith Claim Objectivity As They Knock Reagan And His 'Wing Nuts'

Within the space of a week, the Public Editor of The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, and Sarah Durand, a senior editor of publisher Simon & Schuster subsidiary Atria Books, have vividly illustrated how the game of liberal media bias works.

Let’s start with the Times.

Ongoing is a considerable dispute over plagiarism between two Reagan biographers, Craig Shirley and Rick Perlstein, the latter’s book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan at the center of the controversy.  Full disclosure, I have written at length in The American Spectator  about the substance of the plagiarism charges - which involves a distinctly newsworthy $25 million lawsuit by Shirley. And yes, I once worked in the Reagan White House. But aside from the substance of the plagiarism charges (other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?) there is another issue that has arisen - with liberals (such as Times columnist Paul Krugman) furiously dismissing the charges because Shirley and others who have looked at the issue are -- horrors! -- conservatives!

The immediate target of Krugman’s wrath in what he called The Sliming of Rick Perlstein was Times reporter Alexandra Alter. Alter, you see, wrote a story doing what, supposedly, the Times is supposed to do: report the news. In this case the news of a considerably significant plagiarism lawsuit and the allegations surrounding it. No big deal, right? Wrong.

Alter’s just-the-facts story drew instant attack from angry liberals because, shockingly to liberals who adore the Times, it was written at all. Which in turn is a snapshot illustration of just how ingrained media bias is in Liberal Land, where Defending the Liberal Faith is the order of the day.

So with all the furor over Alter’s story, this drew the attention of the Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. Who turned out a breathtakingly vivid example of just how liberal media bias works - by condemning Alter for writing the story and the Times for publishing it.  Quickly drawing praise from liberal Krugman who wrote a blog post  titled "Good for Margaret Sullivan."

 Let’s, as they say, “unpack” Sullivan’s attack.


Her headline asked: Was an Accusation of Plagiarism Really a Political Attack?

Sullivan begins getting to the inevitable “yes” by saying she had “fielded a number of outraged complaints” about Alter’s article, then writes:

“Those who wrote objected, in part, to the article’s second paragraph which described the reaction to the book: “It has drawn strong reviews from prominent book critics, and sharp criticism from some scholars and commentators who accuse Mr. Perlstein of sloppy scholarship, improper attribution and plagiarism.”

She then goes on to cite some of the more notable critics of Alter’s story by name:

“The author and New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in an email that “an accusation of plagiarism is an extremely serious matter. Such accusations can ruin careers. The accusation here does not even rise to the level of flimsy.” Noting that “Perlstein is a left-leaning historian” and that “Shirley is a right-leaning writer and consultant,” Mr. Toobin called the claim “a political attack on Perlstein dressed up as a journalistic ethics controversy.”   He wrote: “As Shirley himself acknowledges, Perlstein paraphrased Shirley’s words and then cited his work. That is not plagiarism; that is responsible behavior by Perlstein. Perlstein did what historians are supposed to do.”

Felix Salmon, the media writer and editor, described the matter as “an entirely fake ‘controversy,’ ginned up wholly by wing nuts who think that Reagan is God and that any left-wing criticism of him, no matter how scholarly and intelligent, is tantamount to blasphemy.”

“The article clearly damages Perlstein,” Mr. Salmon wrote to me. “The New York Times is basically a co-conspirator here, in a concerted Swift-boating of Rick Perlstein. For shame.”

Not mentioned by Sullivan here is that -- shocker! -- both Toobin and Salmon are themselves liberals. Both are well known for attacks on this or that conservative figure, with Toobin aghast at Ted Cruz and his alleged “purification ritual” inside the GOP, with Salmon referring in Reuters to the “bonkers wing of the Republican Party” (that would be the Tea Party). 

Both are writers for whom, to change Salmon’s words and send them back are “leftist wing nuts who think that Liberalism is God and that any right-wing criticism of a liberal author, no matter how scholarly and intelligent, is tantamount to blasphemy.”   To turn around Toobin’s phraseology, his defense of Perlstein is a political attack on conservatism dressed up as objective journalistic comment on plagiarism.

Sullivan concurs with Toobin and Salmon without noting their liberalism, much less her own.To rewrite Salmon again, Toobin and Salmon are pushed forward by Sullivan as objective observers to counter the blasphemy of impartiality committed by Times reporter Alter.  There was no balance from conservative writers who might have disagreed on the subject of whether Perlstein’s critics are really about a political attack.

Alter herself is quoted by Sullivan as saying she went to Reagan biographer Stephen Hayward for comment, with Hayward saying, in Alter’s words, that  “he found the similarities in the descriptive language of the disputed passages to be too close for comfort, though we didn’t end up using a comment from him in the story.” Perhaps Sullivan thought that sufficient to balance Toobin and Salmon. But Sullivan herself did not cite any conservatives who might challenge the idea that criticism of Perlstein was all about, in Salmon’s words, “wing nuts who think that Reagan is God and that any left-wing criticism of him, no matter how scholarly and intelligent, is tantamount to blasphemy.”

Which is to say, in the world of Liberal Land everything is a closed loop. One has one’s liberal bias - and goes only to liberal others who, but of course, will validate that bias. In a nutshell, this is the liberal version of “news.” It is all self-referential to liberalism. If there’s a voice out there that disagrees with the liberal world view - it isn’t legitimate. So in this case, the Times itself committed a sin by writing an objective piece of news.

So Sullivan, having now stacked the deck that the story by Alter wasn’t really news, concludes:

“Yes, the claim (of plagiarism) was “out there” but so are smears of all kinds as well as claims that the earth is flat and that climate change is unfounded. This one comes from the author of a book on the same subject with an opposing political orientation. By taking it seriously, The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.

And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.

So I’m with the critics. The Times article amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader. The standard has to be higher.”

Margaret Sullivan’s article is exactly what it projects on Perlstein’s critics. Sullivan has written a classic of liberal media bias -- a so-called “Public Editor” column that is in fact a liberal political attack on those who have the nerve to question a liberal author’s book. Krugman, amusingly, writes of what he calls “Reaganolatry” saying of Republicans that their “whole sense of identity is bound up with their faith” in Reagan. Hoping, in vain, that no one will notice the amusing truth here is what might be called “liberalolatry,” with their liberal faith at the very core of the identity of Messrs. Krugman, Toobin, Salmon and Ms. Sullivan -- not to mention the New York Times itself. 

This kind of idolizing of all things liberal was never lost on the real-life Reagan, a recovered liberal himself.  Indeed he found liberals to be amusing. Regularly infuriating liberals by saying of them that  “It isn't so much that liberals are ignorant. It's just that they know so many things that aren't so.”  Reagan’s legacy , as seen here in this Gallup poll (headline: "Americans Say Reagan is the Greatest US President") is not merely safe, but as historically secure as that of any of his fellow presidents from both parties who receive similarly high marks. Among those are FDR and the Republican and Democrat martyr presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Attacks on Reagan -- which is what Perlstein is about in book form -- are every bit as amusing to today’s Reagan admirers as the attacks on Reagan in real time were to the man himself.  Flail away as they might, the Gipper’s historical reputation as a great and beloved American president sails on undisturbed by yet another round of liberal attacks, led by Perlstein’s book.


A further illustration of how the game is played in the world of liberal media is another incident involving Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster. One would think that a major publisher (like the Public Editor of the Times) has a mission that has nothing to do with politics. In the case of the Times, that would be reporting the news factually. For Simon & Schuster, that mission is to make a profit by publishing books. It is, after all, owned by a public, profit-seeking company -- CBS.  You might think that  publishing books for profit was the mission of Simon & Schuster, but you would be wrong.

There was a story this week that illustrates how liberal media bias works in the world of book publishing. It seems that the platoon mates of the controversial Taliban-hostage Bo Bergdahl, platoon mates who have been in the news accusing Bergdahl of desertion, have put together a book proposal on what happened over there in Afghanistan with Bergdahl. The proposal was submitted to Atria books, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster. It reached the desk of senior editor Sarah Durand.  Here’s what happened next, as reported by Yahoo:

“But the political furor over Bergdahl's release from Taliban captivity — the result of a U.S.-Taliban deal to swap five Guantanamo terrorism suspects in exchange for Bergdahl's freedom — is complicating the book's prospects. Agents for the soldiers say that some publishers have balked, in at least one case out of fear that the project would bolster conservative criticism of the Obama administration.

"I'm not sure we can publish this book without the Right using it to their ends," Sarah Durand, a senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, wrote in an email to one of the soldiers' agents.

[T]he Conservatives are all over Bergdahl and using it against Obama," Durand wrote, "and my concern is that this book will have to become a kind of 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth'" — a reference to the group behind a controversial book that raised questions about John Kerry's Vietnam War record in the midst of his 2004 presidential campaign. (Durand did not respond to requests for comment. "We do not comment about our editorial process," said Paul Olsewski, vice president and director of publicity at Atria.)”

If ever there were two episodes that are a snapshot illustration of just why millions of Americans have stopped trusting, not to mention listening to the mainstream media and turned to Fox News, talk radio and various Internet sites, it would be these two episodes. On the surface, one is about being the objective paper of record, the other a non-ideological publisher.

In fact? They are Defenders of the Liberal Faith. And no one is fooled. As Ronald Reagan might say: There they go again.

Jeffrey Lord
Jeffrey Lord
Jeffrey Lord is a contributing writer for NewsBusters