Conservative? Bad? How About Both?

The Problem(s) with the Washington Post Op-Ed Page

The Washington Post editorial page appears to going down a road toward increasing conservatism and increasing awfulness simultaneously, writes Eric Alterman.

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Mark Thiessen, right, pictured with Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, was recently hired by <i>The Washington Post </i>as an op-ed writer. Thiessen is a pro torture advocate who insisted that torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 would have prevented a terrorist attack on Los Angeles's Library Tower in 2002. (AP/Sgt. Andy Dunaway)
Mark Thiessen, right, pictured with Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, was recently hired by The Washington Post as an op-ed writer. Thiessen is a pro torture advocate who insisted that torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 would have prevented a terrorist attack on Los Angeles's Library Tower in 2002. (AP/Sgt. Andy Dunaway)

When I began thinking about doing a column about recent developments on The Washington Post editorial page, I was torn between focusing on its increasing conservatism and its overall badness. The problem, however, is that the two appear inextricably linked. Is the problem with George Will’s constant global warming denialism ideological or intellectual? Is David Broder’s misinformed love letter to Sarah Palin indicative of a desire to ingratiate himself to Republican Tea Partiers or continued evidence of the deterioration of his ability to apply common sense to political analysis? Was the Post’s decision to add former Bush administration official and vocal pro-torture advocate Marc Thiessen to its bevy of pro-torture advocates and former Republican officials more important for its right-wing tilt or its implied contempt for traditional journalistic values? Hard to say, really.

Of course, the categories “conservative” and “bad” are hardly mutually exclusive when it comes to columnists, making the choice a false one. In fact, based on the representation of conservative views at the Post, they often appear to be purposely complementary. One can be a deeply conservative individual politically and still find oneself offended by the constant stream of intellectual insult.

Take, for instance, Mr. Will. Some people genuinely believe that global warming is actually a worldwide conspiracy on the part of scientists to, well, it’s never been entirely clear to me why, though I’ve looked into it. Clearly, however, the members of The Washington Post editorial page are not among them. They write: “The earth is warming. A chief cause is the increase in greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Humans are at least in part responsible, because the oil, gas and coal that we burn releases these gases. If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.” Pretty simple and straightforward, huh? It also happens to be based on the actual news reporting of The Washington Post and is pretty uncontroversial among people who take facts seriously.

(In fact, as Reuters reported this morning, “The pace of global warming continues unabated, scientists said on Thursday, despite images of Europe crippled by a deep freeze and parts of the United States blasted by blizzards.” January was the hottest January ever measured. Ditto November. Ditto the entire decade, alas.)

But perhaps Washington Post columnist George Will is not among those who take these findings seriously. As CAP’s Matt Yglesias suggests, perhaps “Washington Post editorial writers should read their paper’s opinion section.” If they did, they might find their star columnist George Will sneering at what he terms “the global warming industry.”

As The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg observes, “When he mentions the evidence of global warming, he puts ‘evidence’ in scare quotes… Is it really possible that Will is unfamiliar with the difference between weather and climate? And that he is unaware that erratic extremes of weather—such as brutal droughts (Australia), violent hurricanes (Katrina), ‘historic blizzards’ (Washington, D.C.), and historic glacier melts (Alaska)—have long been predicted by ‘global warming alarm groups,’ i.e., climate scientists?”

Will’s argument is that those of us who take scientists’ warnings about climate change seriously are actually looking “to stampede the world into a spasm of prophylactic statism.” But this argument does not rest on any particular competence in climatological diagnostics nor extrasensory perception, both of which would be necessary for his statement to be true. In fact, you will recall that the editorial page of the newspaper that publishes his work is among those so accused. So how is it that Fred Hiatt, the editor of both pages, sees fit to publish such nonsense as he knows to be false? He defends it, not on its merits, but with the argument that “That’s what an opinion page is for.” Me? I just think it’s bad.

Will has been doing this kind of thing in the Post since 1979, but he is a veritable piker on the page compared to “Dean,” or David Broder, who has appeared in the paper since 1966. It’s hard to say when Broder went from doing the reporting that shaped Washington conventional wisdom to doing the pontificating that unintentionally parodies it. But if you’re under say, 30, you probably won’t believe me when I tell you that during the Nixon administration Broder was pretty great.

But that was then. Now, in a recent column entitled “Sarah Palin displays her pitch-perfect populism,” Broder goes gaga over the woman who calls global warming “snake oil science.” Her $100,000-plus speech at the Tea Party convention had Broder crowing about “a public figure at the top of her game—a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself.”

No less impressively to the Dean, Palin locked herself firmly in the populist embrace that every skillful outsider candidate from George Wallace to Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton has utilized when running against the political establishment. “The lady is good,” he concluded. The rabidly right-wing editors of The Wall Street Journal opinion pages were so impressed by his argument they reprinted a part of it on their page.

Once again, conservatism appears in a contest with badness. First off, one cannot help but wonder if Broder shares Palin’s views about alleged “death panels,” “snake oil science,” creeping socialism, and the like. Does he think they’re not important enough to mention, given that she is “at the top of her game?” Is the fact that so many conservative Tea Partiers agree with her good enough for him, too? Perhaps he does and it is, but he does not even bother to say.

Second, and no less significant, is the fact that Broder’s assessment of Palin’s appeal to the rest of the country is entirely wrong—no less imaginary that Will’s Ph.D. in climatology. The very day the column was published, the Post—remember, that’s Broder’s own paper for 44 years—published a poll in which 54 percent of those questioned told interviewers that they had formed an unfavorable view of Palin while 37 percent have a favorable impression of her.

More devastating for Broder’s case, however, was the fact that 71 percent of those questioned said she was not qualified to be president, an impressive rise over the 60 percent who gave that answer back in November, including 52 percent of self-identified Republicans. As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo says, this actually “transcends self-parody.”

Broder is trying to slum with “the people”—those who are so ignorant of actual public policy tradeoffs that they embrace the nonsense that Palin and company are peddling by ignoring the substance of her remarks—while in the meantime the vast majority of Americans are proving themselves to be far better judges of presidential politics than Dean David.

The problem with the Post incidents described above is that they are not remotely isolated ones. Rather they are par for the course. It’s as if the Post is viewing the newspaper in a death spiral it cannot solve, and has simply given up entirely. Pandering to what its pundits assume is the ideological bias and ignorant prejudices of its audience, it mocks its own reputation for journalistic integrity. And to add insult to injury, this ongoing death match contest between conservativsm and badness somehow receives the label “liberal” in the punditocracy.

If you doubt both the truth of the assessment, as well as its complete and utter disconnection to reality, read this exhaustive examination of the page’s politics by Media Matters’s Jamison Foser, who demonstrates that even many of the editorial page’s alleged liberals share their colleagues’ characteristics of being both bad and actually quite conservative.

The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins notes that with the Post’s new hire Marc Thiessen, the paper will be offering its pages to a writer who insisted that torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 would have prevented a terrorist attack on Los Angeles’s Library Tower in 2002, and who additionally, per Crooks And Liars, argued that Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times in just one month, expressed his gratitude to his torturers for “alleviating his ‘moral burden.’”

No wonder Fred Hiatt wanted him. An admixture of conservatism and badness that impressive can’t be allowed to appear just anywhere.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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