- Some highlights from this interview
- Bloggers as the "watchdogs of the watchdogs"
- The special role of the traditional press
- Fact checking news photographs
Along with Scott Johnson and Paul Mirengoff, Hinderaker is one of the authors of the conservative blog Power Line. The site frequently scrutinizes the traditional media's coverage of news stories and gained national notoriety when it spearheaded the questioning of inauthentic documents used in a 60 Minutes II report about President Bush's National Guard service record. Hinderaker is also a private practice lawyer. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 26, 2006.
Do you consider yourself a journalist?
I have never lost a minute of sleep worrying about whether I'm a journalist or not. I guess I would say no, we're not journalists.
What we do is commentary on the news, and we occasionally do something that's very close to primary news reporting. But mostly what we do is commentary and analysis. I don't really think of myself as a journalist or a part-time journalist. ...
How would you compare the prevalence of conservative voices in the media today to 15 years ago?
It's easier for conservatives to be heard now than it was 10 or 15 years ago primarily because of the new media. Virtually every newspaper in the United States -- I could count two or three exceptions, but only that many, certainly, among the major daily newspapers -- [are] all run by liberals. The news magazines are all liberal in orientation. The television networks are all liberal. And so I think that on talk radio, initially, and then followed up on the Internet, there's a lot more balance. ...
Do you feel that Fox News changed the landscape significantly?
... I think Fox is very middle of the road. I think they have some excellent conservative commentators. I think their actual news reporting is quite liberal. It's probably left of center if you put it on a spectrum of the American people.
So I think the stereotype of Fox as a right-wing news organization is incorrect. But certainly it is more open to conservative voices than CNN, for example, which is, again, pretty overwhelmingly liberal. Or if you compare it to the network news organizations, that would be true, too.
“It's easy to overstate the extent to which the new media have brought conservative voices a parity in the news media generally. I don't think it's happened.”
But do you think that conservatives have broken through in terms of being heard thanks to new media?
... It's easy to overstate the extent to which the new media have brought conservative voices a parity in the news media generally. I don't think it's happened. In some ways, liberal control over the media is stronger today than it's ever been. And I think there's an adversarial media culture in which we participate. But it's awfully easy to overestimate, I think, the impact that we have, and to underestimate the importance of the continuing control of the mainstream media by the left. ...
Karl Rove commented about blogs: "There is so much ugliness and viciousness and fundamental untruth that the blogosphere transmits. It's a vehicle for ugly rumors, scurrilous personal attacks, an avenue for the creation of urban legends which are deeply corrosive of the political system and people's faith in it."
... People need to exercise some common sense and apply it, apply some critical thinking to what they read. That's true whether it's The New York Times or whether you're watching CBS News or whether you're reading a Web site. Unfortunately there are some sites where you have the lowest common denominator that prevails, and people are drawn to the sites simply because there's a lot of irrationality; there's a lot of hate. People who are likeminded in that respect can gather there and reinforce one another's prejudices and nutty ideas.
I don't know what to do about that. I don't think there really is anything you can do about it given today's technologies. But I do think that not just proprietors of Web sites but consumers of Web sites as well as other forms in the news have got to exercise some critical intelligence in what they're doing.
[Former chairman of the Republican National Committee] Ken Mehlman told us that one of the positive things that comes from blogging is fact checking the mainstream media, being watchdogs of the watchdogs.
... One of the significant functions that's played by Web sites both on the right and on the left is fact checking the mainstream media. Of course the most famous example of that that we've been involved in at Power Line was Dan Rather's 60 Minutes II story about President Bush's National Guard service, where it turned out that the documents that that story was based on were fakes. Of course that's a very dramatic example of fact checking. Most examples are not that dramatic.
But it happens all the time that there are things repeated as fact in the media that are not in fact true, or even more commonly it happens that coverage of news stories is so one-sided that it creates a misleading impression. What's important is to fill in both sides of the story or multiple sides of the story. The coverage of the Iraq war has been in that category. I think it's been very one-sided.
One of the things that we've tried to do as a corrective is to put out more information, for example, from soldiers in the field. There are many military personnel who read Power Line. They send us e-mails; they tell us how they think things are going, what they're doing. We put a lot of that kind of information out in front of the public. ...
What's missing from the mainstream coverage of the Iraq war, and how do you try to correct that?
The biggest problem with reporting on the ongoing conflict in Iraq has been that there really has hardly been any reporting other than body counts. When people hear about the war in Iraq over the last couple of years, typically what they have heard is, "Two Marines died in Iraq today." What they don't hear is, well, what were they doing? What was their mission? Did they kill some terrorists? Was the mission successful?
I think that the truth about the Iraq conflict is very much a mixed bag. There's some bad, but there's also some good. If the only thing that you ever hear on the news is the bad, particularly casualty counts, how could you ever be in favor of pursuing that conflict? Because the positive side of the story is never told. ...
Some would argue it's the job of the press to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable;" that it's natural for them to be in an adversarial stance with authority.
I don't buy the theory that reporters aren't against Republicans or against President Bush; they're just anti-authority, or it's just their job to be adversarial. That has not been my observation in many years of watching the news.
There are certain groups that they're almost never adversarial to. How often do you see mainstream reporters exerting any critical or taking any critical look at all at the environmental movement, for example, or at feminism? Those kinds of things get a complete pass. They talk about afflicting the comfortable. Well, the most comfortable people in our society are liberals who are environmentalists and feminists. And believe me, they are not be afflicted by the press. ...
Where's the adversarial role, for example, toward the judicial branch of government when the United States Supreme Court comes out with a liberal decision? Which hasn't happened so much lately, but over the years, it's happened a lot.
Where was the check and balance? Where were the newspaper stories questioning that decision, pointing out its weak points, pointing out the other side, speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable Supreme Court justices? It didn't happen. Journalists like to talk about being adversarial, but the truth is, ... [who] they're mainly adversarial toward is Republican politicians.
If you look at a press conference today with President Bush, it's shocking. It's disgusting to see how some of these reporters put themselves in the position of being representatives of the Democratic National Committee, in effect, being hostile to the president in such a way that he can't possibly come across positively to people who are watching that event. That didn't happen with Bill Clinton. And if we have a Democratic president starting in 2009, it's not going to happen there either.
Doesn't mean that no reporter will ever ask a tough question. Sure they will. But you will not have the kind of across-the-board hostility that you see in a Republican administration. ...
After the "Rathergate" story and being named Blog of the Year by Time magazine, is Power Line becoming mainstream?
The news business is going through an evolutionary process that is going to result in some redefinition of what is mainstream and what is not mainstream, and the revolution that's been wrought by the Internet is an economic one.
It's similar to, although I wouldn't say it's the same order of magnitude, but it's analogous to the printing press. Before the printing press was invented, creating a book was extremely laborious, so books were very expensive. Only rich people or kings or abbeys could own books. With the advent of the printing press, all of a sudden just about anybody could own a book. And that, of course, that was revolutionary.
Well, there's a parallel in what's happened with the Internet, because until the Internet came along, everybody had freedom of speech. But if you wanted anybody except your friends and family and co-workers to hear your speech, you had to get into a newspaper or a magazine or get onto television, and those are media that require enormous capital investments and that have gatekeepers in the form of editors and so forth.
So it was kind of a two-tiered system. You had the people in the media, and they had an audience of millions. Then you had everybody else, who had an audience of people you could count on your fingers and toes.
The Internet changes that, because participating in the public conversation on the Web is essentially free. We reach somewhere around 75,000 people a day; on a good day, 125,000 people. If we were a newspaper, we would be bigger than most of the newspapers in the United States. And we do that for $3 a day. It is essentially free.
So that's an economic revolution, which means that instead of having a very, very small number of dominant voices who are the people working for the mainstream media, and then everybody else is way down here, there's more of a gradation. People like us, we don't duplicate all the news-gathering functions of The Washington Post, for example. We can't do that. But the kinds of things that [columnist] George Will does or [columnist] Paul Krugman does or someone like that, we can do, too. And if a reader thinks we make more sense than Paul Krugman -- and there are a lot of people who do -- he can read us instead.
So there's that kind of equality. At some point it becomes meaningless to try to say, "Well, this guy is mainstream because his Web site domain name includes 'New York Times,' whereas this guy is not mainstream, even though more people may be reading him, because his domain name doesn't include a newspaper." That becomes a very artificial distinction.
So yeah, I do think we are moving toward an era in which the bright line that distinguishes mainstream media from upstart media is going to be blurred.
What was your reaction when The New York Times printed their story about the NSA's [National Security Agency] warrantless wiretapping program?
... A lot of damage was done by The New York Times printing that story and by the people in the intelligence agencies leaking that story. One thing about our site, Power Line, is that we're all lawyers, and there are a lot of news stories that involve the law in one way or another.
So this is an example of a story that we have brought our legal training and skills to bear on. One of the things that we've written about -- I think [Power Line co-author] Scott [Johnson] has written about the most extensively -- is the legal issues surrounding those leaks and surrounding the publication of those leaks. We've written about the Pentagon Papers case, which clearly says that newspapers can be criminally prosecuted after the fact if they illegally print national security-related information. We've written about the Espionage Act and whether it has been violated by some of these leaks. I think that in the case of the NSA terrorist surveillance program, there's no serious question about the fact that the leak was a crime. ...
The reporters have said that terrorists know full well they're being monitored; all they revealed was that it was being done without warrants.
The people who try to defend these leaks always try to have it both ways. On the [one] hand, it's a front-page, above-the-fold story that contains the word "secret" 10 or 15 times. It's a big news story, something nobody knew.
On the other hand, when people push back and say, "Wait a minute; you are undermining security by making this information public," they say, "Well, this isn't news; the terrorists already knew about it." Well, you can't have it both ways. ...
What was your reaction to The Washington Post's story about secret CIA prisons in Europe?
When you're dealing in matters of security, matters of intelligence, matters that are necessarily covert, it is very important to be able to keep a secret. And if other governments around the world don't have confidence that our government can keep a secret, they are not going to be willing to deal with us in many areas that could be very important to the war against terror, for fear that those dealings are going to come out. For that reason, The Washington Post story did do a lot of damage.
... One of the big problems with these illegal leaks is that the person reading the newspaper never gets the whole story. It's inherently selective. The leaker only leaks the part of the story that he wants to get out in pursuance of his agenda, and then the reporter writes that story. So it's inherently a slanted story.
If you want to go back and say, "Well, wait a minute; I want to know more about this," ... where do you go? It's an anonymous leak. This whole practice of basing news stories on anonymous leaks has gotten way out of hand. I mean, The Washington Post, The New York Times -- they would have to close down their front page if they were not allowed to print stories based on anonymous leaks. ...
Can you talk about how these stories may have violated the Espionage Act?
The leaked story that most clearly violated the Espionage Act was the one relating to the NSA's international terrorist surveillance program, because there is a specific section of the U.S. criminal code -- section 793 -- that makes it a crime to disclose information about U.S. communications intelligence or information learned through communications intelligence. Section 793 applies squarely to that leak and the publication of that leak by The New York Times. There are some other stories where I think you can easily make the argument that it was a crime to leak the story, and arguably a crime to publish the story under section 798 of the criminal code. But there you have some broader language that would need to be interpreted and applied to the facts. ...
Many people believe the Bush administration came into office with a hostile attitude toward the news media. Fair?
I don't know of any evidence that the Bush administration started out with a negative attitude toward the news media. Anybody who's in politics as a Republican knows that when you're talking to a reporter, there's probably somewhere between an 85 percent and 95 percent chance that you're talking to a Democrat. I think that's the basic reality.
Reporters always like to say: "Gee, I'm a Democrat, but it doesn't influence how I report; it doesn't influence my other attitudes. I can be fair. I can be neutral." If you had an environment where half the journalists are Republicans and half the journalists are Democrats, half are liberals, half are conservatives, the individual reporters would at least have a fighting chance of keeping their biases under control, because they'd be in a culture that had diversity. But when you're in a newsroom where there's 40 people and 38 of them are liberals, and you're one of the 38, the idea that that is not in any way going to impact how you report the news or what news you choose the report is unrealistic. ...
Is there a special role for the press in this country, constitutionally or in any other way?
I don't think that the press has a special role in constitutional terms. I think they have a special role in our economy, and that is as primary news gatherers and news disseminators. We bloggers and others in the field of commentary can do anything that journalists can do. Sometimes we do it better; sometimes maybe we don't do it as well. But we can do it. But we don't have staffs of full-time reporters and budgets to send reporters to far-off parts of the world and so on. Somebody needs to carry out that primary news-gathering and news-reporting function.
I'm kind of old-fashioned in this regard. I think of it as a very honorable profession, a very important profession. I think that the traditional ideal of objectively and neutrality is very important, and I part company here with some of my good friends on the Web who think that everybody's got bias and you should forget about objectively and just tell people what your biases are and fight it out. ...
There's always subjectivity. Every time you pick up a pen and start to write, with the first word you're making judgment calls; you're making decisions; you're making subjective judgments about what story to write, what not to write, how to write the story. I understand that. But that doesn't mean that objectivity can't be an important ideal, an important goal, even if it's not perfectly realized.
So I do think there is a unique role for the press, not because they're constitutionally privileged, but because they've got the resources, because it's their job to go out and gather the news and report the news. I'd like to see that function carried out in as fair and neutral and objective a way as possible. From that point on, then I'd say let the commentators have at it, slug it out over the meaning of the news, the meaning of the facts, the importance of what was published in the newspapers that morning. ...
Can you talk about some of the fact checking you've been doing more recently involving doctored photographs?
The conflict in Lebanon in August opened other people's eyes to some real problems in the primary news-gathering function that's carried out by the international wire services. This is something we've written about on Power Line before, but I think it really came to a head during that Lebanese conflict.
The wire services use a lot of stringers. They use stringers as reporters, and they use freelance photographers. It very quickly became obvious in the Lebanese conflict that a lot of the photographs that were being publicized worldwide by the wire services were in fact being taken by photographers who were either part of Hezbollah or certainly sympathetic to Hezbollah. They would either stage or in some cases fake photographs intended to portray scenes that would make people sympathetic to Hezbollah's side in that conflict, and then they were uncritically put out by the wire services and from there to newspapers and so on, all around the world. ...
One of them involved an alleged Israeli missile strike that hit an ambulance, and reporters were shown this ambulance and allowed to interview the alleged ambulance driver. And they did. They all reported it straight. There was no critical thinking applied to that claim that an Israeli missile had struck this ambulance.
Well, it was revealed afterward that that hadn't happened at all; that there had been no missile strike; that the claims that were made about this ambulance were just false. ... What I think is troubling there is the lack of any critical faculty or skeptical attitude that's brought to these propaganda displays by members of the mainstream media.
Probably the most important instance of this was the bombing of Cana, that village in South Lebanon where some unknown number of Lebanese civilians were killed, especially in the collapse of a particular building. The excavation of that building and the display of those bodies and so on was staged by Hezbollah and its allies in a way that I don't think we may ever get to the bottom of what really happened there. ... But that was a key propaganda moment in that conflict, and the mainstream news services absolutely swallowed hook, line and sinker the line that they were being given by Hezbollah. ...
Finally, can you talk about how you're expanding Power Line?
Within the last year or so, we started a second site called Power Line News and then a third site, which is Power Line Video, which is kind of a sub-domain of Power Line News. What we're trying to do there is expand our reach a little bit and provide a little different kind of service to our readers.
If you look at Power Line News, it's got four or five news feeds, breaking news, security news, a couple of others. It's got about nine or 10 RSS feeds from Web sites that we like, including, of course, Power Line. It's got an RSS feed to a blog of the week, which we name on a more or less weekly basis. It's got a pull-down menu from which you can access newspapers all over the world and some other features as well. It's intended to be a news resource for people who have some of the same interests in the news that we do.
We also use that site sometimes for interactive purposes. For example, we'll run polls on that site. ... So that site is evolving into a little more interactive kind of news source for our readers and others who may find it useful. ...
What I would like to see develop as time goes by is more citizen journalism. You hear a lot of talk about this from people on the Internet. Anybody in the world who's got a digital camera or digital movie camera potentially can be a reporter. I was really struck with the tsunami [that] hit Southeast Asia a year or two ago [December 2004], that of all the news coverage that grew out of that, to me, what was riveting was the video footage that was shot by tourists ... who just happened to have digital movie cameras with them when the wave came all the way into shore.
I found that footage just absolutely fascinating, and as time goes by, we're going to see more of that kind of citizen journalism, where people will create their own images, their own video footage. Over time, our hope is that the video part of [Power Line] evolves into a place where that kind of citizen journalism, as well as the other kinds of video, ... can be disseminated.