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No Bias, Yes Bull

The other day I played a leading role in a Michelle Malkin syndicated column about liberal media bias. Her complaint provides an interesting glimpse into the feverish workings of the paranoid mind of the far right.

Malkin begins by citing a recent Washington Post article about Barack Obama’s fanatical exercise routine. Malkin describes the reporter, Eli Saslow (who she calls Zaslow) as “adoring” and “smitten,” which is the sort of hyperbole you’d expect in this kind of thing. Then comes the gotcha. Malkin acidly notes, “the doughy, McDonald’s-chomping, coffee-guzzling members of the White House press corps couldn’t see the merits of White House exercise over the past eight years,” and then, redundantly, adds, “the same reporters who so greatly admire Obama’s lithe figure derided Bush for his training schedule.”

Her main example of this hypocrisy is a 2005 column I wrote for the Los Angeles Times. I’ll get to that column in a second. First I should point out that I am not and never have been a member of the White House press corps, nor am I a reporter at all. I’m an opinion columnist. To cite a column I wrote as evidence of liberal media bias makes exactly as much sense as citing a Michelle Malkin column as evidence of conservative media bias. (More precisely, conservative deranged cheerleader-from-Hell bias.)

Malkin does cite one more example that does come from an actual straight news reporter--a 2005 Reuters news story about President Bush’s devotion to bicycling. In fact, the story was not dissimilar in tone to the Post article about Obama. It quoted Lance Armstrong saying that his chance to ride with Bush was a “dream scenario” and described Bush’s physical condition as “superior.” If this were an article about Obama, Malkin would probably call the author “adoring.” In her telling, though, the news account is an “anti-war screed,” because, after reporting that Bush believes that fitness sharpens his thinking, it follows the “he said-she said” wire reporting practice and gives a one-sentence quote to nutty anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan, who asserts that Bush should spend more time doing “the nation’s work.” I’m not sure how this wire story can be described as a “screed,” let alone an anti-war screed.

So let’s just say that Malkin’s case has a few holes. Now, what about my 2005 column? Was I holding Bush to a different standard than Obama? Not at all, actually. I had three basic points. First, Bush was devoting inordinate time to exercise at the expense of work. Second, he was somewhat sanctimoniously urging others to follow his example, even though a ninety-minute mid-day workout is not necessarily an option for them. And third, he seemed to be basing personnel decisions in part on candidates’ physical fitness (reportedly firing his economic advisor in part for being obese.)

None of these conditions apply to Obama. Yes, Obama works out a lot, but, as the article cited by Malkin notes, this habit has come at the expense of virtually every other pastime:

[G]one are the hours he once spent reading novels, watching television and obsessing over the daily transactions of Chicago's sports teams. He eats out only once every few weeks. He visits friends rarely, if at all.

Bush, by contrast, maintained his exercise habit while still quitting work every day at 6:30, and indulging his passion for ESPN, hosting T-ball at the White House, watching movies, and other pastimes. You can criticize this leisurely schedule without implying that a president must devote every waking hour to his job.

And the part about Bush’s exercising that I said “borders on the creepy”--his messianism about exercise and letting it influence his personnel choices--are not followed by Obama at all. If Obama fires Larry Summers for failing to run the mile in under six minutes, I promise to complain in public.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.