Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In the pocket

I've never been a big believer in the liberal-media conspiracy.

Despite conservative complaints now as predictable as lousy voter turnout, the vast, vast majority of reporters and editors work hard to keep any kind of bias out of their stories, particularly in election coverage. If anything, liberal bias is more likely to creep into coverage of tangentially political topics, like environmental reporting.

I say that even though I do believe that most reporters and editors, in their hearts, lean to the left, and I think that many influential editorial boards are liberal, even if their mega-corporation publishers are not. Same goes for most TV news. But political reporters are equal-opportunity skewerers. The bigger problems among this lot are pack mentality and conventional-wisdom-itis.

And yet. Sometimes I'll see something in the paper that makes even me slap my forehead. Something I know will give the media-bashers some well-braised lib loin for their conspiracy stew.

Take today's Seattle Times. Given the placement, the headlines and the lead paragraphs of all the A-section stories about the presidential race, I don't see how a John McCain supporter could help thinking the paper was in the pocket of Barack Obama.

On the front page is a top-of-the-fold story headlined, "U.S. tax formula already spreads wealth." Here's the lede: "John McCain's condemnation of Barack Obama's call for shifting more wealth from richer Americans to poorer ones wins applause at campaign events, but it ignores the nation's long tradition of redistributing huge amounts of wealth through tax and spending policies."

That Associated Press story jumps to A3, which also features a large "CloseUp" centerpiece takeout story by McClatchy Newspapers under the hed, "Socialism: It's part of America's fabric." The top of this story: "'Make no mistake,' Republican activist John Hancock told a John McCain rally in this St. Louis suburb, 'this campaign is a referendum on socialism.' Republicans have been pounding that theme in recent days, even though Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama hardly fits the classic definition of a socialist."

A boldface pullout quote in the middle of the page underscores the point: "The answer is clearly no, Senator Obama is not a socialist."

Turn the page for more election news on A6, a feature about Obama's sick grandmother, "Toot," as she's called in the headline. "Barack Obama's mother was an adventurous woman who took her son around the globe," says the lede. "His grandmother was a rock of stability, giving him the American roots that would ground his teenage years as well as his career in politics."

Finally, on A7, some news about the Republicans. Two stories in fact. "McCain's Pennsylvania push not paying off." And, "Alaska paid for travel of Palin kids."

And that's it, the sum of the day's presidential election coverage for Seattle Times readers. Now, I know that news decisions like where to play a story and what hed to give it depend on a lot of factors, like the timeliness of a folo or the availability of a comebacker on other campaign developments, and that the stories themselves, in this case, are all written or compiled by wire services rather than local reporters. And sometimes the news is the news and the chips fall as they fall.

Still, wire editors here can change, rearrange or accetuate with some care, and with more in mind than the one specific story on the screen in front of them. In this case, the A1 and A3 CloseUp stories seem redundant to me, and the "Toot" story could have been dialed way, way down.

I see why conservative readers might smell a rat.

In today's New York Times, two front-page stories offer a different but equally (at least) troubling injection of bias. In these stories the problem is reaching too far to convey significance.

The Times' lead story, about how consumers appear to be taking less prescription medication as a way to save money (interesting!), isn't satisfied to leave it there. Here's the reach: "The trend, if it continues, could have potentially profound implications. If enough people try to save money by forgoing drugs, controllable conditions could escalate into major medical problems. That could eventually raise the nation's total health care bill and lower the nation's standard of living."

Wow! From -- we learn later -- a less than 1 percent downturn in the use of prescription meds during the third quarter, our entire standard of living is at risk. Note to NYT: Yeah, it is anyway.

In the off-lede story, about a big investor selling off a large stake in Ford, there's a similar overreach: "The falure of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler would have far-reaching economic and social consequences. Together, the automakers employ more than 200,000 workers in the United States and provide health care and pensions to more than a million Americans. In addition, their operations are lifelines to 20,000 auto dealers and countless suppliers, and the source of major tax revenue to states and local governments."

Double-wow. Putting aside the fact that the story doesn't persuasively make the case that Kirk Kerkorian's divestment will kill Ford, let alone the other automakers, it feels like a pretty long stretch to the collapse of my local city hall.

This kind of stuff bugs me, and it would no matter whose political party or economic interest were getting gored or whored.

It's a tough time for newspapers and the news business, as we know. Readers are dropping by the hundred thousands. Untold news meeting hours are wasted counting clicks and tweetering twits in a vain attempt to win them back.

My idea for a simple (and inexpensive) way to earn back some trust: Tell the news straight. Leave the overanalysis and the overwriting for the doofuses on the editorial page.


kateco said...

Dude, you are too good for The Crab.

Seriously, nice.

Ronelle said...

From an uneducated observer...THANK YOU for this post. You have expressed so much of what I have been thinking and feeling for most of this election. What a sad state of affairs it is.

freda said...

I don't think we are going to see lousy voter turnout this time. I went to vote early today, thinking I would miss the long lines on November 4, to my surprise there were hundreds of people already there waiting their turn to vote, and this is the third day of early voting here. Give people something or someone to vote for and they will turn out in droves. I did not wait because I think I will try again to see if I can do it later when the lines are not so long. I am most impressed by the numbers turning out.

mich said...

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it: We need you back in the newsroom.

Jason Bellamy said...

"Tell the news straight."

Amen, brother. I agree with you that media leans to the left despite the honest efforts of most within the profession to split the middle. And I agree that the biggest stumbling block is the pack mentality. Case in point: After 9/11, the media was essentially in the pocket of the Bush Administration, because that's what popular opinion demanded (or so the theory went). And so we saw jingoistic logos on every TV news report, and we watched supposed news hawks beam with the pride over being "embedded" in controlled environments where the Bush PR team wanted them to be. It was sad.

Still, all the while the Bush Administration accused the media of leaning to the left. Meantime, they turned the media into their puppet to brilliant (and devastating) effect. How? By counting on the media to report the story “straight” – which to a fault was reporting what the Bush Administration said, rather than reporting the veracity of those statements.

Which brings us to current events: These past few weeks, John McCain keeps suggesting that “Joe the Plumber” – who he lugged into the spotlight, let’s remember – is a poster child victim of Obama’s tax plan. For that to be true, Joe would have to make $250K a year, which he doesn’t. And once he did, he would no longer be a member of the middle class that McCain suggests Joe represents. So either way, the “Joe the Plumber” argument is faulty. Accurate?

OK. So let’s play a game: When McCain makes that argument again at his next campaign stop, what’s the lede? What’s the “straight” news? Is it reporting once again McCain’s claims in the lede and burying Obama’s counter claims in the seventh graf? Or is it something more like this: "At a campaign stop in Wherever, John McCain continued to use erroneous arguments to try and build a case that Barack Obama's tax plan calls for an increase for the middle class, despite repeated claims by Obama to the contrary.” What’s the straight news?

For down-the-middle media, it’s the first option. But that’s the same logic that allowed the Bush Administration use the media as their microphone to spread mistruths about a link between Iraq and 9/11. Wasn’t the media supposed to have learned the difference between acting as a PR rep and reporting the facts? Couldn’t it be argued that the only reason McCain is still in this race is that the mainstream media is so fearful of being called leftward leaning that it practices in balanced reporting to a fault?

For the record: I'd want Obama to be treated similarly. It's the media ideals debate that fires me up here. Less so the political specifics. Thoughts?

Jason Bellamy said...

One more thing, even though this appears to be a dead topic: For whatever reason, the blog format seems to free up journalists to hit the underlying truth without all the old-school formality that often moves away from the truth.

The lede below "tells the news straight," in my opinion. But that lede wouldn't fly in the paper itself, I'm betting. There's a whole other blog-on-media post for ya.

From this post ...

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. -- GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin loves making fun of Barack Obama for not wanting to win in Iraq and Afghanistan -- even though he has spoken publicly on several occasions about his desire to "win" and achieve "victory" in both places. ...