September 28, 2012

Republicans think the news media are being too easy on Barack Obama. In fact, 60 percent of them say so, a figure that’s up from 55 percent four years ago, when Obama ran against Sen. John McCain. That’s the conclusion of a poll conducted Sept. 20-23 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

This finding reflects the e-mail I receive from people who identify themselves as Republicans and conservatives, and even from some independents and Democrats, who say The Post is too easy on Obama.

My e-mail is not a scientific survey — it’s really an index of complaints and unhappiness with The Post — but I think my e-mail trends and surveys that Pew has done in the past year should be food for thought for The Post.

The Pew poll shows that pluralities of Americans think that media coverage of Obama and Mitt Romney is fair — 46 percent for both men. But that’s down considerably from the majorities — 60 percent — of Americans who in 2008 said coverage of McCain and Obama was fair.

A great deal of this shift has been among Republicans. Four years ago, 48 percent of Republicans thought coverage of McCain was fair. Now only 38 percent think coverage of Romney is fair. In 2008, 39 percent of Republicans said coverage of Obama was fair. Now only 30 percent feel this way.

When you combine this latest poll with other Pew polls in the past year, the picture of disaffected Republicans gets even stronger. Pew has been asking annually since 1989 about perceptions of bias in the news. In 1989, about the same percentage of all groups — a quarter of Democrats, Republicans and the overall public — saw a “great deal of bias” in the news. In a January poll, that number was up to 49 percent for Republicans, 32 percent for Democrats and 37 percent for the public overall.

So everyone sees more bias, and Republicans see it more than other groups.

One aspect of The Post that particularly irks conservatives is the columnists who appear in print and online in news positions (as opposed to those on the editorial and op-ed pages and the online Opinions section). With the exception of Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza, who cover politics in a nonpartisan way, the news columnists almost to a person write from left of center.

Ezra Klein of Wonkblog comes out of the Democratic left, fills in for Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz on MSNBC and sometimes appears in the printed Post on the front page.

Steven Pearlstein, who covers business and also appears occasionally on the front page; Walter Pincus on national security; Lisa Miller of the On Faith blog; Melinda Henneberger of She the People; Valerie Strauss, the education blogger; plus the three main local columnists — Robert McCartney, Petula Dvorak and Courtland Milloy — all generally write from a progressive perspective, readers say. (So does Dana Milbank, who works for the Opinions section but writes a column that appears on Page A2 twice a week.)

Is it any wonder that if you’re a conservative looking for unbiased news — and they do; they don’t want only Sean Hannity’s interpretation of the news — that you might feel unwelcome, or dissed or slighted, by the printed Post or the online version? And might you distrust the news when it’s wrapped in so much liberal commentary?

Marcus Brauchli, The Post’s executive editor, said conservative readers may perceive that recent coverage of Romney is too tough because they’ve missed a lot of the coverage of Obama in the past four years. “We’ve been covering Barack Obama aggressively for years,” Brauchli said. “We’ve only been covering Mitt Romney deeply since he became the Republican nominee. We cover politics in an even-handed way, and Dan Balz, Chris Cillizza, Karen Tumulty, Glenn Kessler and our other reporters do a terrific job of delivering the news without slant. Between the columnists on the editorial page and the commentators on the news pages, I believe The Post offers readers a balanced perspective.”

The good news in the Pew polls is that about 68 percent of Americans, of all political persuasions, have consistently told pollsters since 2004 that they want news without a political point of view. As Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, explained to me: “People use different media for different purposes.” First they go to television and news sites like The Post and the New York Times for information. “Then they go to the talk shows for their polarization.”

The Post should first be about news without slant. If The Post wants to wrap its news in commentary, fine, but shouldn’t some of those voices then be conservative?

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.