Balance and Bias on the Political Beat

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Readers, especially before elections, watch The Post closely for any hint of political bias. Recently, such complaints have come mostly from Republicans.

Virginia voters must choose between two less than sterling candidates -- Republican incumbent George Allen and Democrat James Webb, both of whom have been mired in controversy: Allen for his demeaning "macaca" remark about a Webb campaign worker of Indian descent, and Webb for dreadful remarks long ago about women in the military.

Allen supporters think he can't catch a break; I sympathize. The macaca coverage went on too long, and a profile of Allen was relentlessly negative without balancing coverage of what made him a popular governor and senator. But it must be remembered that Allen shot himself in both feet with the "macaca" remark and his clumsy handling of the revelation of his Jewish heritage. Then he declined to talk to The Post for the profile. The profiles of both Webb and Allen were critical, but Webb's was leavened by his quotes.

It was bothersome that so much weight was given to "Fifth Quarter," the 2000 family memoir by Allen's sister, Jennifer. The book described family problems and portrayed Allen as a teenage bully. She called it a "novelization of the past," and Post reporters were unsuccessful in corroborating her account. Except for one brief remark, neither Jennifer Allen nor her brothers would comment on it.

That said, Virginia voters have been well informed with many straightforward stories about where Allen and Webb stand on race, taxes, transportation, education, the Iraq war, women, immigration and same-sex marriage.

Style stories add a complex element to political coverage because they have different goals than news stories; they are more focused on the person than the policy. Many readers don't understand this, and the confusion needs to be addressed.

Style examined Webb's writing career in a story that some readers found favorable. Allen had no Style coverage until a Thursday campaign story. "We were looking to do a day-on-the-trail piece in one of the major state races to give readers a sense of what that feels like. We had been a little too weighted toward Democrats, so we decided to do a Republican," said Steve Reiss, Style's deputy assistant managing editor.

In Maryland, profiles of Senate candidates -- Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat -- were neutral to positive, as were those of the gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Martin O'Malley and incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). I longed for a more critical eye, especially in the Cardin piece, which seemed relentlessly positive. Several readers thought Steele's profile should have mentioned that he flunked the bar exam, but a lot of folks do that. Pro-Steele readers were right to say The Post underplayed the story about several prominent black Prince George's County Democrats endorsing Steele. It was given one-column display on the Metro section front page.

Now to local races. Last Sunday there was a big Style layout of pictures and a favorable story on Isiah "Ike" Leggett, the Democratic candidate for Montgomery County executive; there will be no comparable Style story on Republican Chuck Floyd.

Jeanne Novotny, a Montgomery County resident, wrote: "I see the two-page article on Ike Leggett as a free campaign commercial. The Post editorial staff can endorse as it sees fit, but the Style section is not the place for an admiring piece on any candidate, particularly this close to the election." In a statement, Floyd called it a "puff piece" and said, "Leggett does not have to spend any money on advertisements because he has The Washington Post doing his bidding for him."

Their complaints are valid. While Montgomery County is heavily Democratic, and Leggett is favored to win, waiting until after the election to run the profile would have been far fairer.

Then Style ran a piece on Monday about the Montgomery County Council's only Republican, Howard A. Denis; no comparable piece was planned on his opponent, Democrat Roger Berliner. Faye Cohen, a Chevy Chase reader, called to complain: "This is a great ad for Howard, but it is unfair." Reiss said, "We wanted to take a look at a local candidate's struggle for attention, something that focused on the nitty-gritty of diets and shoes and intentionally didn't focus on issues. Denis has a reputation as a tireless campaigner and a somewhat humorous guy, so he fit the bill."

But Ben Beach of Bethesda wrote: "The race between Denis and Berliner may be one of the closest in the county. This story did nothing to help a voter make up her mind." And there was no piece in Metro to help.

Another issue is pictures. McLean reader Bill Crosby complained about Oct. 30 photos. "As is frequently the case with The Post, the Republican [Allen] is shown looking grim and the Democrat [Webb] is shown looking cheerful, confident, smiling. Go to B4, you will find a photo of O'Malley smiling, looking chipper, one of Cardin, smiling, and one of Ehrlich , looking grim. Whoever picks the photographs before elections always seems to find the worst possible photographs for the Republicans and the best possible photographs for the Democrats." (The Web version of my column has these photos.)

The Allen photo, to me, was better than the Webb shot. Cardin wasn't smiling very much, and Ehrlich didn't look so grim. But sometimes I have agreed with the complainers. Joe Elbert, assistant managing editor for photography, believes that campaign photos must be "evenhanded in size and demeanor" and "the best you can get."

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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