To Some Readers, Bias on Display

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Readers often see Post political coverage and its display through the lens of their own politics. But their perceptions aren't off the wall, and editors should be concerned when story, photo and display choices feed readers' concerns about bias.

Last week, as usual, brought more bias complaints from Republicans. John Carver of Oakton wrote: "You and most Post employees may view your paper as fair and balanced. To me it is a far-left liberal rag."

Partisan readers assume stories are timed to boost one candidate or another. Carver and other readers were riled about last Sunday's Post Magazine, which featured a flattering color cover photo of Barack and Michelle Obama and a long, mostly positive story by staff writer Liza Mundy about their courtship and Michelle Obama's early days as a lawyer. The story was excerpted from Mundy's book about Michelle Obama and published as the book was released.

The Sunday print edition, with circulation of 877,313, reaches more readers than the print edition Monday through Friday (648,847 circulation), though weekday readership tends to be far higher online.

Mundy said: "It was my intention to write a piece about Michelle Obama's early years as a lawyer that was informative, straightforward, balanced and interesting. It is true that based on the comments of classmates and co-workers, the piece portrays her as competent, hardworking and concerned about the poor. However, it also shows that she exaggerated her racial isolation at Sidley and was so professionally impatient that she went over her supervisor's head to try and get work more interesting than was normally given to a second-year associate."

Mundy's piece also offended Grace Pimentel of Herndon, who said she is a Democrat: "You ran a . . . fluff piece . . . with feel-good, beautiful, happy, smiling photos and no relevance to the campaign. . . . Meanwhile your coverage of McCain and Sarah Palin is only negative and you run stories that rip them to shreds daily? I just can't see the Post ever running such a positive-only story for McCain!" Actually, there was one that day; more about that later.

Drew Greenblatt of Potomac asked: "Will Ms. Mundy do a nice piece on Cindy McCain next Sunday? If not, is your paper fair?" Cindy McCain was featured in a Style profile in July, and a Sept. 12 piece focused on the circumstances of her drug addiction many years ago. It was on Page 1 -- a sore point with Republican readers.

Carver and other readers were irked that the Magazine story "was, of course, followed up . . . in the Style section by a nice long story with multiple pictures of McCain's first failed marriage to Carol McCain. I guess that will put us conservatives in our place, will it not?"

The piece by Style reporter Paul Farhi, which appeared Monday, was neither flattering to McCain nor sensational. McCain has cast himself in the same light on the matter in his memoirs and has taken the blame "entirely" for the failed marriage. The story needed to be done because so many readers had asked for it and The Post had done next to nothing on his first marriage.

Magazine editor Tom Shroder said a McCain cover story was done as he began to run for president, but that was two years ago. Mundy did a cover story more than a year ago on how lucky Barack Obama had been in his quick rise to the top in Illinois. And Style has done both a profile of Michelle Obama and a recent piece on the Southern history of her family.

But Republican readers didn't complain about a long, sympathetic piece that ran on Page 1 the same day by Michael Dobbs -- a.k.a. The Fact Checker-- about McCain's more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison. Raymond E. Meyer of Falls Church saw the story as "essentially a paean to him" and said The Post should have had more stories on the more negative parts of his career and his admittedly undisciplined youth. With the marriage piece, The Post has covered much of that ground.

The timing of stories is tricky. Run one early in a campaign, and readers may forget it. A number of readers thought that The Post has done nothing on Obama's ties to William Ayers, a former Weather Underground radical, and Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a former fundraiser recently convicted in a kickback scheme, but those stories were done months ago. Carver said of those stories: "A softball pitcher would be proud." Run such a story closer to the election, and readers may think you're trying to influence votes, as with the Michelle Obama piece.

The Post intentionally has planned many stories to run in October, but the planning has been upended by front-page coverage of the financial crisis.

And readers watch display. On Thursday's Politics page, one reader noted, a photo of Obama was "about 8 or 9 times larger than the photo of the other candidate. The campaign slogan of [Obama] . . . is centered, focused, and complete. [McCain's] slogan is off-center and cropped off. The Post's candidate's photo has about 30 people visible in the background with signs (in case we missed it on the podium), clapping hands, etc. The other candidate's photo is limited to maybe four fuzzy images."

Carlo Salzano of Arlington also wrote on Thursday: "Just finished reading another Post Obama edition." He noted that a story about Obama was on Page 1, one about the liberal group MoveOn.org was on the Style cover and an item on Obama supporters appeared in the Reliable Source. "The Post even managed to get Obama in the Metro section. Did I miss any?"

Editors have what they consider good reasons for their decisions and say that coverage can be judged only over time. But those explanations don't cut it with readers, and editors must be more vigilant to avoid undercutting the paper's credibility.

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


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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