Remedying the Bias Perception

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Thousands of conservatives and even some moderates have complained during my more than three-year term that The Post is too liberal; many have stopped subscribing, including more than 900 in the past four weeks.

It pains me to see lost subscribers and revenue, especially when newspapers are shrinking. Conservative complaints can be wrong: The mainstream media were not to blame for John McCain's loss; Barack Obama's more effective campaign and the financial crisis were.

But some of the conservatives' complaints about a liberal tilt are valid. Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I'll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don't even want to be quoted by name in a memo.

Journalists bristle at the thought of their coverage being viewed as unfair or unbalanced; they believe that their decisions are journalistically reasonable and that their politics do not affect how they cover and display stories.

Tom Rosenstiel, a former political reporter who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said, "The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It's not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It's inconceivable that that is irrelevant."

Here are recent news decisions that brought conservative complaints; readers can judge for themselves:

· The Post put on Page 1 two long stories about "Troopergate" -- the allegation that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin fired her state's public safety commissioner because he wouldn't dismiss her ex-brother-in-law from his state trooper's job. One of the Page 1 stories reported a legislative investigator's conclusion that Palin had abused her power. When she was cleared by an Alaska Personnel Board report written by a self-described "loyal Democrat" investigator, the story was eight paragraphs long, under a one-column headline on an inside page.

· The Oct. 10 Metro section front featured a story and photo about Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) as a "giant-slayer" who had "won plaudits" for his work as head of the House Democrats' national campaign committee. The story only briefly mentioned his Republican opponent, Steven J. Hudson. A campaign story on both ran inside the paper.

· A Post Magazine spread on Oct. 5 about Michelle Obama, with a cover picture of the Obamas, was timed to the release of a book by Magazine writer Liza Mundy. There was no cover for John and Cindy McCain.

· Robin Givhan's Oct. 23 column exploring the disconnect between Palin's fancy duds and her hockey mom image ran on the Style section front just above an upbeat story about Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President-elect Joseph Biden. Conservatives thought that the placement's message was "Bad Palin, Good Biden."

Combine these with the drumbeat of polling stories saying Obama and the Democrats were likely to win, a few Tom Toles cartoons and TV critic Tom Shales's debate reviews -- both are liberals who are paid to offer opinions -- and conservatives decided that The Post was cheerleading -- especially since they felt the paper hadn't sufficiently scrutinized Obama.

The opinion pages have strong conservative voices; the editorial board includes centrists and conservatives; and there were editorials critical of Obama. Yet opinion was still weighted toward Obama. It's not hard to see why conservatives feel disrespected.

Are there ways to tackle this? More conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two. The first is not easy: Editors hire not on the basis of beliefs but on talent in reporting, photography and editing, and hiring is at a standstill because of the economy. But newspapers have hired more minorities and women, so it can be done.

Rosenstiel said, "There should be more intellectual diversity among journalists. More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism. We need to be more vigilant and conscious in looking for bias. Our aims are pure, but our execution sometimes is not. Staff members should feel in their bones that unfairness will never be tolerated."

Bob Steele, ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, which trains journalists, thinks editors should be doing "ongoing content evaluation of candidates and issues to provide scrutiny on photos, stories, placement of stories and what are the weaknesses and strengths of the candidates." He also recommends "prosecutorial editing" as one way to "minimize the ideological bias and beliefs that all journalists have. It would greatly reduce the news content being skewed by beliefs."

The Post and other news media can work harder on eliminating even the perception of bias while never giving up the willingness to follow stories that will inevitably tick off some readers.

One more factor will kick in soon. After Obama is inaugurated, he will be the authority the news media challenge. It happens in every administration.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or

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