A Column Feeds Perceptions of Bias

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thursday seemed like Valentine's Day to some Post readers, who felt a Style section piece on President Obama's news conference Wednesday was little more than a mash note.

The president answered reporters' questions "earnestly, disarmingly, enchantingly," wrote The Post's Tom Shales.

He described Obama as "a truly flabbergasting president. And in a good way -- not the way some of his predecessors were."

To "disbelievers" who accuse Obama of wanting to expand the size of government, Shales said "many are just the predictable strident voices of the kind of partisan pedantry that Obama has said he abhors."

Some of those "predictable strident voices" contacted the ombudsman in a rage, citing Shales's piece as evidence that The Post is in the tank for the president. Others echoed those sentiments in comments on washingtonpost.com.

"The sycophantic, syrupy praise Shales has spewed out is enough to put me in a diabetic coma," wrote ynot4tony2.

"Your fawning is shameful," said yourekiddingright.

Shales, a Post veteran who now writes for the newspaper on contract, has won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. But Thursday's piece did not identify him as a critic, an analyst or a columnist (although he was labeled that way online). To some readers, he appeared to be a reporter writing a straight news story.

The reaction, coming as Obama marked his 100th day in office, serves as a reminder that a large swath of The Post's readership sees pro-Obama bias. Each month I receive hundreds of e-mails and calls insisting that the paper is reflexively partial to the president.

Critics gained ammunition last week when a study concluded that Obama "has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House."

Conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the survey was based on a sampling of stories on network television newscasts and in national publications, including The Post.

The study found that "positive stories about Obama have outweighed negative by two-to-one" -- 42 percent to 20 percent -- while 38 percent were neutral or mixed. At my request, Pew broke out data for The Post. Project director Tom Rosenstiel said they show "The Post's coverage, while mostly positive, is slightly more negative than the media overall."

Most reporters and editors see themselves as impartial truth-seekers. But many readers who oppose Obama see them as hopelessly influenced by ingrained anti-Republican, anti-conservative ideology.

Post reader Dean Dykema of Laurel, who frequently complains about coverage, said he sees a "bias by omission" in failing to report "anything that might make Obama look bad."

Increasingly, readers complain about what isn't in The Post. They see a story elsewhere -- often another publication or Web site that mirrors their ideology -- and cite it as an example of The Post suppressing news.

James T. Hamilton, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University, said it's a growing trend. A "proliferation of media choices" has "accentuated the perception" of bias, he said.

So far this year, among readers who gave reasons for ending their Post subscriptions, only about 1 percent cited biased reporting. But many who still take the paper complain that "liberal bias" makes The Post less believable.

Which brings us back to Shales. He has written frequently -- and flatteringly -- about Obama's television appearances. But he also wrote glowingly of President Ronald Reagan's command of the cameras.

As a TV critic, it's his job to offer a viewpoint.

"I never talk about policies," Shales told me. "I talk about how [Obama] comes across on TV. I like him based on what I see on television."

The Style section, where he appears, is edgy and filled with criticism. "I believe that readers of The Washington Post Style section are familiar with what they are getting day in and day out," said Steve Reiss, its editor.

But judging from the steady flow of complaints after each Shales review, a surprising number don't see a distinction from the news pages.

Identifying his work as a "review" may seem minor. But it would remove any confusion. Reiss acknowledged it's a "fair question" whether Shales should be labeled.

"Clear labeling is always a good idea in journalism," said Rosenstiel. He said editors often don't label on the "assumption that readers already know the rules of the road in the paper."

But, he said, "research shows that inferences journalists make about what readers understand, or don't understand, are often wrong."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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