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Wrongly Deaf to Right-Wing Media?

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Conservative bloggers and commentators know how to turn up the heat on mainstream media. Glenn Beck did it one day last week on his Fox News program. Theatrically unhinged, he directed viewers to call their local newspaper and demand coverage of ACORN, the national community action group targeted in an embarrassing hidden video sting.

"Right now, get off the couch. While I'm talking, you pick up the phone. You call the newspaper," he commanded. If ACORN hasn't been on the front page, or if the paper isn't investigating the group's local activities, "then what the hell are they good for?"

Shortly, The Post and other papers were flooded with angry calls and e-mails.

It's tempting to dismiss such gimmicks. Fox News, joined by right-leaning talk radio and bloggers, often hypes stories to apocalyptic proportions while casting competitors as too liberal or too lazy to report the truth.

But they're also occasionally pumping legitimate stories. I thought that was the case with ACORN and, before it, the Fox-fueled controversy that led to the resignation of White House environmental adviser Van Jones.

Jones had issued two public apologies before The Post finally wrote about him. One was for using a crude term to describe Republicans in a speech before joining the administration. The other was for signing a 2004 petition that said members of the Bush administration may have "allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext to war." Conservatives had attacked Jones for more than a week before the first Post story appeared Sept. 5. He resigned the next day.

With ACORN, The Post wrote about it two days after the first of several explosive hidden-camera videos were aired showing the group's employees giving tax advice to young conservative activists posing as a prostitute and her pimp. Three days passed before The Post ran a short Associated Press story about the Senate halting Housing and Urban Development grants to ACORN, which operates in 110 cities. But by that time, the Census Bureau had severed ties with ACORN. State and city investigations had been launched. It wasn't until late in the week that The Post weighed in with two solid pieces.

Why the tardiness?

One explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don't pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints.

It "can't be discounted," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms."

"They just don't see the resonance of these issues. They don't hear about them as fast [and] they're not naturally watching as much," he added.

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he worries "that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It's particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."

To guard against it, he said, "I challenge our reporters and editors with great frequency to look at what is going on across the political spectrum . . . at the extremes, among the rabble-rousers, as well as among policymakers." He said he pressed the National desk this week to provide more ACORN coverage.

The Post does not survey its staff to determine its ideological makeup.

The most authoritative recent research into the political leanings of newsrooms (including television, radio, magazines and wire services) shows they are considerably more liberal than the general public. At daily newspapers, those who "lean to the left still far outnumber those who lean to the right," said Indiana University journalism professor David H. Weaver, whose researchers surveyed 1,149 journalists in 2002 and recently conducted a follow-up study of 400.

A recent Pew Research nationwide survey said only 26 percent of those questioned believe news organizations try to protect against political bias, while 60 percent said news organizations are biased.

Beck is more provocateur than newsman. And Fox caters to conservatives. Working in concert, they and other right-leaning media have a large audience. Beck averages 2.25 million viewers.

The Post should follow its own news standards, not theirs. But it should pay attention to what they report.

Mainstream media outlets "used to have a monopoly because they were the filter" for what is news, observed former journalist Mike Gonzalez, vice president of communications for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They could kill a story by sitting on it, by ignoring it. That is now gone."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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