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September 29, 2012

Washington Post Ombudsman: "Does Our News Coverage Tilt Left"?

Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman at the Washington Post, takes a critical look at the Post's news coverage:

One aspect of The Post that particularly irks conservatives is the columnists who appear in print and online in news positions (as opposed to those on the editorial and op-ed pages and the online Opinions section). With the exception of Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza, who cover politics in a nonpartisan way, the news columnists almost to a person write from left of center.

Ezra Klein of Wonkblog comes out of the Democratic left, fills in for Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz on MSNBC and sometimes appears in the printed Post on the front page.

Steven Pearlstein, who covers business and also appears occasionally on the front page; Walter Pincus on national security; Lisa Miller of the On Faith blog; Melinda Henneberger of She the People; Valerie Strauss, the education blogger; plus the three main local columnists — Robert McCartney, Petula Dvorak and Courtland Milloy — all generally write from a progressive perspective, readers say. (So does Dana Milbank, who works for the Opinions section but writes a column that appears on Page A2 twice a week.)

Is it any wonder that if you’re a conservative looking for unbiased news — and they do; they don’t want only Sean Hannity’s interpretation of the news — that you might feel unwelcome, or dissed or slighted, by the printed Post or the online version? And might you distrust the news when it’s wrapped in so much liberal commentary?

We would be happier about Mr. Pexton's attempt to do the right thing if we thought for one moment the editors of the Washington Post would take it to heart. Sadly, history is littered with the unmarked graves of ombudsmen who noted (and even documented) anti-conservative bias at papers like the NY Times and the Washington Post. Daniel Okrent's 2004 challenge to the NY Times generated a lot of discussion, but had no lasting effect on the paper. During the 2008 election, Clark Hoyt took the Times to task for its slanted - and largely fact-free - coverage of Rev. Wright's racially inflammatory (and factually challenged) rhetoric:

While The Times was aggressive with its coverage on the Web, it was slow to fully engage the Wright story in print and angered some readers by putting opinion about it on the front page — a review by the television critic of his appearances on PBS, at an N.A.A.C.P. convention and at the National Press Club — before ever reporting in any depth what he actually said, how it squared with reality and what it might mean as Democrats ponder Obama as their potential nominee.

Carol Hebb of Narberth, Pa., spoke for many when she wrote that she found the newspaper’s initial coverage “very strange.” If editors did not think Wright’s remarks were newsworthy enough to be on the front page, she asked, why did they put the review by Alessandra Stanley there? “I was very surprised that her piece was not accompanied by a ‘factual’ article reporting the content of Mr. Wright’s comments more completely and perhaps adding some meaningful context.”

In 2008, Deborah Howell of the Washington Post took a more scientific approach to measuring bias. The Post's response, while outwardly contrite, does not seem to have changed anything:

As Ed Thiede, assistant managing editor of the WaPo's news desk remarked, the data is:

... "eye-opening. We should be more cognizant." Du Cille and Thiede were both surprised at the numbers. Du Cille said, "The disparity in the numbers is indeed hard to reconcile. As photojournalists, we always strive to be fair. We have tried to be balanced, but it seems that in a large operation such as ours, we need to monitor the use of political images even more closely."

Here we are, four years later on the cusp of another election and once again we see an ombudsman at a major newspaper pointing out prominence given to slanted coverage used to frame the news. Will anything come of it? We doubt it. These episodic tail chasing exercises seem designed to allow the media to pat themselves on the back and check the box labeled "critical scrutiny" without actually doing anything about the problem they purport to have identified. Still, we can't help but admire Mr. Pexton. Over the last 3 decades, our little household has mostly been a loyal subscriber to the Post. We subscribed even when we didn't have time to read the paper copy because we believe in newspapers and don't want to see the industry die.

And we have cancelled our subscription at least three times in the last 3 decades in disgust with their election coverage, which is so slanted as to be comical (if it weren't so infuriating, that is).

I continue to hope someone at the Post will read posts like this, along with the letters they receive on a daily basis, and take Samuel L. Jackson's advice. The newspaper industry is in real trouble, and families like ours who have loyally supported it even when we had no use for the product (we've donated our papers many, many times) because we think the press performs a vital function deserve better.

Mr. Pexton is right: conservative readers don't expect Sean Hannity-esque coverage. We don't WANT that, because we know the difference between news and opinion. We just want a paper that will cover the big stories and get them right. We want facts, delivered by a media that thinks enough of our intelligence to feed them to us straight without airbrushing out the disturbing parts. We want a media that covers John Edwards the same way it covers Sarah Palin.

We want a paper that will subject public servants to the kind of scrutiny they boast about so often, and do so even-handedly, without regard to whether there's a (D) or an (R) next to a politician's name.

We want more Kirsten Powers and Chris Cizilla (on both sides, though that would require the media to actually cultivate the kind of diversity they claim to support) because although we may disagree with them on occasion, we also trust their intellectual honesty.

What we want is eloquently summed up by Mr. Pexton:

The Post should first be about news without slant. If The Post wants to wrap its news in commentary, fine, but shouldn’t some of those voices then be conservative?

One final note: when a great paper stoops to cheap shots at Fox News (which isn't perfect by any means, but isn't nearly as biased as the papers criticizing it would have us believe), that paper looks insecure and unprofessional.

Cover the news, cover it well, and cover it fairly - without fear or favor - and let the chips fall where they may. Is that really too much to ask?

Posted by Cassandra at September 29, 2012 11:57 AM

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"Does Our News Coverage Tilt Left?"(

Is that a trick question?

Posted by: Texan99 at September 29, 2012 03:52 PM