Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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NJ paper goes on a witch-hunt -- for newsroom liberals

NJ paper to search and destroy "liberal bias"

NJ paper goes on a witch-hunt -- for newsroom liberals

Some sociologists have attributed the occurrence of witchhunts to the prevalent human tendency to blame unexplainable occurrences on someone or something familiar. For example, Europe relied heavily upon agriculture during the period of the witch hunts; if there were large scale crop failures, the consequences would very likely be disastrous. Crop failures often correlated with the occurrence of witchhunts, leading some sociologists to suggest that communities often took out their anger about a lack of food on community members who were unpopular (witches.)

-- Wikipedia entry for "Witch-hunt"

In case you haven't noticed, the crops are failing -- for the 21st Century American newspaper. The drought has taken a huge toll on circulation, and it looks like the boll weevils have been eating through the advertising field. Panic is becoming widespread. The only explanation for so many failures all at once...could be witchcraft. And it's time to "blame unexplainable ocurrences on someone or something familiar."

Liberals in the newsroom -- a.k.a. your so-called "liberal media."

It's happening at one of the largest newspapers in New Jersey -- the Record, based in Bergen County, which covers the mostly affluent suburbs west and northwest of Manhattan, a paper known for winning awards and training young journalists who go on to the bigger East Coast newspapers. It is not known, particularly, as a bastion of liberalism, except to a handful of readers who passed that complaint along when the readership-desperate newspaper begged citizens to tell them what they wanted to read. First came this report last month:

Is there a liberal slant to The Record's news coverage? A number of readers who participated in recent telephone interviews with our market research team said they think there is.

The focus of interviews conducted over 10 days in March centered on what "jobs" readers want fulfilled by The Record. "Tell me the truth" stood out as a key job, but several readers added that they want the truth objectively – not from a reporter's personal angle. That led to expanded conversations.

"A good portion of these people feel The Record is politically liberal," said Joe Ferrara, market research manager. "Some of that may mirror a broader perception about media generally having a political agenda. But some people made the distinction between The Record's editorial pages and news content, saying ‘Your opinion pages are sneaking over into your news articles'."

Here's the follow-up from editor Frank Scandale:

This is the first column in a series over the next six months looking into bias. I want to know what constitutes it in the eyes of the readers, find specific examples of it and address it.

I am enlisting the support of my research department, well-documented studies, my colleagues here at the paper and around the country, and, of course, you, the reader.

Of course, by "bias" Scandale is referring to "liberal bias." How will this play out over the six months? It's hard to say -- it's doubtful that any reporter will get in trouble, but then human nature is such that good journalists will probably pull their punches or metaphorically look over their shoulders on a few stories. In my experience, when that starts to happen the casualty is exactly the No. 1 "job" that the readers said that they wanted -- "telling the truth," since truth-telling sometimes means getting a little more aggressive than the blandness of the ol' on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand.

Who knows -- maybe the Record is in fact the Socialist Worker of North Jersey, with a sports section thrown in...but I kind of doubt that. In fact, the majority of stories on their home page right now don't have any political bent and the one that sort of does -- "Spitzer girl "a regular" at Jersey Shore spots" -- looks like it could have come straight from the camera phone of GOP dirty trickster Roger Stone. And frankly, given the way the news media in New Jersey and 49 other states covered the run-up to the war in Iraq, if that's a liberal media I shudder to think how a "balanced" media would have covered it.

But that's not even the point. I do happen to believe that perception becomes a reality, and there are positive ways to deal with the perception by some would-be readers that the Record is too liberal without a witch-hunt that will utilmately stiffle newsroom creativity and morale. The general key is to err on the sides of transparency, two-way communication, citizen participation, and -- counter-intuitive, I know -- give reporters the freedom to be even more opinionated, not less so.

1) What the readers who complain about "liberal bias" are really saying is that viewpoints like theirs aren't being heard -- and if that's true, that's a problem. A problem that can be solved with this wondeful new tool called the Internet -- perhaps you've heard of it? Set up and encourage reader discussion on every story, or as many as are feasible -- because that will give readers a chance to point out perceived biases immediately. What's more, encourage reporters to respond to some of those complaints, and let the issue be aired out through dialogue. Sure, discussion boards are messy -- just like democracy. Both are better than the alternatives.

2) If possible, use the paper's Web site as a tool to allow citizens to develop their own blogs, as a way to raise community concerns and issues -- including conservative ones -- that are being ignored. That will broaden the conversation and bring in some interesting new stories, since our shrinking newsrooms can't honestly be expected to know everything that's going out there. And to paraphase Lyndon Johnson, you'll be bringing the camels -- your critics -- inside the tent to be pissing out, instead of the other way around.

3) The readers don't trust your reporters because they have no idea who they are. Instead of hunting for bias, encourage your staffers to become more transparent, to post bios, let readers know what they are all about and what's important to them, even -- if they want to and it's relevant -- whom they've voted for. Let it all hang out, and increase communication with readers, on the Web or even (gulp!) in person.

4) This last one will shock you, perhaps, but I and many others believe the real reason people would rather get their news from places like "The Daily Show" than the Record is not because we're biased but because we're too castrated, trying to explain issues to readers in ways that won't offend anyone but is guaranteed not to interest them, either. OK, maybe "biased" is a loaded word but I think the Record would do better if reporters were more edgy and not afraid of something that looks like an opinion when it's called for -- as long as people have the space to disagree. And if that sounds too much like "bias," then OK, be biased. Just don't kill my profession -- and yours -- for fear of being a liberal, because in the end it will be fear -- as manifested by this current witch-hunt -- and not the Internet that destroys the Record and every other American news org.

Meanwhile, the mental energy that's going to be wasted on looking for how many liberal journalists can fit on the head of a pin could have been spent investigating more corrupt public officials in North Jersey (because I hear you have some of those), or what's really causing $4.15-a-gallon gas.

Also known as "telling the truth."

And one more thing -- some people may think that the term "witch-hunt" is too inflammatory, or too "biased" a word. Good -- because that's exactly what I was going for.

If you wish to tell the Record's editor what you think about his investigation of bias in the newsroom, his email address is scandale@northjersey.com.

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Will Bunch
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