Just this morning, I pondered a potential week of Star Tribune non-criticism. The paper’s ATV investigation left an afterglow in Daily Glean, restive unions were quiet and Muslim issues were again the province of reporters, not columnists.
But then, like picking up a bad penny, I was given a memo.
It’s from Strib Editor Nancy Barnes, to her staff, about stretch-run political coverage.
For the most part, the memo is conventional: ignore campaign media-bashing and guard against bias. Barnes announced success so far: “I am taking equal heat from both parties [which] indicates that we are being equally tough on the candidates.”
If I was a Barnes foot soldier, I’d rather have read, “Let’s be bolder and deeper and if the teeter-totter tips, so be it.” A dangerous goal, equal. If one side is a bigger offender, they get off easy.
Still, I understand the conceits of a heavily scrutinized mainstream newspaper. When Barnes inveighs against favoritism, she’s really saying, “Keep a lid on it, lefties,” which can be appropriate, as long as there’s no chilling effect on honest coverage.
But the memo featured a sentence that made me shiver:
“If you are involved in a political story, please look at it from several different perspectives and ask yourself: ‘If I were running, would I find this fair and balanced?'”
That’s the question the top editor wants to leave in a reporter’s mind? The ultimate bias check is … thinking like the person you cover?
I doubt the last thing Ben Bradlee said to Woodward and Bernstein was, “Ask yourself: ‘If I were president, would I find our Watergate coverage fair and balanced?'”
We’re supposed to serve the public interest, not the politician’s. If you’re going to venture into the hall of mirrors that are other people’s minds, visualize your readers, not the candidates.
One of journalism’s biggest obstacles these days is too many political voices trying to get inside a reporter’s head. A veteran political reporter told me recently that the biggest change is the sheer omnipresence of campaign spinners, cajolers and badgerers who get paid to work the refs.
In her memo, Barnes says to ignore ref-tweakers, yet singles out their employer’s perspective for empathy. That’s just weird.
And misplaced sympathy carries this danger: timidity. The tougher your critique, the likelier a subject screams, “Unfair!”
It’s no secret Strib ownership fears the imbalanced teeter-totter; the editorial page’s ideological neutering demonstrates that. And political caution crept in during ex-editor Anders Gyllenhaal’s tenure — though during Barnes’ time, Franken Porn-O-Rama and Molnau Bridge-O-Rama are high-profile counterexamples.
(I wonder if Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe thought, “If I were Lieutenant Governor, how would I feel about our bridge coverage?” Then again, some conservatives say they should have.)
To be fair — if not balanced — I do think about what my subjects will think. I emailed Barnes and asked if I misread her emphasis. Perhaps it was clumsy wording — maybe she didn’t mean to elevate a subject’s subjectivity?
She didn’t reply, and I’d wager she’ll find this take unfair. But my sympathies lie with the public that has been ill-served by caution — about politicians, businesspeople and even ourselves — as well as the false balance that renders responsibility a math equation.
While I suspect the memo will have little effect — I visualize savvy Stribbers rolling their eyes at the rhetorical excesses — here’s the text, so you can judge for yourself:
As we head into the final months of one of the most interesting political seasons in history, it is more important than ever that we be vigilant about stripping any bias from our reporting and/or editing.
Some readers come to the paper, and our website, just sure that we are going to present a slanted point of view; we want them to find just the news (unless of course it is on the editorial pages).
I hear routinely from readers who think we deliberately try to make McCain look bad, or conversely, Obama. We’re too hard on Palin. We’re too easy on her, etc., etc.
Actually, I’m pleased that so far, I am taking equal heat from both parties because that indicates that we are being equally tough on the candidates. I also know, as we all do, that bashing the media can become a deliberate campaign strategy; we certainly don’t want to be pawns in that sort of game.
With all that in mind, I ask that you take extra care in your reporting and writing of political stories, selecting and editing of wire stories and photos, and in your approach to headlines and cutlines.
If you are involved in a political story, please look at it from several different perspectives and ask yourself: “If I were running, would I find this fair and balanced?”
I recognize that we are all human, and some among our staff may privately be pulling for one candidate or another. But let’s take extra care to make sure personal opinion doesn’t show up in the news pages. Thanks so much for your help, and dedication.