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Strib editor: Political reporters should ask themselves, ‘If I were running …’

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:

All:

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.

Nancy

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/18/2008 - 07:00 pm.

    Tom, just remember that a teeter totter goes back and forth – it can be tipped to either side, depending on circumstances. I’m more interested in watching it swing as events warrant than seeing it at stasis.

  2. Submitted by Dan Mitchell on 09/18/2008 - 12:53 pm.

    Wow, that really is scary. All too typical, however. This memo perfectly embodies the sickness that is killing newspapers.

    Fearing your readers is no way to run a newspaper.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/18/2008 - 01:03 pm.

    “Let’s be bolder and deeper and if the teeter-totter tips, so be it.”

    Minnpost is as close as you’ve ever gotten to employment with the credible news media of record, isn’t it, David?

    Can’t imagine why.

    Has it ever occurred to you, I wonder, that in addition to cases where one side is grossly “over occupied”, the teeter-totter also tips because one “player” has simply gotten up and left?

    I bet it’s occurred to the current administration at the Strib, ya think?

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/18/2008 - 05:56 pm.

    David, you’ve missed the point completely.

    By “leaving”, I mean to suggest that “one side” has declared the teeter-totter unfit for use. That is to say that centerists and conservatives have long ago given up on most of the MSM for unbiased news coverage.

    Far from “making us mad”, we find the Strib highly amusing..although, as you’ve noted they have been making a concerted effort to keep a lid on their lefties which does have a bit of a chilling effect on our mirth.

    So, do we still read it? Yes, but I’m guessing that mockery isn’t the result the editors of the Strib are shooting for.

    To mock the ridiculous notion that there is anything like a balanced, non-agenda driven coverage being offered is not to say that we are ready to agree with your premise that a tipped teeter-totter is not only acceptable, but desireable.

    As to personal insults, well I guess I’m just to jaded to be an effective hypocrite anymore. I calls ’em as I sees ’em.

  5. Submitted by Rich Goldsmith on 09/19/2008 - 11:49 am.

    Not to mention, Tom, that whether you’re mocking or honestly reading for the day’s news, you’re still reading. I doubt the business folks at the Strib care all that much about your rationale for reading, just as long as they can count you in their circulation numbers.

    It’s a fair point though — fair and balanced is not a good measure. Journalism isn’t about fairness or equality of coverage. In this country it’s about creating an informed populace. If Democrats are misrepresenting their record, or that of their opponents, I expect those statements to be disputed forcefully in coverage. And vice versa if it’s Republicans. If it’s not, we give the folks looking to obfuscate truth carte blanche to do as they will.

    When the newspaper refutes Sarah Palin’s claims that she said thanks but no thanks to the Bridge to Nowhere, I’m sure her supporters and staffers don’t view it as fair. The truth rarely is. So using that as a yardstick is a colossal waste of time.

  6. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/18/2008 - 04:19 pm.

    Tom, aren’t you always banging on the MSM? So if someone builds a career outside of that, it’s a problem? The personal insults betray a lot.

    I’ve never really believed the “one side has left” argument, since the most upset righties seem to be able to recite the Strib’s contents from heart.

    And if the “don’t make anyone mad” ethos, deployed more or less since the Gyllenhaal administration, were such a good idea, we’d probably see a bit more evidence on the business side, no?

  7. Submitted by Chris Clonts on 09/19/2008 - 11:59 am.

    This is your well-covered beat, but man: Maybe it’s time to step away from the parsing machine a bit.
    A couple of things from the “Come on, really?” camp:

    1) The “I hear complaints from both sides” statement is a time-worn editor’s pulse check used in all sorts of coverage from sports (Michigan, Michigan St.) to the Middle East (the Jewish and Palestinian communities) to politics. Is it the world’s most scientific test? Heck no. But it is a standard for media that try to remain objective.

    2) With her “…If I were running, would I find this fair and balanced” test, it’s extraordinarily doubtful Ms. Barnes meant anything more than to reiterate a tenet of objective journalism (I say that because much of the alternative media does not, of course, hew to objectivity), and that is this: Our stories must be accurate and fair and treat covered people and entities with respect with regard to giving them a chance to state their case.

    Is it possible some candidates’ idea of “fair” is “they represented my views without reporting facts”? Yes, but most reasonable people think “fair” means having both sides of the story and no misrepresented facts. Nothing more complicated or sinister than that.

    I’ve heard both statements in multiple newsrooms. And never did it cause a stink. Not because anyone was apathetic or because we were tools in the pocket of Big Journalism, but because we took the statements for what they were: A well-intentioned reminder that, as there is no more scrutinized coverage than that during elections, it’s worth asking the question out loud: Is this fair to the person being covered?

    There’s enough seeing conspiracies and storms in the tea leaves of the front office lately to last a few lifetimes.

    Please don’t let the angst and litigiousness cast false aspersions on the journalism, too.

    Cheers

  8. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/19/2008 - 01:34 pm.

    Chris – first, thanks for defending Nancy’s point of view. I had hoped Nancy would explain her point of view, but I appreciate your healthy skepticism of me.

    As to point 1, this may put me back in the parsing chair, but it wasn’t getting grief from both sides that bothered me, it was getting *equal* grief. I do sincerely believe our profession’s quest for equal has allowed particularly skilled or frequent b.s.-ers to get away with murder. That is a nonpartisan statement, BTW.

    Point 2 is the more serious one. “Accurate and fair,” fine. But to specifically single out a politician’s perspective is a BAD signal to send to a watchdog reporting staff. (If Thom Fladung has offered a similar formulation, lemme know.)

    You have beleaguered professionals in pressure-cooked final weeks hacking through towering piles of highly-paid and incessantly cast bullshit, and ANY kind of a signal to think like the epically self-interested people they cover is a confusing leadership signal at best and chilling at worst.

    And of course, it’s not only knuckleheads like me outside the building who think this.

    Will it seem fair to your ambivalent Aunt Millie (or any other reader stand-in)? Fine question. The last reasonable person you met who didn’t agree with you idelogically? Sure. But I can’t help thinking there’s a troubling “stay safe” subtext to what Barnes was saying.

    Just my two cents. Reasonable people can disagree, and I deeply appreciate the well-reasoned challenge. Thank God we have two dailies!

  9. Submitted by Tamara Baker on 10/19/2008 - 11:43 am.

    Dear David:

    I see you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head. Reporting should be about truth, not “balance” — because as we’ve all seen from the shenanigans of the conservative billionaires controlling our press, “balance” inevitably means “ignoring anything that makes Republicans look bad, even if it means having to let Republicans get away with outright lies”.

    Make no mistake, the media in America is controlled by conservatives. There’s Rupert Murdoch’s and Roger Ailes’ FOX News, Jack Welch’s and Roger Ailes’ NBC News (before Murdoch hired Ailes to set up and run FOX News, Welch hired RNC Chair Ailes to Republicanize NBC), and of course the AP’s DC bureau guy Ron Fournier, Karl Rove’s good friend and the fella who tried to become John McCain’s official press flack but apparently decided he could be more helpful to McCain right where he was. And I’m not even getting into the heavily-conservative-mogul-subsidized world of right-wing radio.

    Conservatives know that an honest, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may journalism is to conservativism what sunlight is to vampires. That’s why William Simon used his Olin Foundation position to push for conservative takeover of those institutions that relate objective reality to the rest of us: Not just the media, but our educational system as well, especially our colleges and universities.

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