Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Dear Jon Letter Of Sorts

I read with great interest a Columbia Journalism Review Q-and-A with Las Vegas' very own Jon Ralston. I think it's terrific that they spotlighted Jon and, as I've written many times, our state is better for his indefatigable work.

But, of course, I found one segment of it a little bit silly. And, no, it was NOT the part where he was talking about how he "and maybe one other reporter at the time, raised questions about a U.S. senator calling banks" regarding CityCenter's troubled loans. He, of course, knows that it wasn't "maybe" but, in fact, a fact and that yours truly was the very first to write about it or get reaction from MGM Whatchamacallit and Sen. Reid's office. So "maybe" was just another way to downplay someone else's work even though Ralston himself needs no puffing up. He would never let anyone else get away with such a slight if it were him, so now I've clarified that.

But then Jon gets into the conversation with CJR about whether the two newspapers in Vegas are biased towards one side or the other in the Reid-Angle Senate race.

If Ralston wants to make the case that the R-J's news coverage is biased towards Angle and other Republicans, I'm having a harder and harder time disagreeing lately. Almost every day now, there's a piece on what Sharron Angle had done or said that day, not a stitch of it actually new or different. A few examples:
  • In early July when President Obama visited Vegas, R-J scribe Laura Myers wrote on the same day about a standard-issue Angle stump speech as if that constituted news or balance.
  • The other day, Angle spoke to a Republican Men's Club and Myers' story was loaded with the same catch-phrases that Angle uses in her TV ads. It is NOT news that Sharron Angle thinks Harry Reid is a bad senator and that she'd be a better one. She doesn't get front-page treatment for saying that; she gets it if she says something newsworthy. The key word is "news" -- something we don't already know or haven't heard yet.
  • When something actually IS newsworthy -- say, Sen. John Ensign's staffers were cleared to testify before a grand jury in his scandal's probe -- it needs better, more and more prominent coverage. The R-J gave that example these skimpy seven paragraphs and buried it somewhere deep in one of the sections.
So, yeah, I'm disappointed by the R-J. And it is totally bizarre to have editor Thomas Mitchell believing it's OK for him to post anti-Reid screeds online because "it's a blog," as he told the L.A. Times. He oversees the paper's coverage; his advocacy for or against a candidate in any medium undermines the perception of his judgment. Period.

All that said, however, the R-J does play the broader national news stories that come off the wires pretty fairly. Obama appears on the front page looking presidential on a regular basis. When historic legislation has passed, the front pages have reflected their significance.

But, OK. Ralston can make the RJ-bias argument and there's some merit to it. Trouble is, he goes on with CJR to defend the Las Vegas Sun as if it is not equally guilty from the left:

There’s no question that Brian Greenspun, who’s the head of the Sun, supports Harry Reid. But he does not have that much hands-on impact on the Sun and what it does on a day-to-day basis. Would he like to see Harry Reid win? Yes. Do people who work for the Sun know that? Yes. Does he influence day-to-day coverage? I’m not at the Sun, I can’t really speak to that, but I don’t think so. I know the political reporters and they’ve done some great coverage.

Whoa. For a journalist who makes a career pointing out the fatal flaws and cognitive dissonances of public officials' arguments, Ralston in this passage really works hard to overlook a lot of inconvenient truths. You know, like that time in February when the Sun ran a banner headline across the top of its front page shouting, "A Double Thank You, Mr. Reid." It was an advertisement for the Sun's editorial; the Review-Journal has never, ever advertised what's on its editorial pages from its front page. Ever.

But that's ancient history. The past several days offer even better examples. My favorite came Sunday. For background, you ought to know that the R-J's Myers did a blog post examining this Harry Reid ad:

Myers raised the question of whether the teacher in the ad was actually at risk of losing her job. It certainly does seem like a reasonable conclusion from the ad, no? But, in fact, this teacher probably wasn't ever in such danger.

Was it a worthwhile use of Myers' time? Doubtful. I've yet to see Myers do any coverage of inaccuracies or outright lies coming from Sharron Angle or her campaign -- for a few whoppers, check out my blog post about a recent Wall Street Journal column -- but I can't say it was a completely ridiculous thing to write about, either.

Myers' blog post, however, gave rise to one of the most bizarre, slanted political pieces I'd ever read in any serious newspaper anywhere. Under a SUNDAY FRONT PAGE headline, "R-J story critical of Harry Reid ad misses its mark," the piece by newly hired political reporter Delen Goldberg opens:

Politicians often complain about how they are characterized in the media, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s campaign is especially livid that one of its TV ads was mischaracterized and deemed inaccurate by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Well, shit! If all it takes to get on the front page of the Sun is for a Harry Reid spokesman to be "especially livid," it's going to be a long year indeed. Did the spokesman also write this silly screed, because he could not possibly have been more thrilled by it. It's complete with references to Angle as an "ultraconservative" -- that "ultra" is a judgment call that journalists ought to leave to readers -- and, in the reporter's voice, declares that the R-J made assumptions about the ad that weren't true. Watch that ad again; the conclusions were not off the wall.

Goldberg's gift to Reid included this cute bit where Reid's spokesman Jon Summers gets to give the R-J the benefit of the doubt -- that perhaps they're just incompetent, not malevolent! That's followed by a completely weird passage in which media experts chime in on the broader topic of newspapers analyzing political advertisements.

This quote was particularly strange, given the context:

“What’s really changed with the media is, we used to be able to count on newspapers to give an accurate reporting of what was really going on. They’d almost be the referee,” said Jim Spencer, president of the Campaign Network, a communication and campaign consulting company. “If someone put out an ad that was inaccurate, newspapers set the record straight. That just doesn’t go on anymore. Now newspapers say both sides have a point.”

Huh? It's BAD for newspapers to provide both sides of a story? Myers was trying to set the record straight! Can you imagine how "especially livid" Reid's camp would have been if she had, straight-up, written about how the ad was inaccurate and here's why and NOT given Summers a chance to answer to it? Myers did just that; she gave paragraphs to the same "especially livid" spokesman to voice his view. Seeing how Goldberg and the Sun clearly agree with Reid, would they have preferred that Myers not include that? Ralston himself does truthiness evaluations of TV ads on his TV show, the transcripts of which are published in the Sun -- and without such balance, which is fine by me -- so Spencer's quote is not only confusing and irrelevant but also incorrect.

I especially love this passage for its ability to make Reid's "especially livid" spokesman seem absolutely heroic:

Within an hour of the R-J story going online, Summers had fired off his rebuttal. Time was of the essence. With the Internet, Google alerts and Twitter posts, stories — even inaccurate ones — can spread like wildfire.

“You either define, or you get defined,” Summers said. “It was important to correct the record and get out our position, which wasn’t in the R-J, and serve as a reminder to other outlets that look to the R-J for story ideas to do their homework.”

Time was of the essence! That's the journalist talking there! Can't you just hear the John Barry score swelling? Can we get Kiefer Sutherland to play Summers in the movie?

Today's Sun provided yet another terrific example. Anjeanette Damon has front-pager reporting that the Reid campaign has accused Angle of "attempting to skirt tax law by paying her staff as independent contractors." What, you mean like the way Greenspun Media hires freelance columnists including, until recently, Damon herself?

The key here was this paragraph:

Although not uncommon for political candidates, the practice could raise legal issues with the IRS if she doesn't carefully follow the rules dictating when a worker can be classified as an independent contract.

OK. Then this is not a story. It's not uncommon, there is no evidence that Angle's done anything improper and the only reason it's in the paper is because Mr. Summers, who is wonderful at being "especially livid" for a living, raised it to Damon. If Angle's staff wants to report their income on their own, whose frigging business is it of anybody? But look for this misleadingly bad headline from Damon's non-story in a Reid ad soon: "Angle avoids paying taxes on payroll." Summers is having a helluva week! Maybe he's "especially gleeful" now? The Sun is so concerned about his mood, y'know!

Meanwhile, in the very same day's newspaper, there's a totally entertaining Ralston column in which he imagines Angle's ideal press conference. Every loaded question is asked by fictional reporters with different names but the same initials: RJ. When I spotted that -- it did take a few paragraphs but I was at the vet and my dogs would NOT shut the hell up -- I laughed.

But, Jon, there are plenty of examples of coverage in the Sun that leans assertively towards Reid, too. I just cited three examples. The R-J may be similarly guilty in the opposite direction, but it may just be something of a wash, which is what the L.A. Times piece on the issue to which you mentioned was actually saying.

Hopefully, Jon will come down from his own pro-Sun partisan perch and provide media analysis that is as balanced as the rest of his work or maybe just avoid the topic given the personal interests at stake. But hurry. Time is of the essence!


Jeff in OKC said...

The Sun is my home page and I did read the article on Sunday. I found it odd. Especially the claim that newspapers were somehow more odjective in the past. I think that is revisionism from people who weren't there. I think by nature, people who own communication outlets have always had strong opinions and succumbed (to some degree) to the desire to educate the masses.
I think your post has hit the bull's eye. Totally accuratet.

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments! I would think both newspapers should be able to give both sides of the issue, but somehow neither one come close to accomplishing that noble goal.