Saturday, September 06, 2003


(Pre-script: I wrote this as a bloggable piece two weeks ago but I didn't get around to creating a blog until today. So it's a little stale. Tell you what--you can have it for half price.)

Carping about liberal bias in the media has always left me cold. It seems plain enough that journalists as a group are further to the left than the populace is; surveys show that they are much more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, for instance (though they don’t appear to translate their politics into votes in any greater numbers than the low-turnout electorate they so love to hector). And I don’t dispute that this sometimes shows through in their reporting, nor that when it does they deserve to be called to account.

But I don’t think liberal bias is the root problem. I think monopoly power is. This is clearest in the newspaper industry. In the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, almost every U.S. city of any size had at least two newspapers, and many had lots more. And newspapers then had varied and quirky personalities–some were liberal, others were conservative; some were populist muckrakers, others were aristocratic standard-bearers; and so on. Most importantly, they competed. They scratched and clawed with each other--sometimes literally, no doubt--to break stories. Being first was what mattered most.

Today all but the very largest cities have only one daily left, and of these almost all are essentially interchangeable. Insulated from competition like utilities or the post office, newspapers have become lazy, boring, and smug. And none more so than my hometown rag, the Star Tribune.

Case in point, from the August 24th installment of Star Tribune Ombudsman Lou Gelfand’s regular “If you ran the newspaper” column:

Don't be modest

Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich spoke in St. Paul Aug. 16, but there was no mention of it in the Star Tribune.

Dave Nelson, Diane Haugesag and Doug Crandall, among others, wanted to know why not.

Bob von Sternberg, who normally would have covered the speech, did not know about it. He was surprised, he said, because he had talked with the Kucinich people the week before and "they didn't mention it."

Star Tribune policy is to cover the appearance of every presidential candidate who comes to Minnesota, said Dennis McGrath, supervisor of the campaign coverage.
Now, it was pretty dumb of the Kucinich people not to have mentioned his upcoming appearance when they talked to von Sternberg. But gee, Bob, did you ask them if their man was coming to town any time soon? It doesn’t even occur to Gelfand to tell us, but it hardly seems likely that von Sternberg did ask them and they said no.

Gelfand and von Sternberg’s lack of interest in this crucial detail is telling. At the Strib the news is obligated to stand up, clear its throat, and “mention” itself; the paper can’t be troubled to look for it. And I love the “Don’t be modest” subhead: could the paper be any more self-satisfied?

The more I think about this the more amazed I get. If I were responsible for covering a presidential campaign one of the first things I would do is bookmark each candidate’s web site–about a fifteen-minute job I’d guess, even with the Democrats’ presently teeming field. Then I’d check them regularly (or, if I worked for the Strib, I’d sign up for automatic e-mail alerts, so the news could come to me)–again, a few minutes a day per candidate.

It boggles the mind to conclude that neither McGrath nor Von Sternberg has done this, but the conclusion seems inescapable. The Kucinich campaign’s web site has a schedule page which lays out his planned appearances for the next several weeks; I can’t find an archive but it’s implausible that the August 16th St. Paul appearance wasn’t listed well before the fact. (The site also has a page about his proposal to “make war archaic” by creating a Department of Peace; no word yet on the Departments of Love and Understanding.) And an August 5th posting on the web site for the local office of the Kucinich campaign announces that “The campaign has kicked into high gear preparing for Dennis's visit on Saturday August 16th. Continue checking the August section for the latest updates.”

The bottom line: McGrath and von Sternberg could have found out about the Kucinich appearance without leaving their desks–hell, without even picking up a phone–but apparently that was just too much work for them.

What I like about this little example is that it supports my monopoly power thesis but not the liberal bias thesis. If the Strib’s leftward tilt were as conscious and as thoroughgoing as many believe it to be, we should have seen an unduly prominent puff piece on Kucinich’s appearance–after all, Kucinich is about as liberal as they come. Instead we got nothing, then a “their fault, not ours” non-apology.

The biggest problem with the Strib and newspapers like it (that is, just about all of them) is not that they are constantly scheming to impose their liberal agenda on the rest of us, even if at times that’s what they are in fact doing. It’s that they’re lazy and no one is forcing them not to be. (Lest any of you non-Twin Citians surmise that the St. Paul Pioneer Press provides competition for the Strib, think again. Neither paper has been able to make real inroads into the other paper’s city. In fact, the Pioneer Press seems to pride itself on its provincialism. For instance, its high school football preview section last year included schools from western Wisconsin but not from the Minneapolis suburbs. And yes, the Pioneer Press also dropped the ball on the Kucinich appearance, as a reader pointed out.)

Their laziness sometimes looks like conscious liberal bias because it allows the largely liberal predilections of journalists to show through, like underwear through disheveled clothing. More often it surfaces as shoddiness, ineptitude, or outright fabrication (Jayson Blair, anyone?). But these are epiphenomena, not the phenomenon itself.


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