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The Liberal Bias Newspaper Snipe Hunt

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The Record, a newspaper in northern New Jersey, is conducting a six-month investigation into possible "liberal bias" in its pages:

We were asking readers and non-readers about the jobs they expected our newspaper to do for them. "Tell me the truth" emerged as the top job, but then several added that they wanted it objectively and not from a reporter's personal angle. Fair enough.

Now this led to people saying they thought The Record was politically liberal, according to our market research manager. Some even thought our Opinion section was "sneaking over" to the news section, both of which I personally oversee. Yikes. We are against that sort of opinion creep, and my fellow editors and I work at keeping the two separate, just as we do to keep news and advertising separate.

Still, some of those folks offered views such as these: "It's prejudiced, politically [liberal]." ... "Editorial could be less biased - slant is always going to be for Democrats." ... "Biased in certain ways - The Record is more liberal - does not present both sides of a story."

I am familiar with the Record by its (good) reputation only, but this is, of course, faintly ridiculous, and reveals something about the crisis in American newspapers today. The editor of a daily newspaper shouldn't have to investigate himself. For six months. This Freudian-analytical approach to journalism won't work.

This isn't complicated. An editor should be aware of bias in news coverage and be correcting it both daily and in overall strategy, the choices in who covers what and how they do it. If the charge of bias is wrong, unfair, or misguided, the editor should be out there knocking it down. I have no idea if the Record is New Jersey's answer to Granma, but what's going on here is that market research (always a poor guide for journalists if taken too literally) is revealing not creeping liberalism in the news pages, but a more global disconnect between the newspaper and its readers. This about the breakdown of a consensus in society over the past generation, not with whether running a photo of an anti-Bush protest is "bias" or straight news.

Consider what we've seen just in the past eight years: A massive terror attack in the Record's backyard. Aggressive attempts by government officials to manipulate the media and public opinion to back a disastrous war. The near-destruction of an American city, abetted by massive government failure. The continued political/demographic sorting of society into self-selected "red" and "blue" socioeconomic groups. And, in the media world, the proliferation of opinion on the Internet and cable news.

When readers say "tell me the truth," they want the paper to make sense of all of this. Rush Limbaugh at least has an explanation. But newspapers and other traditional media outlets haven't done a great job explaining/interpreting these events - after all, they're slow-moving institutions unaccustomed to stuff blowing up so often, or to high officials propagandizing them on matters of life and death, or to being whipsawed by bloggers on the left and right. And of course, right now nobody can claim to know where all this is going.

The success of a newspaper once depended not just on a steady stream of advertising revenue, but on a certain, general idea shared between readers and editors about what was fair, what was out of bounds, what was biased, what not. After all, the newspaper was a principal source of information about the world. That agreement has been dead for some time. In terms of national news, that train went off the rails quite a while back. Locally, you'd think it wouldn't be such a problem - local issues and politics are of course more pragmatic, less ideological. But any newspaper is judged on the whole package, and far more of those judgments will be harsh today than they were a generation ago.

The problem is, the Record's market research notwithstanding, I doubt very much that there is genuine agreement among readers about what's wrong with the paper. "Liberal bias" is sort of a catch-all phrase, code for presenting unpleasant stuff readers don't like (which is inevitable). And it can also mean readers sense the whole form of the newspaper, with its traditional stylistic tics, its faux-objectivity, its stilted writing, just isn't doing a good job of reflecting the reality of the world around them.

The problems we face today, such as global warming or tightening energy supplies, don't fit well into the "liberal vs. conservative" culture-war frame. And a newspaper should have better things to do than spend six months investigating the political shadings in each paragraph of school board coverage.

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