Local Media and the "B" word

Bias is a loaded word that gets thrown around indiscriminately now to characterize the purveyors of news we don't like, and to express frustration with the news choices of editors and program directors whose jobs are little-understood by most, and who can't be voted out of office when they piss us off.

That is to say, I don't think much of the word "bias" as a term of media criticism, and I tend to think of people who use it as folks who, well-meaning enough, don't really understand how the news business works.

But, someone asked for a thread on local media -- ahem -- bias, and so let's pick that one apart. A few thoughts and questions:

There is no doubt that our local media -- the newspaper, the radio and television stations -- each have their own character and, over time, a point of view can start to be discerned. Certainly, the editorial boards of the newspapers make no secret of their points of view on specific subjects, but do the sum of those opinions add up to discernible "bias"? The fact that the Herald-Sun's editorial board is skeptical of big government, taxes, and affirmative action might mean one thing, but their staunch opposition to the death penalty might mean another.

Can a newspaper staffed by dozens of different reporters from different backgrounds be biased in a way that is unified, predictable, and pervasive? Especially when many of those staffers are here today, gone tomorrow? Bias is often perceived not in what a newspaper covers, but where it places a story in the paper. But is it really bias if a page editor or managing editor decides one story is more important than the other, but agrees that both are important enough to run in the paper? Am I, as an editor, biased if I don't rank stories exactly the way you would? And if that's a form of bias, is it really reasonable to expect me to fix it and bring into line with your priorities? I can accept the idea that a newspaper's editors might be showing their bias in what they choose to keep _out_ of the paper, but isn't it possible that sometimes that's just an accident? (The story came in too late, someone missed it on the wire, the AP forgot to highlight it on its budget, etc etc). I think that's possible too.

So having said that, let's acknowledge that the Herald-Sun/Chapel Hill Herald has a different character than the Chapel Hill News which has a different character than the News and Observer, which has a different character than the Independent, which has a different character than The Prism. What are these characters? How does the relative stability of the staff at the News affect their news judgment? Does it make a difference that the News and Observer and Herald-Sun staffs are a little more transient? If the Independent is on the left, what part of the left?

And finally, did the newspapers, radio stations (particularly WCHL), and television stations reveal preferences for certain candidates and certain positions in the recent election, and did they give those candidates unfair advantage? Did they ignore or dismiss candidates? How does that, if it happened, reflect their points of view?

Points to ponder. Talk amongst yourselves.



Unbiased media? Earlier this week, I was giving a talk to some Korean journalists. Afterwards over lunch, they were musing that newspapers in the USA 1) aren't owned by political parties and 2) turn a profit. In Korea, the papers mostly exists to represent the parties or at least a strong political position. That is also true in most of Europe and in South Africa (when I was there).

The USA in the earlier days was filled with party papers including one from Raleigh that was founded to promote the Democratic Party. It's no mystery why some papers are called the Republican http://www.therepublicannews.com/ or the Democrat http://www.mtdemocrat.com/

The greater mystery is why they are not as forward about their biases.

News historians? I should know this.

Well, yes, Duncan - how about this: does it appear to anyone else that our local papers have no interest in columnists expressing anthing even remotely controversial? Except, of course, Perry Young. And the fools fired him.

I _had_ noticed that, Barry. I also noticed Rosemary Waldorf's "local" column on Wesley Clark last weekend. Reminded me of that local column Perry wrote about John Edwards, the one they spiked because it wasn't local enough. You can read it at http://www.perrydeaneyoung.com, , along with a lot of other news and commentary from Perry, and some messages of support from some surprising people.

Everyone has bias. Bias is a lot like vocal accent. No one in your home town has an accent. An outsider arrives with an accent. You go to a distant place where everyone has one. Soon you start to get the sense that maybe you have an accent too. None of your friends are biased. Just the other guys.

Because of increasing cultural homogeneity, bias is ever harder to recognize. Media bias is largely the same in Chapel Hill, Los Angeles, and Topeka. Media bias determines such things as what is newsworthy, who can be legitimate voices, and the acceptable range of discourse. Those factors are the same at the News and at the Herald, now or a decade ago. We generally don’t see the bias because it fits our own normative expectations of journalism. For example, we notice the firing of Perry Young because he had already slipped through the cracks. We don’t notice all the folks who never get the chance to be columnists in the first place because they lack legitimacy according to the dominant biases.

It is not bad for the media to have bias. It is inevitable. It turns bad when the bias is veiled in service to power. It turns bad when a particular bias casts itself as universal, excluding other perspectives. That is the case with US media, more so at the national level than at the local. Many examples of this can be found at www.fair.org.

There is much more that could be said. See, for example, Chomsky's "What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream" at http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/chomoct97.htm. Or his and Edward Herman's classic "Manufacturing Consent".

I have been informed by a source deep within the Media Conspiracy that, in fact, the Chapel Hill Herald has been enjoying a rather long period of stability of late, while the Chapel Hill News has seen almost its whole staff turn over lately, except for good ol' Dave Hart, who makes awesome sculptures out of gourds, one of which is prominently displayed in my house, and that-guy-with-the-tie, Ted Vaden. Kirk Ross recently left to be the managing editor at The Independent. Anne Blythe -- who surely must be the local working journalist with the deepest roots in the area (excluding columnists who talk to imaginary friends) -- moved over to the N&O a few years ago, which is good for her but bad for me because I don't get that paper. There have been some other personnel changes at the News, but I can't rattle them off at the moment.

Anyway, my source wanted me to tell you that. There you go.

On to other matters:

1. Ruby's criticism is not about bias so much as it is about incompetence. Ruby should be ashamed of her blatant comptence-ism.

2. Todd' criticism is that the big bad newspapers call him a conservative. (This after proclaiming that he's a conservative at least a half dozen times on this site in the last month, and running a blog whose slogan is "Hippyhillnews.com delivers the right.") It occurs to me that conservatives declare their "proud conservatism" much more often than people on the left, who for some reason like to mince around the "L" word in favor of "progressive," which has consequently lost its historical meaning. (What happened to the progressive Republicans?)

Anyway, if you crow that you're a conservative, you've got no ground to stand on when a reporter labels you a conservative. Take a cue from the L-word people and skulk around on the down low, and you too can lose your label.

Anyway, this is off the topic, and an old complaint, and it's boring. Doesn't anyone have anything substantive to say about our local media?

When I was a candidate, I was consistently disappointed to see that the local election news usually showed up on page 2 or 3 in the papers - if at all. This often seemed to be the case this year as well. Suddenly Cam's house deal is front page news! That seems pretty unbalanced. Are earnest candidates not sensational enough? Credit is due to the DTH which sometimes has more prominent coverage, but it's often less accurate*, so there's a trade-off.

By the way, I wouldn't describe what the Independent wrote about me in 1999 as "biased" since that would imply that there was anything journalistic about that steaming pile of crap masquerading as a cover story.

(* See today's DTH article about the Northside NCD forum, where it says that Mark Patmore agreed "with the council" on an issue instead of "with Council." As in: Mildred Council who was quoted. Thanks, copyeditor!)

Like many of you, both of our Chapel Hill newspapers think the word conservative or republican is derogatory. They use it in that context, and without thought brand some people (myself included if you could believe that) with the dirty "C" word in order to minimize thought.

I support the right for abortion, gay marraige, gay adoption, and many other "liberal" causes, yet I am a conservative. Sure I am conservative about some issues that we discuss on this bbs, but is it fair to simply brand people like our (and most) media does?

When I have called both newspapers on branding me, they will apologize via e-mail, but the record stands.

Todd Melet (R)

Sorry, I thought I had fixed this URL in Duncan's post, but I didn't. Perry's website is: http://www.perrydeaneyoung.com

Anyone can start a newspaper, the Chilton Times (has a good ring to it), and compete with the existing papers for advertisers and subscribers -- one more rack in the row.

Radio however requires something additional, a license from the Federal Communications Commission that grants a station monopolistic use of a portion of the radio frequency spectrum in a geographic area, which is a very scarce resource that not everyone can purchase. With that license comes a community responsibility that at election time becomes paramount. The FCC recognizes that elected officials are its boss; the president and the congress appoint the commissioners. As a consequence radio stations simply cannot favor one candidate over another, for to do so would be to use the public airways to select their own bosses.

I remember an extended phone conversation I had with Don Curtis whose company owns seven (I think) local stations, that provide news and varying music formats. Don's message was that the consolidation of radio stations was simply the only way that the stations could survive financially. Jim Heavner bucked that trend recently, brought back local governance and a local news orientation to WCHL, and equally important, provided enough resources so that WCHL could actually perform a local mission. We owe him a great debt in this regard.

Over 15 years, I have often disagreed with Jim about political issues and sensed that WCHL promoted the candidates that the leaders of the Chamber of Commerce favor, or those that Jim himself wished to promote. For me the bias peaked during the 1995 campaign for Chapel Hill Town Council. Nine candidates ran, including incumbents Mark Chilton, Jim Protzman and me. On the day before the election, WCHL offered 30 minutes of free air time to Jim Protzman in the form of an on-air interview by Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joel Harper. No other candidate was interviewed, nor did WCHL offer free air time to any other candidate. When I asked then news director Larry Stone how WCHL could grant 30 minutes of air time to one candidate for town council without making an equal offer to his eight competitors, Larry replied "We were concerned about that." Yet the management of WCHL was not so concerned to block the interview.

However in the year since WCHL returned to local prominence, I have been unable to sense a bias in the coverage of the news, including that of the recent election. I think that the majority of commentaries have been done by less progressive types, reaching a pinnacle with a series of sarcastic personal attacks of Mayor Foy and the current Town Council by Lee Pavao. While I disagree with these attacks, they don't represent the opinions of WCHL management, and we all have equal access to its airways to inject our points of view. Every time I see Ron Stutts he strongly encourages me to express myself in a commentary. Soon I will, perhaps about local politics, perhaps to promote my next mission for Chapel Hill, that Duke Power will bury at least one mile of power lines, or even to discuss the World Series that never was, the Red Sox versus the Cubs.

We used to prowl the grounds of Vilcom. But the stench of peacock droppings is too much even for Coyote. Woof!


I call myself conservative, but do not think it's a dirty word. The newspapers do, and they go out of the way to make that clear.

Eg. Swastika-Gate. Both papers editorialized that it was a right wing conspiracy theory, lead by me. YOU told me in an e-mail that you agreed with me on this issue, and made some strong statements. You are hardly a conservative, so how could both papers be right?


In the words of Ronald Reagan, There you go again, Todd. Distorting the record. Here's what I said to you about what you call "Swastika-gate":

"I think I'm probably considerably to the left of you ( except when it

comes to Mike Nelson's ham-fisted handling of the flag issue..."

This was in the context of a discussion of how you (and John Cole, editorial cartoonist from the Herald-Sun) had completely misinterpreted the merger issue, and to encourage you to post to orangepolitics.org

I do not agree with you about the art issue, I only agree that it was poorly handled, the end result being either a case of half-hearted censorship or half-hearted defense of the First Amendment, depending on your point of view. If you had asked me, which you didn't, I would have told you that I think that Mike Nelson and the aldermen should have never moved the painting and should have stuck by the decision to hang it in the first place, whatever the repercussions. (I also happen to think that it wasn't a particularly great piece -- derivative and too obvious -- but that's another issue.)

Perhaps the newspaper editors could speak up here, but I don't think any of the papers thought there was a "right-wing conspiracy" behind the art controversy. I think you give yourself too much credit, as there were plenty of people speaking up against the art -- a certain fellow Marine will vouch for this, if he's reading -- who wouldn't ever be classified as conservatives, and who didn't know you from a hole in the ground.

I thought the criticism of the art was jingoistic, opportunistic bull. A friend and I, both of us having served in the Marines, each felt differently about what the art meant and whether it constituted an attack on the ideals and traditions of our country as embodied in the flag, or whether it was a not-very-accomplished piece of agit-prop that could have easily been dismissed, if not for the town's poor handling of it.

I don't think you and I have much common ground on this issue at all. I also don't like you quoting back private e-mails and mischaracterizing them when you do it.

I not sure that there is a bias problem with the various media sources in Chapel Hill as much as there is a problem with good journalism. Some writers don't have deep roots because they don't seem to stay in their positions all that long, some editors seem to come and go, and what they may think is a good story or an undeserving one doesn't always match what others may think. I don't get the feeling that they really are going about the business of telling us what to think, but clearly they use their powers to tell us what they want us to think about. And let's face it, writing about things local always seems to generate deep and emotional reactions by some no matter what town the paper is located.

Do people go out and buy a paper because of a political story? One paper comes to my house two times a week and I don't even pay for it; how many people actually read it? Two others are also free, but I have to go somewhere to get it. The one I pay for comes with my Durham paper. What do I get? The two big papers seem to buy their international and national stuff from the same wires, and their local stuff isn't all that different. The DTH has very poor editing and the quality of the writing is very uneven, but they are supposed to be learning. The other free one is targeted towards a certain slice of the population and has a distinctive edge.

Who are the people who listen to local radio? Are they not already pretty informed people who have a fixed position on most things political? Do those who listen to hour after hour of WPTF conservative talk radio each day listen to have their opinions shaped? I don't think so; it's more about reinforcing opinions. Does the programming of WCHL appeal to only certain people in town? I guess I just don't see much "influence" happening and I don't think that the four local papers influence many either.

Back to bias. Media bias, some experts argue, is seen as:

• Bias by commission

• Bias by omission

• Bias by story selection

• Bias by placement

• Bias by the selection of sources

• Bias by spin (especially in headlines)

• Bias by labeling on certain people

• Bias by policy endorsement or condemnation

We can all come up with examples of what we think fits one of the above, but I'm not sure it is always conscious or by design. Thinking otherwise might give them more credit than they deserve.

Bias isn't:

1. Editorials or opinion columns

2. Stories or statements that make someone/some group look bad, but are accurate

3. Non-policy stories on a specific event that don't have to be balanced.

Who writes the editorials and who gets hired to write the columns may be seen as an indication of bias, but is that the case in our local market?

No, I think the real criticism here is that the local media doesn't go far enough in doing what we/they think that they should do, while going too far in doing what we/they don't think that they should.

Who is the "we" and who is the "they" makes all the difference.


This quote "I think I'm probably considerably to the left of you (except when it comes to Mike Nelson's ham-fisted handling of the flag issue..." demonstrates to me that we do in fact have SOME common ground on this issue. I agree with your above statement and think it's the crux of the issue. My point was that many very liberal people, as well as conservatives where opposed to the swastika being in Town Hall. Therefore I do not think it's really a liberal vs. conservative issue, and the newspapers tried to charcterize it that way to sway opinion. That is what makes this discussion relavent to the Bias thread.

I did not recall this being from a private e-mail, but rather a post to my site. I am sorry to cause confusion, but you are on the ball to correct the record on our differences.I am sorry if you did not want it known that we partially agreed on one aspect of a complex issue.

To correct the record on a few things you said...

I did not make a big deal about the art, artist, or freedom of speech the artist had. I mostly took issue with the Mayor and Zaffron's handling of the tensions it caused in Town Hall, and the community. We depart on how we would have handled it. I would have removed the art, or never had it in Town Hall. Town Hall is not a museum. I do not think anyone has a first amendment right to have their swastika flag hanging in Town Hall. They simply have the right to create it, sell it, display it on private property, etc.



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