Newspaper Political Bias and former and current Washington Post Ombudsmen, Deborah Howell and Andrew Alexander

–Richard E. Vatz

If there is a serious and convincing argument that there is little or no left-wing political bias in most of the major mainstream U.S. newspaper news and op-ed pages, I have yet to hear it. The best counter argument is that there are some print reporters who successfully try to be balanced, but preponderantly the bias is liberal and very frequently so.

What disinterested source should regularly point this out? A newspaper ombudsman, the position charged with monitoring “fairness, accuracy and balance,” according to the mostly fair, accurate and balanced web site of the Organization of News Ombudsmen.

There are times when the ombudsman position is simply a sycophant of the newspaper he or she serves, as was the case in the short dabbling with the position by THE BALTIMORE SUN a couple of years ago.

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The area historically neglected by ombudsmen has been the “balanced” criterion. Ombudsman columns have been around for 40-some years in a small number of newspapers, but serious accusations of political bias predated them. THE WASHINGTON POST has had a slew of excellent such overseers, but they have largely neglected the issue of political imbalance. In THE NEW YORK TIMES, also generally absent such criticism, Dan Okrent surprised most newspaper readers when he wrote a column regarding such bias (“Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” July 25, 2004), but no major mainstream newspaper ombudsman to my knowledge had written any sustained analysis of liberal bias until Deborah Howell.

Ms. Howell, to her considerable consternation, learned in the latter stages of 2008 that to criticize leftwing newspaper bias and to include examples from the newspaper she superintended, the POST, earns unrelenting venom from liberal — sorry, PROGRESSIVE — readers (and some staffers) who find evidence irrelevant. One hopes she also felt some satisfaction in bravely and honestly taking on an issue for which the reward is intrinsic satisfaction in having done a job with integrity.

Today, May 3, 2009, the (relatively) new POST ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote his first serious column on political bias in the POST pages, “A Column Feeds Perceptions of Bias.” The article reports on the outrage of POST readers at Tom Shales’ ode to President Barack Obama’s press conference which included much worshipful prose and little serious analysis (e.g., President Obama is “a truly flabbergasting president. And in a good way – not the way some of his predecessors were.”).

Mr. Alexander reports related criticisms from readers and critics of “liberal bias” without adjudicating them, but does conclude that respecting Shales’ authorship, it might be salutary for the newspaper to identify his work as a “review.”

It’s early in Mr. Alexander’s tenure, and his lack of a clear verdict makes his piece less than completely satisfying, but it is already braver on the ideological front than one normally gets in mainstream newspapers.

Let’s hope that Mr. Alexander follows the course of unbridled integrity that Ms. Howell carved out. The opportunity to cover newspaper fairness, accuracy AND balance is a terrible thing to waste.

Professor Vatz teaches Media Criticism at Towson University

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