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Readers see a bias – and we can’t deny it

Partisans who make no claim to neutrality often pretend, nonetheless, to have the power to see bias in others.

“You’re biased.”

“No, you are.”

That’s the perfect political argument.

Both sides are right.

ON CONSECUTIVE days last week, we published letters that accused us of bias.

The first, from a Sterling reader, suggested this newspaper showed a conservative bias.

The second, from a Dixon reader, saw a consistent “liberal slant.”

An online poster this week read us this way: “[Y]ou will be hard pressed to get ‘fair’ coverage from a conservative newspaper in a conservative county.”

Four decades in the news business has taught this editor something about such assessments:

They say more about the political and ideological leanings of the accusers than about the newspaper.

How else could people see the same newspaper and reach such different conclusions?

IF WE HAVE SUCH a politically liberal orientation, wouldn’t we have put the story about the second term inauguration of President Obama on the front page?

Had we done that, we would have avoided a letter from the Sterling woman who complained that we “chose to bury the inauguration on page A13, and it was quite short, at that.”

“Can’t help but wonder whether it was politics or prejudice.”

We cannot deny that we have a strong prejudice – for local news.

So when Mr. Obama comes to town – as he did a couple of years ago for a surprise visit at the Whiteside County Fair – our coverage goes on Page 1, as it did then.

That’s local news, and we’re a local newspaper.

How do we handle a scripted, predictable ceremony in Washington, D.C.?

Page 13 sounds about right.

OF COURSE, MR. Obama’s historic election in 2008 and re-election last November was Page 1 news the next day.

And in our defense, we must point out that on the day after this second inauguration, on Jan. 22:

n “Obama calls for unity at inauguration” was the “teaser” in the top left corner of our front page, so the event was noted on Page 1. That in-paper promotion directed readers to our coverage of the ceremony on Page 13.

n The report on the inauguration took up almost a half page, with two stories and two photos. The main story took up 14 column inches; the secondary story – about some Chicago folks who attended the ceremony – was an additional 9 inches. Maybe that wasn’t enough for everybody, but it was enough for most folks in this era of electronic delivery of news.

Except for the “teaser,” the front pages of both the Telegraph and Daily Gazette that day were made up of local news and local photos.

There’s your bias: Not right or left ... but local.

AND THEN THERE are others who see us swinging from the other side of the plate.

“I and others see liberal AP and MCT News Service bias on the ‘news’ pages constantly,” the Dixon reader said, while providing no examples of such bias.

“Never see a cartoon on your op-ed page showing a conservative viewpoint.”

Never?

A left-leaning group from Whiteside County told us last year that our editorial cartoons were always conservative.

Neither description is accurate, of course, but it shows how the same content is viewed very differently by people with different agendas.

If the customer is always right, who’s always wrong?

Must be the newspaper.

AS HE HAS DONE at other times, the editor decided to survey the newspaper’s editorial cartoons for a month.

We reviewed the 26 cartoons that were published in January.

And what we found was – what we always find.

Most cartoons were neutral in that they dealt with issues that have no political orientation – weather, New Year’s resolutions, flu, Boeing 787 problems, holiday bills, heating bills, etc.

Most others assigned no (or equal) political blame to issues of the day: Members of Congress, without regard to party, were portrayed as clowns or otherwise indecisive; the “fiscal cliff” deal was portrayed as shaky and a “mess”; workers were shocked by their first paycheck of 2013 after the payroll tax holiday expired.

Only a few cartoons had any political or ideological tinge.

Of three cartoons on guns, two poked fun at uncompromising NRA members, and the third ridiculed shouters on both sides of the gun control debate.

Congressional Republicans were shown bloody and beaten after taking on Hillary Clinton over Benghazi, in a cartoon that made a connection to women in combat.

On the other side, cartoons made fun of the president’s skeet shooting and use of drones, as well as the left-learning agenda of his second term, while another noted the several recent resignations from his cabinet.

So it’s not accurate to say we “never” publish a cartoon with a conservative slant.

But it is fair to say that most cartoons have no clear partisan position.

Regardless of that fact, people tend to believe what they want.

ONE CARTOON FROM January was especially offensive, however.

It showed a woman being unimpressed with a newspaper report on scientists’ attempts to clone Neanderthals. She commented that she had been married to one for years.

Such man-bashing has no place in civil debate, and we ought to demand that the Opinion page offer a more intellectually honest representation of men without the old stereotypes of their being crude, bumbling and hapless.

Sounds like a good topic for a letter to the editor.

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