Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fingers in Ears

“I don’t agree with what you’re saying.  But I defend to the death my right not to hear it.”

The rest of the country considers Arizona a conservative bastion—or a haven for right-wing nutjobs as some would prefer to phrase it.  It’s not hard to understand why anyone would feel this way.  Arizona gave the world the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and it’s only gone downhill here from there.  Anyone who believes the Wild West days are just a part of our quaint past hasn’t been paying attention in class.  To anyone with a pulse, my state will hand out anything from a 2-shot derringer to an assault rifle.  Come on over!  Bring your Glock.  Of course, you do have your immigration papers, don’t you? 

In the past two years our politicians have tried to prove the President is foreign-born, restrict federal law enforcement activity within Arizona counties, and explicitly legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians (they came within a governor’s veto of accomplishing the latter).  They did succeed making it legal to take guns into bars (you know, those places where people tend to sit, calmly contemplate their actions, and always use their best judgment). 

What the rest of the nation doesn’t generally realize is that southern Arizona, the part of the state I live in, isn’t like that.  In fact, we’re just the opposite—to the point where some have seriously considered the possibility of breaking us off into a separate state.  Here, the left wing is in charge.  This becomes most apparent in municipal government, especially that of our area’s largest city, Tucson, which has never seen a public employee pension plan or sick-leave sell-back policy it didn’t like, but can’t its fill potholes or put enough police officers on the street.  Long ago, citizens here decided they didn’t want to be like Phoenix, and have to suffer with the problems people there must endure—you know, things like a strong economy, roads that can get you from point A to point B, vibrant growth that supports a strong tax base, and so on.  Many years ago our politicians passed up the opportunity to build cross-town interstates, on the theory that making it easy for people to work here would actually make them want to come live here.  People came anyway.  Try commuting from east to west or from north to south in this town, and see how long you continue to love life. 

I don’t mean to sound like I don’t like it here, by the way.  Tucson is a fabulously gorgeous area, and the people are wonderful for the most part.  But like any community, we have our challenges, and we respond to ours a bit differently.  We are not like the other children in our group.

Our local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, is generally perceived as being liberal.  Usually this doesn’t show up directly on the news pages, although sometimes it does in a subtle fashion, such as recently when the Star ran a headline saying “House Republicans try again to make hay with Benghazi” while some papers elsewhere that day framed it more like “Boehner to appoint select Benghazi committee.”  The political flavoring historically has been more apparent on the editorial pages, where it’s perfectly appropriate.  Even so, the Star does run a decent cross section of editorial views.  If George Will torques you off one day, you can seek solace in the sheltering embrace of Eugene Robinson the next.  Or vice versa.  But its locally employed editorial cartoonist, affectionately known as Fitz, is unabashedly liberal while also wickedly funny, which drives conservatives straight up the wall, right on up through the ceiling, and on into the stratosphere.  Fitz also writes a column that produces the same effect.

Recently, the Star announced that it was taking steps to address reader concerns that it was leaning too far to the left.  Chief among the changes was the addition of three nationally syndicated conservatives, including two cartoonists and a columnist.  The stated goal was to provide a “more balanced mix of politically diverse voices.”

Journalistically speaking, that goal is certainly commendable.  But in framing this as a response to reader complaints, the effort may proceed from a false assumption—specifically, that when news consumers demand balance, they actually want it.  As I recently pointed out in a posting about Fox News, sometimes the truth is just the opposite.   When I was a TV news director, I found that making a good faith effort to bring fairness and balance to coverage of any controversial issue was the quickest and most efficient way to p**s of all sides equally. 

The reader reaction thus far, as published in the Star and posted by readers on its Facebook page, has been most instructive.  And if you buy the idea that the Star leaned toward the left before the changes, then the reaction has been totally predictable.  The right tends to see the new move as “balance.”  The outraged left views it as an abandonment of principle and a betrayal of trust.

Here’s a sample of the Star’s readers are saying, via Letters to the Editor and Facebook posts:

“I fully support the decision of the Star to balance its editorial positions.  The liberal left has enjoyed a vice grip on the mass media in this country for decades, and it’s past time for the pendulum to swing the other way.”

“We agree totally with those who are upset or saddened by the Star’s decision to ‘balance’ editorial commentary by lurching more and more to the right.  Now we learn that ‘balanced’ commentary means more and more mean spirited right-wing attacks on the common good.  It is indeed a sad day when an Arizona newspaper cannot proudly declare itself a forward-leaning publication.”

“Having been subjected to the liberal propaganda from Fitz for years, I found the vitriolic letters from your liberal customers to be laughable to say the least.  My advice to them is to either read a differing opinion once in a while or just stick your head in the sand and believe that everyone has the same world view as you.... Thanks again, Star.  I have newfound faith in your paper.”

“I haven't really formed an opinion yet regarding the Star's attempt to ‘balance’ its op-ed pieces, but I find it mildly amusing that, according to [the writer of the letter quoted above] opinions that reflect the position of those on the right constitute ‘balance,’ while at the same time any writings or cartoons from Fitz are ‘liberal propaganda.’”

“Thank you for becoming a more balanced paper editorially.  As a conservative, I always read articles and letters from the other side and consider their point of view.  If liberals are as smart and rational as they think they are, I’m sure they will do the same now that they have more opportunity.”

“How a conservative views opposing views:  ‘I always read articles and letters from the other side and consider their point of view.’  How a lib views opposing views:  ‘Mean spirited right-wing attacks on the common good.’”

“Judging by the letters to the editor... it appears that the Star has traumatized some of its readers with the horror of printing more op-ed pieces that may be insufficiently liberal.... I encourage the Star to pursue what it calls a more balanced editorial approach.  We all benefit by being exposed to a greater range of ideas.”

“Balance still seems to be lacking.  Please tell me why it should take all of Lisa Benson, Glenn McCoy, Kathleen Parker, Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, Michael Gerson and George Will just to balance out Ruth Marcus, Eugene Robinson, Leonard Pitts and Fitz?  Could it be that the latter four just have so much more intelligence and heart than the former seven?”

“We have now enjoyed about a dozen years of more balanced, intelligent reporting, and now I see that this is slipping away. Your decision to feature such vitriolic and ill-informed contributors such as George Will and Lisa Benson is disheartening.”

“It is with much dismay that I read in Sunday’s paper that you are planning on being even more conservative than you have already become. Whoever thinks you are liberal must be ultra-conservative.
Tucson’s attraction has been that, as opposed to Phoenix, there is liberal thinking....”

“I had noticed the giant leap to the far-right on the editorial pages of my hometown newspaper—all of it justified as bringing ‘more balance’ to the readers.  I find nothing balanced about the negativity of those I’ve come to call the four horsemen of dissension—Parker, Will, Krauthammer and Goldberg.  They make their living by criticizing the American president and appealing to the worst in human thought....
A responsible editorial policy is one that helps to bring us together as a nation, not one that feeds our divisions.”

“I thought that ‘the left’ was all about diversity.  But it seems that only applies to those that think exactly as they do.”

“Hiding behind a wholly unscientific ‘survey’ is gutless and patronizing.  So you all took a look and decided that con(men-self)servatives are an underserved population in the news biz?  I will look at no political cartoons not by David Fitzsimmons.  I will not even read the headlines for your present/future right-wing columnists—meaning it will take me even less time now to read your paper.  Like the fascists of yore, you believe they must be appeased.”

“Good Lord, it seems many of the Star's left-leaning readers are now having to ‘force’ themselves NOT to read the few conservative columnists the Star has added to its op-ed page. What a sacrifice they're making!”

“Adding conservative ‘national’ opinion writers does nothing to address the local liberal bias opinion pieces by Fitzsimmons, Steller, Gassen.... The ADS needs to hire a couple conservative opinion writers to their Editorial Board, as it is on local issues and news where the ADS is lacking in balance.  Anybody who has being reading the ADS for any length of time should know that it follows the liberal agenda.”

“What is needed is an editorial policy that consistently reflects and  promotes the important values of humanism and egalitarianism....  I am considering alternative ways to get my local news and may well cancel my long-time subscription to the Star rather than continue to support a news organization with a stated desire to serve and cater to a more conservative base.”

“After 15 years of subscribing to the Star, I cancelled.  The idea that we must have less Fitz, the single-most important voice in the Star, and bolster conservative views, drove me over the edge.”

When all was said and done:

A paper perceived as liberal takes steps it believes will bring balance.  Many of its liberal readers, who were comfortable with the way things were, are appalled and angry.  Some would rather cancel altogether—and thereby lose access to the liberal voices they applauded—than allow themselves to be exposed to one more conservative opinion.  On the other hand, most of the paper’s conservative readers predictably applaud the move as a step toward balance and diversity, while some say even that isn’t enough.

What have we learned here today?

In my view, any journalism organization that attempts to satisfy reader/viewer demands for balance by actually making a good-faith effort to provide it is doomed to failure, at least as far as its public image is concerned.  In the political climate we now enjoy, for all too many Americans “balance” means telling them more of what they want to hear.  Many have zero tolerance for the opinions of the other side.

The letters also suggest to me that we citizens are very well aware that we and our fellow Americans have become like this, and that it drives us nuts.  But so far, no one has figured out what to do about it.  Until someone does, many of us, perhaps most of us, will continue to stand with our fingers in our ears and simply hope that “our” side will manage to outvote “their” side on election day.

I wonder if our forefathers expected democracy to work this way?


If you enjoyed this, please share with your friends.  My well-reviewed novel Messages, a TV news exposé and crime drama, is written largely in this style.  And I invite you to subscribe to this blog.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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