Searching for balance in the Review-Journal

If you want to understand polls and campaign stories in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, meet Garet Garrett and Frederick Birchall.

In 1915, Garrett wrote editorials for The New York Times. Today, liberals call the newspaper conservative and conservatives consider it liberal, but back then all sides agreed the paper’s editorials were conservative and wishy-washy. Times publisher Adolph Ochs wanted balanced coverage of the war in Europe, and Garrett noted, “The Times prints a very great deal of pro-German stuff and yet, the cumulative typographical effect of the paper is extremely anti-German. You can’t prove it on any one day. It is the continuing effect that comes from reading that which is more displayed with greater interest and attention than that which is less displayed.”

Garrett discussed this with Birchall, the assistant managing editor, whose response should be memorized: “Let me control the headlines and I shall not care who controls the editorials.”

Democrats stamp their feet at R-J editorials. They gnash their teeth when nearly a full page of the Sunday commentary section goes to an excerpt from a book by the aptly named Dick Morris; and columns by the publisher, the editor and two editorial writers tilt so far right that they meet the far left coming around. They smile when Media Matters, a nonprofit progressive research and information center, calls publisher Sherm Frederick’s blogs and columns inaccurate.

They concern themselves with the wrong things. Many blogs and most columns are and should be opinionated. The real issue is how the R-J displays news stories and how much space they get.

Nothing new there. In 1962, Gov. Grant Sawyer was upset at the R-J’s attentions to his Republican opponent. When he met with publisher Donald Reynolds, he compared the number of column inches given to the two candidates. Sawyer didn’t care about what was said about him; he cared about how much was said about him and where it was said.

Then there’s the Valley Times boy editor-turned-history professor and Vegas Seven space-filler who is neither without sin nor casting the first stone. I played up some stories and played down others. Nor would I be dumb enough to deny it or think I am the only one. If the R-J wants to claim otherwise, that noted journalism critic, Michael Corleone, put it best: “Don’t insult my intelligence.”

The R-J has made journalistic love to GOP Senate candidates through Sunday profiles covering much of the front page. It plastered much of a Sunday front page with its latest poll in that race. On the same day, it relegated an immigration rally at which Sen. Harry Reid spoke to at least 3,500 people in downtown Las Vegas to the front of the “B” section. Meanwhile, the Tea Party converging on Searchlight received more space and photos—a good deal of it properly on the front page—than might be expected of the Second Coming.

To which you may say, the Sun transparently favors Reid and other Democrats. Fine, but that would be a craven attempt to obfuscate. This is about the newspaper’s layout, not the reporting. The Sun is a section inside the R-J; you have to look inside for it, but the R-J is staring at you.

None of which makes the R-J unusual. Journalists always talk a better game of objectivity than they play, partly because they are human—at least most of the time. And the R-J will climb all over a scandal involving either side—unless you count how often Sen. John Ensign’s peccadilloes have appeared in R-J banner headlines.

All of which presents an added problem for Democrats—the Reids and Dina Titus in particular (If you read this column, you know I support them). Nevada’s largest newspaper gives them as much unfavorable and as little favorable attention as possible on its front page. That obviously benefits their opponents, unless the undecided public is as cynical about journalism as journalists are.

Is there a solution? Blessedly, the press is free, much like the advertising the R-J gives the GOP—but so, supposedly, is the marketplace of ideas. Read and watch as much as you can, especially from the side you disagree with. Perhaps anticipating this debate, Thomas Jefferson said of the purpose of the University of Virginia what all of us should believe: “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.

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