Steering One’s Reputation A Laborious Process

Franklin Roosevelt supposedly once said of the editorial sage of Emporia, Kan., William Allen White, that for 3½ of every four years, he was the fairest journalist in America — but then, FDR implied, White went into campaign mode and forgot about fairness. That brings us to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

First, a caveat is necessary and important. Editorial writers, columnists and bloggers tend to have opinions and express them, often bluntly (as in, say, a Vegas Seven political columnist, or any other columnist for any other publication). Reporters also have opinions and either are supposed to avoid expressing them in their coverage or offer them in muted form in analyses of candidates and issues.

In 2010, the R-J made news of the sort a newspaper doesn’t like to make. It received national attention for its biased coverage of Harry Reid in his ultimately successful attempt to retain his Senate seat. Then, shortly after Reid’s victory, its publisher moved into a consulting position while retaining a column and a blog, and its editor became “senior opinion editor” and eventually retired.

Despite a series of layoffs and cutbacks that hurt news coverage and morale, R-J readers should be pleased with what has happened since. But as a terrific investigative series and coverage of a poll show, it’s hard to overcome a reputation.

Consider its political polling. The most recent poll was with UNLV’s survey center. There was one foul-up: The polling in the House District 1 race between Dina Titus and Ruben Kihuen surveyed voters outside as well as inside that district. So, although the numbers were close to the earlier poll showing Titus up 77-11 percent, the R-J didn’t go with them. Once upon a time, the suspicion would have existed that the R-J’s editorial hatred for Titus might have had something to do with that, but this appears to be a simple error—but some partisans still are shaking their heads.

What increased the head-shaking was the coverage of its poll in the Senate race between Rep. Shelley Berkley and Sen. Dean Heller. The survey shows them nearly tied. Now, it isn’t hard to figure out that if the R-J editorial page remains the same, it will endorse Heller—fair enough. The front page was a different matter. The promotion for the story inside ran atop the front page, with a photo of a smiling Heller against a bright background. The “Neon This Weekend” flap covered Berkley’s face, which appeared in a less flattering photo, against a dark background. Subtle, but to the careful observer, either obvious or a mistake.

Consider another example. The R-J’s multi-part series on police shootings deserves to win awards. As befit such a series, the R-J also editorialized on the subject. “Steps that could reduce police shootings blocked by union,” said the headline, and the editorial said the Las Vegas Police Protective Association is “the greatest obstacle to needed change” and “has consistently made protecting police from scrutiny a greater priority than improving police policies, preventing shootings and making officers and the public safer in the process.” This prompted Chris Collins, who heads the LVPPA, to write in the R-J Sunday commentary section that that was “nonsense” and attack the R-J for not interviewing “officers whose lives have been shattered because they were wounded by a gun or knife-toting suspect?”

Collins protested a bit too much, since the series wasn’t about how officers are affected, but about a historical trend that should trouble everyone and a process that doesn’t work well.  However, the R-J has a history of hating unions—again, on its editorial page, but at times its anti-union fervor crept into the news columns. That certainly didn’t seem to be the case in this series, and if Collins wanted to make a case, he should have left the editorial page out of it—although it would have helped the R-J if the editorial had been based more on the reporting and less on long-standing biases.

But as the world’s wisest district attorney, Adam Schiff of Law & Order, said to prosecutor Jack McCoy, “Your credibility is not a boomerang. Give it up and it doesn’t come back.” The R-J is fighting to regain that credibility and deserves that chance—and deserves to be reminded when it has failed, and to be praised when it succeeds. So do we all.