So (relatively) well-behaved, aren’t they?
After acting like journalistic 2-year-olds just two years ago, our daily newspapers, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas Sun, are more mature this election cycle as we choose between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Ascribe the decorum to self-inflicted humiliation and national chastisement last time—including memorable spankings from CNN and the Los Angeles Times—plus changes atop the R-J masthead.
Rewind to the 2010 mud bath involving Democrat/Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (the Sun’s sweetheart) and Tea Partyer Sharron Angle (the R-J’s gal pal) when both newspapers embarrassed themselves to the point where the exasperated Times chided both:
“While the conservative R-J crusades to take down its bête noire (Reid), its rival, the liberal Las Vegas Sun, persistently finds bright spots for Reid, a Senate leader who has long since worn out his welcome with most of the state’s voters. This is the way Fox News and MSNBC do it. This is the way talk radio hosts do it. This is not the way, fortunately, that most newspapers do it today.”
Nearly joining them in overstatement, the Times called the R-J’s Reid screeds a “fatwa.”
Vitriol in blogs and columns by then-editor Thomas Mitchell and then-publisher Sherman Frederick —however rabid—was within the bounds of opinion journalism. Yet the R-J was also accused of manipulation in its news pages. Framing Angle as a libertarian goddess in editorials, it downplayed her seeming God complex elsewhere in the paper. Occasionally the juxtaposition was hilarious: As Mitchell exhorted readers to “preach the gospel of Sharrontology,” the paper buried a wire story in which she looked like a religious Fruit Loop, claiming her campaign was a divine assignment.
When Frederick absurdly praised Angle for dodging reporters, media watchdog Howard Kurtz took note on his CNN show, Reliable Sources: “The publisher of a newspaper thinks it’s a dandy idea for a candidate to duck reporters—the kind of reporters that Frederick employs—by tricking them? Gee, whose side is he on?”
On the left at the Sun—where owner Brian Greenspun in his “Where I Stand” column quivers breathlessly before Reid like a virgin on prom night—partisanship was equally shameless. As reported by the Times, editors fought off a Greenspun attempt to place a front-page editorial praising Reid for his opposition to a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, but slapped on the cringe-worthy headline, “Double Thank You, Mr. Reid.”
Headline antics escalated when then-Sun columnist Jon Ralston criticized Reid’s debate performance and the brass tried to reframe his work. Among several examples was this original headline: “Jon Ralston is aghast, still, at Reid’s inability to control debate.” Later that was flipped to: “Will Angle win by revising history, slandering Reid?”
Cue equal-opportunity scolding. “The Sun’s owner can say whatever he wants,” Kurtz opined, “but editors shouldn’t be messing with a column of the … top political reporter.”
Now—though the direction of the country is at stake and the Fox News/MSNBC factions are even more strident—the fight is less personal. Reid-Angle was a family spat in our own house—typically, where family members act their worst.
Factor in the R-J’s executive overhaul after Reid defeated Angle, in which Frederick was ousted as publisher, replaced by advertising director Bob Brown. Frederick remains a columnist for R-J owner Stephens Media. Mitchell was bumped to senior opinion editor—he resigned shortly thereafter—and was succeeded by Michael Hengel, editor and publisher of Arkansas’ Pine Bluff Commercial.
Predictably, Stephens Media waved away speculation that the garish Reid-Angle spectacle triggered the moves, but under Brown and Hengel—lower-key figures in the newsroom and the community—the R-J isn’t as inflammatory or prone to play hide-the-salami with news stories.
Bias isn’t as blatant anymore at the Sun, but it still occasionally betrays an Obama preference by playing shell games with headlines such as this one: “Could an Obama re-election break D.C. gridlock?”—which appears over a story that reads, “By the numbers, it looks like gridlock is going to be here to stay.”