Media Bias at the Local Level

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Yesterday, radio talk show host Dave Congalton marked his 27th year hosting his Hometown Radio show on 920 KVEC in San Luis Obispo. One of his guests was Joe Tarica, the San Luis Obispo Tribune’s new editor. You can listen to the interview here.

Before taking calls (including mine) for the second half of the show, Dave Congalton asked one of my favorite questions: “Is there liberal bias at the Tribune?”

Tarica’s answer was a quick “no” and didn’t seem to come with any serious reflection on the issue. Tarica said they work hard to make sure their reporting is free of bias and presents both sides of issues, but it begs the question…

Do fish know they’re wet?

I believe Tarica when he says that they work hard to play things down the political middle. What I question is in a newsroom where the vast majority (if not everyone) is politically liberal, if they could recognize when they’ve reached the “middle.”

At approximately the same time I was talking with Tarica on the radio, the Tribune published the story I’ve screenshotted above.  The story isn’t so much journalism as it is stenography. It’s about local Rep. Salud Carbajal (D.-Calif.) visiting a detention facility for illegal immigrants in New Mexico along with a handful of other Democratic representatives.

The story has only one individual quoted: Carbajal. It doesn’t include any comment from anyone in the Trump administration. It doesn’t include any indication that a comment from someone in the Trump administration or a public information officer from Customs and Border Protection or the Department of Homeland Security was even sought by the reporter.

There’s a number of places where one could’ve presented some defense of the Trump administration, or noted that some of the problems pre-date Trump. But it hasn’t been done.

Ironically, absent this particular article, I would’ve had to do some hunting to find something as egregiously one-sided to find something as illustrative of media bias at the paper. I generally think that when it comes to local issues, they do a reasonably good job.

Liberal bias is also in what stories get reported, and which ones don’t

Then there’s also a point I tried (and likely failed) to make: That there are a plethora of stories out there that wouldn’t even appear on a liberal reporter’s radar. Local news outlets commonly take national stories and localize them. This article from last year about Paso Robles High School, where my wife teaches, is an excellent example of this process—and good journalism to boot.

An example of a potential localized story that had been ignored by the Tribune in light of a third Women’s March here in San Luis Obispo was last month’s Tablet article on the anti-Semitism shared by a good portion of the national group’s leadership. This is an article which wouldn’t even occur to a liberal journalist to write for a couple of reasons: 1) The story didn’t make a lot of waves in liberal media circles. (It was covered, but it was largely a one-day story.) 2) It makes a favored liberal group look bad, no matter what they do.

What I didn’t know at the time was that, in addition to the upcoming march as a news hook, just two days ago—the day before Tarica’s interview—the San Luis Obispo Women’s March, had issued a statement distancing themselves from the national movement. Two news hooks in one!

This will be another test for Tarica’s Tribune. The paper is sure to run at least one advance piece on the Women’s March. Will the story reference the controversy and ask the local leadership about it? I certainly wouldn’t necessarily make it the focus of the story, but the controversy deserves at least two to three paragraphs.

An inkling of the issue

When he was asked about his Joetopia column earlier in the broadcast, Tarica acknowledged that there might be a problem presenting himself as the unbiased, playing it straight, editor of the paper and writing a column that, in the past, has taken a decidedly left-wing tilt.

Tarica’s written columns hostile to the 2nd Amendment, announced that his family are Democrats, attacked the Tea Party movement and praised the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Yet, instead of acknowledging his own political views, Tarica would rather hide them, with the hope that in some number of years most of his readers will have forgotten that he held them in the first place.

I’d have much more faith in Tarica’s efforts if he’d said something along the lines of “Yes, I’m a liberal and my beliefs are a part of my makeup. However, I make every effort to put those beliefs aside when editing articles or directing what articles my reporters should write. I may not always succeed, and I encourage readers to tell me via a phone call, email or letter when I’ve fallen short and to hold me accountable.”

Reading assignments

I think Tarica would benefit from doing a little outside reading.

First, I would encourage him to read this column by The New York Times then-Public Editor Daniel Okrent confessing that the Times is a liberal paper—and not just on its editorial and opinion pages. Are journalists at the nation’s most-respected paper not making an effort to be unbiased? Do they not want to cover important issues evenly and fairly?

Or is it a case of groupthink where everyone holds the same views and, despite their best efforts, they tilt their news coverage in a liberal direction?

I’ve said it before: Editors and reporters don’t get together each morning and discuss how they will slant the news. It’s not done consciously. It’s simply a reflection of their own beliefs and those who they work and interact with. I’d encourage Tarica and each of his staff members to take Charles Murray’s famous bubble quiz and discuss what this says about who they are and who they know. Bonus: Post the staff average online.

Finally, I’d encourage Tarica to pick up a copy of Tim Groseclose’s “Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind.” It’s just $7.99 on Kindle and I reviewed the book shortly after it came out here.

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