Is Stars and Stripes a liberal rag?
By TOBIAS NAEGELE | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: August 15, 2016
Stars and Stripes is not a partisan publication. Or is it?
To some readers, there’s no doubt. Here’s “Deb,” a commenter on a story about an Army veteran critical of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump: “Seems Stars and Stripes is now leaning ‘LEFT’ with the rest of the hacks. More of that PC BS.”
Or consider this Aug. 14 Facebook comment from John Lee: “2nd article today, within a short period of time, where you look like shills for Democrats. What is it? Weekend and all the adults off today?”
I recently heard from a lieutenant colonel in Kuwait, who wrote with similar complaints. He picks up Stripes at the on-post dining facility each day and discusses the news with three other officers. Among the four, he says, three are conservative, one is liberal. The conservatives say the paper is too liberal. The liberal, he says, thinks it’s just about right. His personal view: “It is becoming crystal clear as to the direction the paper is pushing.” Left.
So … does Stars and Stripes have an agenda? Is it a liberal newspaper? Is management advocating for Hillary Clinton?
Stripes Editor Terry Leonard says news value drives editorial decisions, not politics. “If one candidate makes more news than another, that’s news,” he says.
Fair enough. But bias can slip into coverage in more ways than story selection. Bias can color a headline, ignore a fact (or challenge one), affect photo choices and more. I recall a then-unknown Chris Christie insisting to me that newspaper photo editors were out to get President George H.W. Bush during his 1992 re-election campaign. I’ve thought about that conversation numerous times over the past 24 years, and noted myself how Christie himself has been victimized by photo selection.
Bias is often hard to detect, because most of us are flat-out unaware of our biases. That can be especially true of journalists who may believe so fervently in their own sense of balance that they become that blind to story angles they don’t see or never before considered.
Still, in this political season, it’s particularly difficult to separate bias from coverage, especially in the wake of the two conventions. The controversy that erupted after Gold Star dad Khzir Khan criticized Trump in his speech at the Democrats’ convention and Trump responded with comments of his own generated outrage from all sides. The split in the Republican Party, with many long-time party leaders criticizing the candidate, has created a story line of its own.
So, having determined that recent coverage is too hard to gauge, I went back instead and compared coverage of the two political conventions. My goal: to see if I could discern overt or even subtle bias in Stripes published news coverage.
I started with coverage in the July 29 issue, which included coverage on page 11 from Day 3 of the Democrats’ national convention. (July 29 was a Thursday, but Stripes closes its print issue in the afternoon, so the paper was actually a day behind in this and, indeed, all of its convention coverage.)
The page included three articles and a photo of President Barack Obama and Clinton beaming after his address to the convention. Of three stories on the page, one reported on the president’s speech, one reported on a wealthy Clinton donor offering to donate $1 million to the charity of his choice if Trump released his tax returns and the third focused on the rift between Clinton backers and supporters of her defeated rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders. The headlines were neutral in tone, although “Dems offer reward for Trump tax returns” was slightly misleading. “Dems press Trump to share tax returns” would have garnered less attention, but better supported the facts. The suggestion of a reward sounds like someone is offering the money to anyone who can gain access to his returns — effectively soliciting a crime. That’s not what the story reported.
For comparison, I went back and reviewed the corresponding issue from the Republican convention’s Day 3. The July 22 edition included a page 8 article, “Cruz refuses to support Trump,” summarizing comments by Sen. Ted Cruz the morning after he refused to endorse Trump in his convention speech, and a page 1 article, “Trump balks at defense of allies,” on the candidate’s controversial assertion, during an interview with The New York Times, that he would not automatically come to the aid of a NATO ally if the partner hadn’t lived up to its financial obligations.
I found the front-page NATO headline to be technically correct, but overly broad. “Trump puts conditions on NATO support” would have been more accurate and fair, but in a narrow one-column space, it might not have fit.
In volume, there was one column more space devoted to coverage of the Republicans. And while the tone of the articles and headlines from the Republican convention were more negative than positive, the articles and headlines accurately reflected the facts: Cruz and Trump made the news. Stripes just published it.
Next I compared coverage of the final day of the convention. Page 1 treatments were almost identical. In each case, the candidates’ speeches were covered in stories stripped across the bottom of the front pages on successive Saturdays, when Stripes prints only its Middle East edition. For Trump, the headline reflected the ominous tone of his address: “Trump assails elites as he accepts GOP nomination,” while for Clinton, the headline reflected her dominant message: “Clinton promotes national unity, seeks to build trust.”
Neither article was universally positive or negative. The Trump story, produced by The Washington Post, began with the words “Donald Trump painted a dire portrait of a lawless, terrorized nation ...” and included no opposition comment until its second page. But the Associated Press report used to describe Clinton’s speech described the candidate as “one of the most divisive and distrusted figures in American politics” in its second sentence. It also included Trump’s tweeted response to her speech on page 1, before the article jumped to an inside page. One could argue that it was unfair or unnecessary to include the criticism of Clinton in the lead the day after she accepted her party’s nomination, but there’s no contesting the accuracy of the critique.
Comparisons are challenging as well because the speeches themselves were starkly different by design. Running as an outsider critical of the status quo, Trump’s speech necessarily reflected a broken America in need of rescue; Clinton, meanwhile, is a product of the current administration, and therefore intent on painting a rosier picture. Both articles fairly reflected their views and the facts.
So where does that leave us? Why do conservative readers so frequently feel slighted? And is there anything that can be done about it?
Two critical factors are at play here: the sources from which Stars and Stripes draws content and the sensibilities of readers in today’s media landscape.
Stripes gets the majority of its content from third parties, subscribing to The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Tribune News Service. It produces virtually no coverage of its own regarding the presidential race. But while these are quality sources, they are not entirely unblemished. The Post’s editorial board declared Trump unfit for the presidency in July, giving Republican readers a legitimate right to question its reporters’ objectivity. I think Stripes would benefit from access to a wider selection of news sources, particularly for its opinion pages (I will address editorials and op-ed columns in the future, so if you have an opinion fire away and tell me what you think.)
Reader sensibilities are another matter. But to grasp why, one has to look at the military population as a whole. The military community overwhelmingly identifies as Republican. The Military Times poll has measured party preferences in the career force for well over a decade and results consistently indicate a heavy Republican majority. Its most recent election poll, conducted last month, is no different. Respondents favored Trump by 49.5 percent to 20.5 percent for Clinton. Indeed, no Democrat has ever scored a majority in that poll. In earlier times, when there were fewer news sources, varying interpretations of news events were few. The mainstream media largely played news events the same way. But today, we have more choices, including many that approach all their content from a politically identifiable point of view. As readers, meanwhile, we seek affirmation in what read. If the news source differs from our worldview, we tend to think they’ve got it wrong.
Social media only amplifies the effect. First, it allows us to tailor news feeds to our particular interests and perspectives, reducing the variety of perspectives we might read. Then it lets us share news and views with friends and family, the people most likely to view the world as we do. It’s ironic that the internet promises to offer us access to a wider world, yet often confines us to a bubble of like-minded thought.
In that context, it’s not surprising that many Stars and Stripes readers yearn for a paper that better reflects how they see the world. Stripes editors need to understand readers’ perspectives, interests and worldview. But they should not pander to them. Rather, it is Stripes’ duty to share all perspectives in balance so that readers gain a complete view of issues and events. It may not always succeed. But it is duty-bound to try.
What do you think? Share your thoughts on coverage — and also about Stars and Stripes’ opinion pages — in the comments below. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.