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Convention coverage critiques from both sides of the aisle

September 11, 2008 |  3:29 pm

"I noticed you had a big expose on Sarah Palin on the top of the front page last week. You just had to rain on her parade.  You had better open your eyes to the fact that there are conservatives who live in L.A. too," read part of an e-mail from Barbara Hardesty of Los Angeles.

The Times heard from the other side of the aisle as well, getting a number of comments like this one from Pat Taylor of Calabasas: "I must comment on the inclusion of an article blasting Joe Biden, printed not 24 hours after his nomination.  Your bias is showing and has been each day of the Democratic convention."

Most readers who took the time to contact The Times about coverage of the conventions did so because they were unhappy. Those front-page examinations of the vice presidential candidates were but two specifics readers named. Dozens of others thought the front-page report on Sarah Palin's daughter's pregnancy was inappropriate; they thought the overall coverage of the GOP vice presidential candidate was too negative. Among complaints from the other side, a number of readers asked why the Los Angeles Times hadn't challenged a statement that Palin made in her speech about Obama's record in the Senate.

The point of the coverage of both Biden and Palin is to inform citizens as fully as possible about the man or woman who might be the next vice president of the United States.

Robin Michael of Manhattan Beach was one of several readers who called the front-page report looking at Biden's family ties "gotcha journalism." "Surely the article was ready for publication long before Biden's acceptance speech," wrote Michael, who wondered why the story ran on Aug. 28, the day after he formally became part of a Democratic presidential ticket. National Editor Scott Kraft says they weren't timing the piece but put it in when it was ready: "The guy was announced as Obama's vice presidential candidate five days before we put the piece in the paper. We're good, but doing a piece like that cannot be done in a day or even two."

A greater number of readers considered the overall coverage of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be negative. On Aug. 30, The Times started covering "John McCain's surprise choice," as the lead story put it, with six stories in the main news section (those articles are linked below). And even though the editorial pages are independent from the news pages -- the departments have separate staffs -- it's worth noting that some readers included the opinion pages in their overall assessments of Times coverage. That same day, there was an editorial, two letters to the editor and a Tim Rutten column on Palin.

A look at the Times database shows 131 references Sarah Palin in news stories over the past three years -- almost all of them after McCain announced her as his running mate. (There have been more than 400 references in news stories about Biden over the past three years.) "She was a near-total unknown, and that alone justified a large amount of reporting as quickly as possible," says D.C. bureau chief Doyle McManus. Concerns about coverage being negative have been leveled at papers around the country, as a glance at recent ombudsmen columns shows. And, as a Sept. 5 Times story reported, media coverage was itself a topic at the GOP Convention. Perhaps the sheer level of reporting, of reporters' asking questions, comes across as naysaying? "'Inquisitive' does not add up to 'inquisitory,' " notes McManus.

Some readers also took issue with news coverage of Palin's pregnant teenager. Daniel A. Curry of Manhattan Beach wrote to say, "I was surprised by the story on your front page concerning the pregnancy of a 17-year-old girl. I was under the false impression that The Times had an editorial policy that: (A) caused it to refrain from identifying adolescents, even if they were accused of heinous crimes; (B) protected the right of privacy of individuals who were not public persona."  And Joseph Picarelli of Rancho Palos Verdes said, "It is particularly poor to show her in two pictures and refer to it as a 'vetting' issue."

The practice of not naming juveniles is typically aimed at protecting their privacy. In this case, though, the McCain campaign released an official statement from the Palins saying their 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. Says McManus, "We cannot pretend to protect a juvenile's privacy after her parents have issued a worldwide press release with her name in it." Steve Stroud, deputy director of photography who oversees photos for the main section, says it was valid to use both the image on Page A1 and the one inside: "She was part of the news story that day that examined the vice presidential candidate's family values, an important part of any candidate's public profile. The candidate and the McCain campaign publicly lauded both Palin and her daughter for the young couple's decision to marry and have the child." Stroud adds, "We have also used on the front page and elsewhere photos of the other candidates' children from both political parties."

Among those who thought The Times was too easy on Palin were the numerous readers who wrote apparently after seeing an item on a website that calls itself a "progressive research and information center." Bill Dunn in Middleton, Wis., was among many who cited a mediamatters.org posting about The Times' Sept. 4 report on Palin's speech, and wrote, "What is a newspaper's responsibility to its readers? Is it to merely print allegations, with no attempt at rebutting those allegations when there is evidence on the record that the allegations are untrue?" Dunn quoted Palin's line about Obama, "Listening to him speak, it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform." Dunn, like some two dozen others, cited Obama's legislative record, and asked, "How can you let politicians get away with this?"

Said McManus in an e-mail, "As our readers know, we have reported at some length on Sen. Obama's legislative career in both Springfield and Washington." He adds, "Gov. Palin didn't charge that Sen. Obama had never authored a law. She asserted that he had never authored 'a major law.' That's a debatable point, of course, but whether it's valid or not depends on the definition of 'major.' For that reason, we viewed this sentence as a bit of campaign rhetoric, not a factual charge."

David Shields of San Dimas was one of the readers annoyed at the letters page in the opinion section: "The letters selected were so one-sided that I threw the whole paper in the trash. If The Times is going to continue to be so one-sided and not 'balanced,' why should I read anything beyond the Sports Page and crossword puzzle?" The answer is one that Eryn Brown, who oversees the letters-to-the-editor page, has reason to give readers quite often, because letter-writers tend to take to their keyboards and pens more often when they're unhappy: "As always," she wrote back, "the mix of letters selected for the page reflects the mix of letters that we receive. Overwhelmingly, reaction to Gov. Palin among our letter writers has been negative."

Which brings the conversation back to the beginning: Mostly, people take the time to speak out when they're unhappy, thus a disproportionate number of incoming comments are criticisms. That makes the nice ones even more meaningful. Reader Christopher Moore of Denver wrote: "The media is totally within its right to question the qualifications and history of any candidate, Republican or Democrat. Especially in light of the fact that Palin (in this case) could become president. This is a very real possibility in light of McCain's age. Oh, and for the record, I am a registered Republican."

A look at the six news stories published Aug. 30: On A1, "McCain changes the equation: His choice -- even Palin was surprised -- raises hopes and questions" and a profile, “She's no good ol' boy: Meet Sarah Palin: governor, mother of five, hunter, reformer, creationist, runner-up to Miss Alaska." Inside the main section, “Gov. Palin has favored drilling over environment,” “Arnold thinks she's quite a pick"; a news analysis, "Gutsy, or too heavy on gut feeling?," and an "On the Media" column, "Surprise! McCain pulls a fast one."

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