Who's really biased here?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Journalism isn't a thankless profession, but sometimes it can feel that way.

I'm blessed to be here in Carroll County, and I never lose sight of that. Still, even here there are people who criticize journalists in general and this newspaper in particular. Sometimes that criticism is warranted. We aren't perfect, although perfection is our goal. Legitimate criticism can be very helpful and instructive, and I try to accept it as such.

Last week, in making some minor edits to a news release, I committed a typing error that somehow made it into the paper despite our best efforts not to let that sort of thing happen. I got a phone call about it, apologized for it, determined how it happened and vowed to be more vigilant about proofreading. The phone call I received offered legitimate criticism.

But then there is some criticism that seems to be based on personal agendas, politics or just plain ignorance.

I'm not quite a yellow dog Democrat, but I'm not far off. Certainly, I would vote for a yellow dog before I ever cast a ballot for Donald Trump, Tom Cotton or Sarah Palin. However, my political leanings cannot and should not influence news coverage in this newspaper, and they don't. They do sometimes come into play in this space, but columns and news stories are wholly different animals, as I've discussed in this space before.

We received a letter to the editor last week from an individual who formerly was employed at this newspaper. We might publish the letter in the next couple of weeks, or we might not. I'm still thinking about it. The letter actually was submitted to the Lovely County Citizen, the weekly newspaper that Carroll County Newspapers publishes in Eureka Springs, but it made several references to the company as a whole that I would like to address here.

For one, the writer says the Carroll County News "hasn't attempted any kind of editorial page in years, other than free weekly advertisements for Republican politicians." That statement apparently refers to a regular column written by state Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest and an occasionally published column written by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. King and Hutchinson happen to be Republicans. More importantly, they happen to be our elected state senator and our elected governor, and that's why their columns are published. If they were Democrats, their columns would be published just the same. And the writer fails to acknowledge that in this very space, I've written in favor of an examination of our gun laws, in favor of Medicaid expansion, in favor of gay marriage, against the dangers of Sen. Tom Cotton and against Donald Trump's candidacy for president. In a recent column, I criticized King's position on Medicaid expansion on the very same page where he defended it. If this newspaper is a "Republican instrument," surely I wouldn't be allowed to do such a thing.

The writer also discusses what he describes as gentle treatment in our news pages of former Republican sheriff Bob Grudek. I can't speak to decisions regarding news coverage that were made before I arrived here in June 2014, but I'm guessing Grudek wouldn't agree that he's been handled with kid gloves since then. Neither, I'm sure, would the quarter of a million people who viewed the video clip on our website of a Carroll County Sheriff's Office K-9 biting and holding a prostrate suspect for about 90 seconds in 2014. That incident occurred less than three months before the November 2014 election, and it likely sealed Grudek's fate in a loss to Democrat Randy Mayfield. A newspaper that is a "Republican instrument" would have printed a brief story based on the fairly benign initial report from the sheriff's office. That's not what we did. We aggressively pursued a video recording of the incident, then we wrote about it. Because that's what good, objective, actual journalists do. We didn't do it because Grudek is a Republican. We did it because the public had a right to know.

The letter writer is sharply critical of our publisher, Bob Moore, and implies that Bob has directed that news coverage be slanted in support of Republicans and their ideals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bob is my immediate supervisor and I can tell you that not one time has he come to me with instructions regarding news coverage based on any political viewpoint. He has told me that he has disagreed with some of the things I've written in this space, but only in the context of discussing the benefits of balance on our editorial page and objectivity in our news pages.

The gentleman who wrote the letter to the editor is a former full-time employee here. (He's also the only alleged journalist I've ever seen interrupt a public meeting to argue with a speaker.) When I arrived here, he was writing news stories and columns on a free-lance basis. That ended after I refused to publish an unsolicited story that was so clearly biased and politically motivated that I would sooner have resigned than have it appear in this newspaper. Not because it was written from the Democratic Party perspective. As I said, I'm a pretty staunch Democrat. But I'm a journalist first -- unlike our letter writer.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.