In tight election, charges of media bias reign

The Tennessean, where Gore was once a reporter, walks finest ink-stained line of all.

It doesn't take much to convince people that the press has a liberal bias. But if you think your paper plays favorites, imagine what people who read The Tennessean must think: Not only was Al Gore a writer at the Nashville paper for five years, he is old friends with the editor.

The paper's relationship with Mr. Gore is providing ammunition in a year when cries of "You're biased!" are being lobbed at newsrooms across America.

While these criticisms are as old as the printing press, there's no doubt the media landscape has changed in recent years, as the proliferation of Internet rumors and cable talk shows have blurred the lines between opinion and news, entertainment and reporting. And this year's down-to-the-wire presidential race has only raised the stakes higher.

"In an especially close and ... contested presidential campaign, you always have a higher level of suspicion that you're biased, because emotions run so high," says Doug Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Outlets from National Public Radio to The Los Angeles Times to the Monitor have dealt with complaints from the public about their coverage of Gore and George W. Bush.

At The Tennessean - located across town from Gore campaign headquarters in Nashville -political editor Frank Gibson says he was prepared for criticism, but not to the extent that it's come this year.

"There are people who think we have a pipeline to the [Gore] campaign," he says. "We don't."

In surveys taken this fall, the public has given mixed marks to the media for their election coverage. Shortly after the Democratic convention, an Editor & Publisher/TIPP poll found that 44 percent of voters who read papers regularly thought the media were biased - with two-thirds saying Gore was the beneficiary.

But last month, a majority of registered voters told the Pew Research Center that the media have been fair overall to both candidates. Still, more than half said the press often lets its political views influence coverage.

"I've always been a little bit peeved at the way the papers get involved in politics," says Phil Speer, who runs a hotel convenience shop in Nashville. "I put the media in the category of the politician - each has their own agenda."

Cox for president

Of course, bias wasn't always seen as such a bad thing. A century ago, newspapers were all openly partisan, and boldly supported candidates in news stories, as well as on editorial and opinion pages. When former publishers like James Cox and Warren Harding ran for president, their papers weren't shy about backing their old colleagues.

Today, while readers may roll their eyes at protestations of fairness, most papers, including The Tennessean, say they are doing all they can to have balanced coverage - right down to equal-sized photos and headlines.

Indeed, it's often readers' own political leanings that drive perceptions of bias.

The Tennessean, for instance, long known for endorsing Democrats, has had to shoulder extra scrutiny from local Republicans after the town's more conservative daily paper closed in recent years.

"I'm a Republican and I am always looking for bias in the media, and in the case of The Tennessean you don't have to look very far," says Forrest Shoaf, who was general counsel for Lamar Alexander, the other Tennessean who's sought the presidency in recent years.

"My friends and I call it 'The Gore Gazette,' " he adds.

But Tommy Burnett, a Democrat and former House majority leader in the state legislature, who now is a panelist on a local talk-radio show says he finds the editorial page pretty balanced.

Ironically, The Tennessean, which recently backed Gore for president, is in the minority among US papers. The majority endorse the Republican candidate in election years, according to surveys Editor & Publisher conducts every four years. That trend is proving true again this year, as papers backing Bush outnumber those backing Gore.

Moreover, a study released this week by the Project for Excellence in Journalism actually found that coverage of Gore during the past two months was twice as likely to be negative as coverage of Bush.

But that hasn't stopped the assault in Nashville.

"In this campaign, with Gore's background here, there's no way I can win this battle," says editor Frank Sutherland during an interview at the Gannett-owned paper, in the same building where Gore once plunked out stories on bribery and motorcycle gangs.

During the past year, the paper has been criticized by local media-watchers and community members for responding too slowly to negative stories about Gore - including one about a family not far from Nashville that accused the vice president of being a slumlord (but has since said it's possible they might vote for him).

"While other papers get latitude, The Tennessean gets none," and it's been slow to realize that, says Matt Pulle, a media critic at The Nashville Scene, a local weekly newspaper.

Sometimes The Tennessean brought the scrutiny on itself -as when Mr. Sutherland, who has recused himself from making decisions about campaign coverage, appeared in a Gore campaign video and subsequently wrote a column in the paper explaining his actions. Media critics questioned his ethics, and at least one reader called for his resignation.

The paper has also found itself in the unusual position of being the focus of media coverage - as other papers chased down rumors about Gore's ties to the paper, including one that, as a young politician, he wrote press releases that were published almost verbatim (Sutherland says it only happened once).

E-mail to the editor

Mr. Gibson says what's separated this election from those in '92 and '96 is the increase of complaints that have come by e-mail demanding to know why the paper hasn't covered a story seen on a Web site.

He says he's seen at least a dozen rumors or allegations originate that way, some of which the paper has chosen to investigate - including one that a relative of Gore's is a drug dealer, and another that Gore is a polluter in the state (neither checked out).

Staff say they will be glad when the spotlight is off them. "My stress level's gone up," says David Green, the paper's managing editor, who has received more than 100 e-mails on his columns about their coverage of Gore, the majority critical.

The level of scrutiny, he says, is the most he's encountered in his career. "The intensity of feeling, the volume of complaints, is much more."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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