'A Call to the Right' – Redux

One look at my e-mail after the article "A call to the Right" appeared in this section last month, and you would know what I learned: It's impossible to write an article about ideology and please anyone.

The story was about conservative organizations training journalists so they can add to their ranks among the Fourth Estate, which they see as too liberal. But even details that I thought were unquestionable were disputed by some readers.

Robert Novak, for example, is a conservative commentator. This is not really a point conservatives and liberals fight over – unlike the issue of whether there is a liberal media bias.

And yet someone sent me this e-mail: "Check your facts. Robert Novak, while employed as a conservative commentator for CNN, is a registered DEMOCRAT."

I don't know whether that is true or not. But if it is, Mr. Novak should be credited for his clever approach to protecting his livelihood by helping to elect officials he can critique.

What particularly tends to irk people when it comes to discussing media coverage is the perception that one side often gets more time than the other.

"Perhaps you could do more research next time and include something from a left-leaning media watchdog group such as FAIR [Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting] for balance," writes one reader.

Someone at FAIR had the same idea and wrote to point out that I did the very thing conservatives in the story complain about – I didn't include sources from the other side.

"It's a tricky kind of article to write," says Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, FAIR's magazine.

He says it's difficult to judge, just the comments made by the directors and the participants, whether these training programs are really achieving the benefits some of them claim of making journalism more balanced. In his view, if a story doesn't include both sides from the start, then each should be allowed to have their say over time.

More on the subject comes from Tom Rosenstiel at The Project for Excellence in Journalism. He responds to the issue with questions of his own.

"Do all stories, to be valid, have to quote all sides? No. But do they have to take into account questions that the audience will raise for themselves? Yes," he says.

What he's referring to is one of the other hot-button issues in "A call to the Right" – my quoting Ann Coulter, an outspoken conservative author and commentator, on her experience in one of these training programs.

Ms. Coulter, author of this summer's bestselling liberal-bashing book "Slander," said the program she attended at the National Journalism Center didn't teach ideology, but reporting: "do research and get your facts right," is how she explained it.

Many readers laughed out loud at the idea of Coulter making such a statement, because, as Mr. Rosenstiel notes, her book has been "fairly publicly noted for errors."

She slams liberals in "Slander," claiming rather boldly that they don't read books, and that's why works by conservatives so often top bestseller lists. Liberals may not have read her book, but they do know what's been done to debunk it, sending me links to websites that have done just that when I didn't mention it in the article.

"The right-wing circuit may have pumped sales of her book, but a quick skimming of it reveals she doesn't bother to 'do research and get her facts straight,' " wrote one e-mailer.

Even those readers whose affiliation was more difficult to judge had something to say. One wrote: "This is an interesting story and a fine concept, but Ms. Coulter is hardly the avatar of this nascent movement."

Coulter aside, what many people wanted to challenge is the idea of liberal media bias. Some readers say there is no such thing, and others say it's obvious in some media outlets.

Both conservatives and liberals offer compelling arguments for which ideology the media tend to favor. But the issue goes beyond that, some say.

"It is undeniable that conservative journalists have felt more comfortable in the opinion pages rather than in the newsroom," Rosenstiel says. "And that's a problem that journalists need to address." The solution, he adds, is "to have more people of all kinds in newsrooms. We need real intellectual diversity ... to create better news product."

Readers and observers both point out that a person's ideology doesn't necessarily color his or her reporting. That's true – even for a reporter who takes the liberty of assuming that Novak votes Republican.

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