Why the Myth of the Liberal Press Persists

Readers don't know and don't care about the wall between the opinion pages and the news pages. It's time for newspapers to make some brand decisions.

About a year ago, I wrote something nice—or, at least, not overly insulting—about the Philadelphia Inquirer and the need for its continued survival. In response, a reader wrote to me that it was fine if the Inky died, that it had forever sacrificed its credibility by debasing itself at the altar of left-wing liberalism.

The proof? The paper’s editorial page endorsed Walter Mondale for president in 1984.

Nothing that had happened since then—not the paper’s Pulitzer Prizes, nor the years of reporting that has often embarrassed and upset the establishment in this Democratic-controlled town—really meant anything. For my reader, one liberal apple had spoiled the whole bunch.

It’s an anecdote that will probably frustrate many old-time journalists, because they know one of the cardinal rules of daily newspapering: Yes, the editorial page may have its opinions, but those opinions have nothing at all to do with the desperately-trying-to-be-fair coverage reported on the paper’s news pages. An invisible-but-inviolable wall separated opinion from news, and ne’er were the twain supposed to meet.

One problem. Readers probably don’t know about that wall. And even if they did, they probably don’t care.

It’s an issue that emerges into public view, because at a Washington D.C. hearing on Thursday, Sen. James Inhofe challenged Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel by quoting “an article the other day in the Washington Post by Jennifer Rubin.”

Which led to something of a temper tantrum by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Post’s associate editor, who tweeted: “I hate it when senators refer to WP opinion blogger posts as articles. @jrubinblogger is NOT a WaPo reporter.”

He’s right: Rubin is a conservative’s conservative who often seems more interested in advancing the election prospects of Republicans than in seeking out and advancing the truth. But he’s also wrong: Rubin is also inextricably part of the Post’s brand in the public mind—perhaps more so in the public mind even than Chandrasekaran, who did a much-decorated job reporting the aftermath of the Iraq.

Reporters hold the wall between opinion and news sacred. But for most readers, it’s probably all the Washington Post. And nothing that journalists tell them is going to make them believe otherwise.

Which means that newspapers and other organizations need to decide: If they want opinion as part of the brand, they need to understand that opinion will help define the brand. And if they’d rather be known for bias-free news, well, maybe it’s time to dump the opinion pages that serve (in the reader’s minds) as confirmation of liberal media run amok.

What’s clear: Doing the same old thing and offering the same old explanations probably isn’t enhancing the role of the media in the public’s mind. It’s time for news organizations across the country to make some definitive brand decisions.

• On a related note, congratulations to the Newspaper Guild and Interstate General Media, owner of Philly’s two major daily newspapers, for agreeing to a two-year contract renewal. The reporters will take a small paycut, but they’ve also guaranteed that the Inky and Daily News will both exist as a real newspapers for at least two more years.

Left unclear: Whether the owners of the papers have shared any sort of long-term plan of survival with the journalists. So the congratulations is a bit tempered. Philly’s day of reckoning about the future of its two major dailies probably hasn’t happened yet.