Column: Biased opinion page? Check the numbers

Aug. 24, 2013 @ 11:23 PM

The last two or three weeks I have received a higher-than-usual number of calls complaining that the News-Topic editorial page is nothing but liberal opinions. In particular, many of those complaining say we are constantly criticizing Gov. Pat McCrory and never have anything bad to say about President Barack Obama.

The complaints themselves were not unusual, but the run of calls was. Because I have tried to more or less have a balance of opinion on the News-Topic opinion pages since I arrived seven months ago, I feel a little defensive about such calls.

But I had to wonder.

Since calls have picked up only in the past few weeks, last week I pulled out the past month’s worth of papers and went through them, and I have to say that whatever editorial pages these callers have been reading, they don’t seem to be the ones I put together.

Here’s the rundown:

From July 21 to Aug. 23, the News-Topic has run 48 editorials. Only two mainly were about something McCrory did: one was positive, one was negative, and both were written by me. Politically speaking, 20 editorials could clearly be identified as coming from the left side of the spectrum, 13 from the right, two from the middle, and five addressed non-partisan topics, such as the legal trouble of UNC basketball player P.J. Hairston or the idea that complaints against judges should not be handled entirely behind closed doors.

So on the one hand, yes, it is fair to say that the News-Topic has run more editorials, both our own and from other sources, that come from the left – but it is less than half of the total, 41.6 percent, so it is not fair to say that we present nothing but liberal opinions in our editorials.

As for the opinion columns that carry the name of the writer, however, there is not much room for complaint. During the same time period, the News-Topic has run 35 columns: 12 from the left (13 if you count the column I wrote a few weeks ago admitting to a rush to judgment that resulted in a left-leaning editorial), 14 from the right, six from the middle, and six on non-partisan topics, such as the wedding of publisher Terese Almquist’s daughter.

And when it comes to editorial cartoons, the people who should be complaining are the liberals. From July 21 to Aug. 23, there were four cartoons from a perspective on the left, 12 from the right, four from the middle, and nine on non-partisan topics such as the weather.

In other words, less than 15 percent of our cartoons have been liberal or critical of Republicans, but more than 40 percent of the cartoons have been conservative or critical of liberals – especially President Obama, the target of nine cartoons. McCrory, I would note, was the target of one cartoon.

Nine cartoons targeting Obama in a negative way – that’s hardly “never” having anything negative to say. If you try to argue that a cartoon doesn’t equal an editorial, I would have to disagree. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I will bet that more people look at any cartoon than any editorial (most of which run less than 1,000 words). Take Friday’s cartoon depicting Obama as a weather vane atop the sphinx. You could take 1,000 words to criticize Obama’s position on the turmoil in Egypt, or lack of one, but would those words really be more pointed than that image?

It is not possible to present a 100-percent-balanced opinion page. For one thing, the pool of editorials available to me – from other Paxton Media papers in North Carolina, from the McClatchy-Tribune wire service, and three a week through the Associated Press – is somewhat limited, both on topics and viewpoints. I struggle to find middle-of-the-road or non-partisan editorials that don’t repeat others I have already run.

Because of that, one caller suggested I should write more pro-conservative editorials. I could try, but I don’t write just to hear myself type. I would rather not gin myself up into an artificial froth on either end of the political spectrum just to fill a quota.

In editorial cartoons, it is fairly easy, within the resources available to the News-Topic, for me to find conservative editorial cartoons. Why there are more conservative cartoonists than liberal ones in this pool is for others to figure out, I just know it helps me balance the page.

And while it also is generally easier for me to find signed opinion columns that are liberal than conservative (during the middle of summer, especially, conservatives often seemed to go on vacation, while the liberals stayed in Raleigh pounding their keyboards), there is a sufficient supply for me to keep things close to even.

This is not to say I will dismiss all future complaints about the tilt of the opinion pages here. But I’m sticking with what I have been doing, because the numbers say I’m pretty close to my target of presenting balance.

Of course, some callers say I should not have balance – that this is a conservative county, so all of the opinions on the page should be conservative. For reasons cited above, that would be pretty close to impossible to achieve, but I also don’t think that makes sense. By that reasoning, newspapers in counties where Democrats are in the majority should ignore Republican opinions entirely. I’m sure the Republicans living there would not like that idea. Besides, if all you want to read are things that reinforce what you already think, there’s no point in reading at all.