When The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey asked readers what they thought of the paper, many said they thought it was too liberal. So editor Frank Scandale has embarked on a six month self-examination to find if they’re right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frank Scandale is the editor of The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey. In a recent column, he noted that some readers were bothered by what they perceived as the paper's liberal bias.
Now, editorial pages are supposed to have a slant and, in the case of The Record, it leans to the left. So a while back, some conservative voices were added to the Op-Ed Page to provide a wider variety of views.
But the news pages aren't supposed to be opinionated, so Scandale announced that he would conduct a six-month investigation to see if, in fact, his paper is biased. He says that some biases may seem political when actually they're about something else.
For instance, when Laura Bush and Jenna came to town on a book tour, the paper ran two pictures. Neither was of the long line of people waiting to see them. One was a shot of the First Lady and her daughter, but the larger picture depicted three lonely protestors, with signs. FRANK SCANDALE: One of our missions here is to put harder news in the newspaper, and that includes photographs. And the picture that was presented in the photo shoot, which I attended, was a very soft picture of Laura and Jenna Bush waving with a book. Then they presented this other picture of the protestors. And I said, well, that's something you don't see every day in Glen Rock, New Jersey. So as a group, we said, well, let's put those pictures in.
Now, I truly don't remember who said it was a two-column and who said it was a three-column, meaning the size of the picture and how that worked. But the perception is that we were trying to put down the Bushes and that was the bias, when the mission of the conversation was we need harder news in the paper. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. Well, there is hard news bias, which does create distortions; it's been chronicled in lots of papers all over the place. And also, perhaps in this case, your bias towards putting a [LAUGHING] photo on the cover when neither of them – one was too soft and the other was unrepresentative – you had no good choices there, and maybe you shouldn't have put in a picture at all. FRANK SCANDALE: And then people would say - why don't you put the picture of the Bushes, because you don't like George Bush. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I don't doubt that there is some bias coming out in the pages.
Now, on the other hand, I think people can bring bias from their point of view. They read our stuff and if it doesn't match up with their perception, then we're biased.
One of the recent charges of bias came when Obama went over the top with the delegates. Now, that came late in the day, and Hillary had not pulled out, so there was some ambivalence. But, by and large, the papers in this area wrote big stories above the fold. We're a very local paper. We've really sharpened our focus to be North Jersey-centric. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's your unique selling proposition.
FRANK SCANDALE: That's our, that’s our strategy, correct. That said, we focused on the Senate race here, the primary – Frank Lautenberg and Zimmer – and that's what our plan was to go along.
Now, the Obama thing we weren't even discussing at our 3:30 meeting. And this, of course, happens later. The news editors on duty debate, and they say no, our mission is still local, so we'll the Obama thing on the bottom. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Below the fold on the front page. FRANK SCANDALE: Correct. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And people were accusing you of racism? FRANK SCANDALE: Racism or anti-Obama, or something. One of the conversations I had with a fellow who called in, representing a couple of African-American groups - I said, if I was a racist, then why did we endorse Obama in the primary, one of the very few papers who did? And he paused, and he said, okay. That's a good point, however -
But the good news about all these letters and emails that I'm getting is that people are passionate. They are engaged with the newspaper. And they are – every - just about every single one of these letters starts out with, you know, kudos to The Record, kudos to you for putting yourself out there, kudos for anybody that would even look at this as a possibility. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So kudos to you for putting it out there, and now let us explain why you are irreparably [LAUGHS] screwed up. FRANK SCANDALE: [LAUGHING] BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it's been argued that the values of journalism naturally line up with the values of liberalism, in that journalists question authority – at least they're supposed to do that when they're doing their job – that they challenge institutions, that they dig deep into places where they're not supposed to go, that this is sort of part and parcel of the craft. FRANK SCANDALE: I totally agree. Two points to make is I've written a column basically espousing what you just said, that we tend to be those kinds of people.
I have a letter here from a fellow who said he used to be a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist, and he said, yep, you guys have a liberal paper, albeit one I have never read. How can I know this? Well, and I say this with tongue in cheek, it would never occur to a conservative paper to engage in such introspection. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, he's just – he's, he’s – he’s - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clearly a liberal. You're at the very beginning of a six-month process. Once you get a final verdict, how do you intend to respond to it? FRANK SCANDALE: If we find examples in our news pages that we have exhibited a sincere bias in a way that is truly against what news should be, and it is definitely costing us readers, then as a newspaper the right thing to do would be certainly address it, make adjustments and make sure that we're not presenting the news unfairly or unbalanced. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. FRANK SCANDALE: You're welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frank Scandale is the editor of The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]