Sunday, October 14, 2007

Who's biased?

Montana Headlines finds media bias in this AP story about Republicans buying up Democrat Linda McCulloch's domain name. MH wonders why the story was printed at all, then notes that a similar ploy against potential Republican candidate Bob Keenan doesn't appear until toward the end of the story.

Why MH thinks this might not be a story escapes me. It seems like a legitimate enough story, especially since Gouras pulls in national experts to discuss the phenomenon, which apparently is common in statewide races. I found it one of the more interesting state stories I have read in recent months. It certainly doesn't read like a McCulloch puff piece. If anything, she comes off as naive and shortsighted.

So why didn't Keenan get higher play in the story? I can't know what was in Gouras' mind. I don't have the mind-reading capacity that media-bashing conservatives seem to possess in great measure. For all I know, Gouras worships a bust of Ronald Reagan before he goes to work every morning. But regardless of Gouras' political beliefs, I can think of a few reasons why he might have played the story the way he did.

1. The news about McCulloch was fresh. News about Bob Keenan's website chicanery had appeared as far back as August.

2. In McCulloch's case, Republicans took an existing domain name. In Keenan's case, Democrats took an unclaimed name. So discussion of what happened to Keenan fell naturally within the cybersquatting section of the story, rather than the part about swiping existing names.

3. Gouras' story followed a classic journalistic form: start with a specific incident, show how the incident fits within a broader context (aka the nut graph), develop the broader context, then provide a sense of closure by leading back to the original example. The Wall Street Journal writes stories using that basic structure every day. For Gouras, Keenan's story made a perfect transition back to Montana. Put Keenan too early, and you risk burying the nut graph. Gouras could have mentioned him early, then come back to him later, to keep Montana Headlines happy, I suppose, but the story would have lost a little zing. Sometimes you just have to make tough calls about how much MH's happiness is worth to you.

4. Maybe Gouras is so far beyond partisan bias that it never occurred to him that people would read the whole piece in a Republican-Democrat context. After all, if Republicans are acting like 4-year-olds, then citing evidence that Democrats act like 4-year-olds doesn't make Republicans look any more mature. It just makes it look as if the whole state is being run by 4-year-olds. And that isn't news.

UPDATE: In the original post, I forgot to link to Montana Headlines. That has now been fixed.

UPDATE 2: After I rattled on for a while longer in comments, another thought occurred to me. Montana Headlines, Ed in comments and I all seem to be proceeding from the same assumption: that the practices described in the story make the political parties look bad. But neither Montana party seems to think it has done anything wrong, and both apparently are in accord with national trends and practices.

So isn't Gouras just as liable to a charge of conservative bias as to liberal bias? Why does he give Montana Republicans credit in the opening graph for adopting this technologically savvy technique but fails to note until deep in the story that Montana Democrats are equally up to date?

Fact is, I'm so persuaded this is a sleazy practice that it didn't occur to me until now that other possibilities might exist. That persuasion arises from my own deep biases -- in favor of openhandedness, fair play and general courtesy -- and I suspect that Montana Headlines and Ed share those biases. I think these are conservative biases, but it's hard to know for sure anymore.

And I still don't know about Gouras' biases. Maybe he thought he was doing Republicans a favor.


Ed Kemmick said...

Sorry, David. I'm no media-bashing conservative and my take on this wasn't much different from Montana Headlines. I thought it was a very poor decision to lead with McCulloch, with a photograph, and then not mention that this wasn't solely a Republican tactic until way toward the bottom of the piece.

It would have been very simple to recast the lead --- which I might have done, if I'd been on the desk --- to say that this was a bipartisan tactic both here and nationally, and oh, by the way, here's the latest example. Even worse, the first person to defend the practice is the former head of the Montana Democratic Party, who is quoted immediately after Keenan is mentioned. Only then is the GOP spokesman allowed to give his two cents.

You and I know only too well that a lot of readers don't get beyond the photo and the cutline, or beyond the first few paragraphs of the story. All three of those elements --- headline, cutline and opening paragraphs --- made the ploy sound like some kind of brand-new dirty trick invented by and used exclusively by those dastardly Republicans. That is the conclusion parroted by most of the people who commented on the story.

You may be right that Gouras could have overlooked that others might have seen bias at play, but that's not really an excuse, especially for his editors, or ours at the Gazette, for that matter. And please note that your reference to earlier coverage of the Keenan matter linked to the Independent. Did any of the dailies give it any coverage? I don't think so. Why was it AP-worthy news this time, and not then?

David said...

I don't know, Ed, I thought it was pretty clear from the third paragraph on that he was talking about a bipartisan phenomenon. He didn't seem to me to be singling out Republicans.

Leading with McCulloch made sense to me because that was the latest news. Bad luck for the GOP, I guess, but it's like football: The player who retaliates is the one who gets noticed and draws the flag.

If it had been my story, I might have made a reference to Keenan in the third graf, then picked up that part of the story again later. But the story's real focus wasn't on Montana at all, so I can understand why he might have handled it the way he did. I can also see why he buried the Republican official's lame quote.

I don't know whether any dailies reported on Keenan's website when it happened or not. If they didn't, my guess is that it's because the Indy broke the story. Since the Indy isn't an AP paper, somebody would have had to re-report the story. Generally, the dailies are reluctant to follow the lead of the weeklies.

Or maybe Gouras figured it became a story when it happened the second time. Once is an anecdote; twice is a trend.

I don't really mean to defend the guy. I have no idea what his motives were or what his political beliefs are. My only point is that stories get written the way they for a lot of reasons, only one of which is liberal bias.

By the way, I just checked the link to Left in the West, which Montana Headlines characterized as "bragging" about what happened to Keenan. Am I the only one who doesn't see any bragging there?

montanaheadlines said...

The bragging was sort of implicit in the topic of the LITW memo, which indicated that the Dems were able to take advantage of Bob Keenan's unawareness of "real basic advice" on internet politicking.

And then there were the comments, where lefty readers got the point of the post, hence following up by saying that Keenan wasn't thinking clearly about his contemplated campaign, and that he was making rookie mistakes that the Dems could capitalize on without breaking a sweat.

And of course, one commenter who got the point of the post pointed out that "Booby" homeschools his children -- a surefire litmus test that Keenan's just not as bright as the Democratic opposition that outmaneuvered him before he even got started with his race.

But for all of those excuses, you're still right that there wasn't any real bragging on Matt's part.

In fact, I agonized over what perfect word to use.

But no matter how many things I tried, I felt the post just would have lost a little zing had I not stayed with the edgy word "bragging."

And if putting some zing into an AP "hard news" wire story may be more important to a paid professional journalist than establishing right up front that both sides have for some time been engaged in domain-name guerrilla warfare -- then what's a lowly unpaid local blogger unschooled in the finer points of zingology to do?

Ed Kemmick said...

David: After I read the original article but before I read Montana Headlines, I made all the excuses for the story that you mentioned. But it occurred to me that all those excuses were more or less inside baseball. I thought I knew how the story developed and how it was written, but that doesn't ultimately help explain anything to non-reporters.

I am not accusing Gouras of bias. I just think a reporter has to be aware that people do suspect us of bias, so it's best to be as even-handed as possible. This story simply failed in that regard. That third paragraph you referenced is pretty thin on balance, if you ask me, and there is nothing explicitly pointing out that Montana Democrats led the way on this sleazy business until the bottom of the story. Maybe Montana Headlines read too much into it, but if you have to justify it by all that inside-baseball explanation, one could hardly blame him.

David said...

True enough, but if you can't talk inside baseball on a blog, where can you? Personally, I love inside baseball.

Montana Headlines, I'm glad to see you have had a taste of how hard it is to get things as right as you want them to be. Now multiply that by two or three stories a day, five days a week, and see what a "paid professional journalist" is up against.

Or you could just holler bias.

Forty Seven said...


Some points you may not have been aware of when you wrote your post on the subject:

"1. The news about McCulloch was fresh. News about Bob Keenan's website chicanery had appeared as far back as August."

While it is true that news about Keenan's domain had appeared as far back as August, it is equally true that the GOP started spreading word of purchasing McCulloch's domain about a week after the Keenan thing. So the McCulloch news was not much more fresh than Keenan's when Gouras wrote it.

"2. In McCulloch's case, Republicans took an existing domain name. In Keenan's case, Democrats took an unclaimed name. So discussion of what happened to Keenan fell naturally within the cybersquatting section of the story, rather than the part about swiping existing names."

While it is true that McCulloch had used the domain name before, she allowed it to lapse. Having a domain name for your own newspaper, you probably know that any domain name that is unclaimed is purchasable. Any domain name that IS claimed is not purchaseable without negotiating with the owner. Thus, McCulloch's domain name was no more "existing" than Keenan's. She wasn't using it, nor was anyone else, when the GOP bought it.

"3. Gouras' story followed a classic journalistic form"

That is unquestionably true. But just because it's always been that way doesn't make it right. The practice of leaving rebuttal until deep in the story is a frequent one among Montana journalists, no question. But as Ed points out, it does leave the rebuttal out of the part most readers read.

MH frequently makes the point that the bias inherent in a story is probably not intentional. I doubt Gouras intended to boost McCulloch. But I don't doubt that the structure of his story caused the reader to have a certain impression. A story this lede: "The Montana Republican and Democratic parties have begun purchasing domain names that might be used by candidates of the opposing party." might have left a very different impression.