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Tags: Weymouth | fair | wash | post

Washington Post Has Become a Model for the Media

Ronald Kessler By Monday, 01 June 2009 01:58 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

When media executives look at their shrinking audiences, they rarely attribute the decline to their liberal bias in covering the news. But recent developments at the Washington Post demonstrate that a return to fair coverage attracts readers.

Since Katharine Weymouth became publisher more than a year ago, and she named Marcus Brauchli, a former Wall Street Journal editor, executive editor in September, the paper has been making an honest effort to be fair.

Wash. Post Publisher
Katharine Weymouth

Hit jobs against Bush administration programs and Republicans in general have virtually vanished. Instead, the paper presents issues fairly. No longer is the other side suppressed or relegated to the last paragraph.

Obituaries on such conservative icons as Paul Weyrich and Jack Kemp have run on page one. In contrast, the New York Times ran Kemp’s obituary on page B10, and Weyrich’s, on B11.

As its second lead on May 21, the Washington Post ran a story saying that the “financial system, frozen solid for the past nine months, is in a spring thaw. And it’s happening even though many of the Obama administration’s major rescue programs have yet to get off the ground.”

The Washington Post gave equal display to stories on the dueling national security speeches of President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney. The New York Times relegated the story about Cheney’s speech to a brief article on page A15. The Washington Post reported that CIA records show the agency briefed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on enhanced interrogation techniques in September 2002; the New York Times initially ignored the story.

On May 29, a Post editorial described Obama’s budget, with its reliance on $9 trillion in borrowing during the next decade, as “simply unaffordable.”

For the first time, the Washington Post has an ombudsman who unambiguously tells it like it is. Andrew Alexander, the former Washington bureau chief of Cox Newspapers, has taken on two Post icons: television critic Tom Shales over his slobbering review of a President Obama news conference, and columnist Dana Milbank, who took a quote by former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer out of context.

Although the Washington Post has yet to cover its own metamorphosis, conservatives such as Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., chairman of the Republican Study Committee; Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; and Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund have noticed the change and applaud it.

A granddaughter of former Post Chairman Katharine Graham, Weymouth, 43, is a graduate of Harvard College and Stanford Law School. She practiced law at Williams & Connolly in Washington before coming to the Post.

Weymouth has a self-deprecating manner and a handshake like a Marine. Understandably, she has not said anything publicly about a change in approach. But privately, editors say the tone has changed since she and her pick as editor took over.

The results are beginning to show up in circulation numbers. During the six months ending March 31, circulation has declined by just 1.2 percent, despite the fact that young people prefer reading news online,. During the first three months of the year, circulation Monday through Friday actually rose by 0.7 percent. In contrast, the New York Times, which has continued to pursue a transparently liberal agenda in its news columns, saw its circulation decline by 3.6 percent in the six-month period.

The same trend is evident in the world of television. Although Fox News prominently features conservative commentators, when it comes to news, the network has a rule that guests from opposing sides must appear on any partisan issue. As with the Washington Post, that fairness has translated to viewership. Fox News beat CNN and MSNBC combined in every hour from 6 a.m. to midnight in April.

That should not be surprising. Regardless of one’s politics, most people want to feel they are being exposed to all sides of an issue. That is one reason Newsmax.com has been so successful. With an average 4 million unique visitors a month, according to Nielsen Online, Newsmax is bigger than many news Web sites, including the Drudge Report. If ranked among the nation's top 10 newspaper Web sites, Newsmax would rank with leading brands such as The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. It is also one of the few Internet news sites to make a profit. Though it features conservative columnists and news angles that the rest of the media ignore, Newsmax prominently runs stories that are critical of Democrats and Republicans alike.

Still, most in the mainstream media pursue a double standard — as outlined in the Newsmax article "Media Ignore Obama’s Distortions" — and are in denial about their own bias.

Leonard Downie Jr., Brauchli’s predecessor as the Washington Post’s executive editor, used to say he is so nonpartisan that he doesn’t vote. Nor, he said, did he read Post editorials because he wanted to keep an “open mind.”

But, as detailed in my book, “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack,” Downie voted every day by presenting stories slanted against the Republican administration. Having been a Washington Post reporter from 1970 to 1985, I guarantee I would have been fired for writing the kind of dishonestly slanted stories that appeared in the Post until Brauchli took over.

Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, claimed to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz that he wants to make sure readers don’t perceive Newsweek, which the Washington Post Co. owns, as being “partisan.” Yet, as Kurtz wrote, the ideas Newsweek promotes in its columns “are mainly left of center.”

Why are so many media people blind to a major reason their industry is endangered? The same reason Detroit automakers are going under.

John Fitzgerald, president of Fitzgerald Auto Malls in Rockville, Md., says he pointed out to Detroit executives for decades that Consumer Reports’ ratings have a huge impact on what consumers buy. In the 1960s, General Motors and Chrysler represented 66 percent of Consumer Reports’ recommendations, he says, compared with just 14 percent in this decade. The April issue of Consumer Reports gave Honda and Toyota cars overall scores of 78 and 74, respectively, compared with 57 for General Motors and 48 for Chrysler.

Instead of improving the quality and reliability of their cars to compete with foreign autos, “Anybody from Detroit will tell you that Consumer Reports is biased against them,” Fitzgerald says. “They simply have this closed mind-set, and it’s gotten worse and worse.”

He adds, “If you don’t give the customer what they want, they don’t buy.”

The media business works the same way. The Washington Post and Fox News show that if journalists put out an honest product that engenders trust, the public will buy it.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
e-mail. Go here now.

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When media executives look at their shrinking audiences, they rarely attribute the decline to their liberal bias in covering the news. But recent developments at the Washington Post demonstrate that a return to fair coverage attracts readers. Since Katharine Weymouth became...
Monday, 01 June 2009 01:58 PM
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