Letter to the Editor: Is ‘The Houstonian’ Biased?

I would like some verification.

I was rather annoyed on Tuesday to discover a disturbing pattern in the articles printed in the Houstonian. There was one notice on the front page about the Democratic primaries, two items on the viewpoints page about the Democratic party/candidates, and one article on page six about the Democratic race and candidates (top of the page, large headlines, six columns, with a 3 x 3 picture.) The only article that mentioned the existence of a second party was on page six, tucked under the Democratic campaign article, with medium-sized headlines, three columns of text, and a 1 x 1 accompanying photo.

Must the Houstonian give equal time, space and visual prominence to both parties? I think it would be nice, yet failure to do so wouldn’t necessarily prove biased reporting.

This, however, was less than subtle.

The subject of the one article about a republican was also odd. It was a very objective compilation of facts about one of the candidates, John McCain, which in and of itself was informative and innocent, except that it neglected the existence of a race and the two other major candidates. When confronted with the limited scope of the article, the news editor justified the choice by telling me that Mike Huckabee had no statistical possibility of winning after McCain’s win Tuesday night. Yet I can’t help noting that that issue was printed and distributed Tuesday morning. Was either of the other major republican candidates likely to win as of Tuesday morning? It was quite improbable, but concluding races before the votes are in is a dangerous and presumptuous cultural habit to build.

That was an understandable mistake to make, so let us draw no conclusions from that incident if it is alone.

The primary offence lay in the article (or notice) on the front page, the headline for which read, “Polls for Dem Primary open Tuesday at 7 a.m.” The first line of text read, ” “I voted” stickers will be the trend for the day as Texas residents make their way to the polls and cast their vote in the Democratic primary election today.” (All emphases are in the original.) For those who don’t follow such things, there are two major political parties in the United States, and both the Democrats and the Republicans held their primaries Tuesday. Why was one party so obviously encouraged to vote while the other was conspicuously unmentioned? When I pointed this discrepancy to the [news] editor, she replied (and I must paraphrase, because I do not recall her exact words) that she intended to indicate that the Democratic precinct caucuses were to occur that day. When I pointed out that the Republican precinct caucuses occurred at the same time, she had no reply for me.

I wish now to add two additional points. First, the article was twice specific about the subject: primary elections. Second, the caucuses began at 7:20 p.m. while the article mentioned elections at 7 a.m.

The implicit messages conveyed by this are alarming. (For some. I suppose that many won’t mind them at all.) The implication is that the Houstonian is a one-party newspaper, and since the Houstonian is the only printed news source representing Sam Houston State University (that I am aware of), the broader implication is that it serves a single-party campus. I somehow doubt this.

A second series of implications runs like this:

A school newspaper serves the interests of educated, intelligent students (in theory).

The Houstonian, in serving the interests of SHSU students, prints news primarily about the Democratic party. (Try a comparative count of articles in the Houstonian regarding the two races this semester.)

Conclusion: Educated, intelligent students are interested in the Democratic party.

What does this imply about people who vote Republican? It’s not very complementary.

This is obviously not a logically valid argument. You probably couldn’t find a serious-minded person who would be willing to assert this. The problem is that it will not be evaluated by readers at all, because even if they consciously notice any of the premises, it is not presented in the form of an argument. For that reason it is, intentionally or accidentally, quite rhetorically effective.

A final point will bring me to my conclusion.

When I pointed out to the editor that the disproportionate treatment of the parties looked like a political endorsement, she told me (and again I paraphrase) that the Houstonian, for reasons I did not hear or do not remember, is in fact allowed to endorse a particular candidate. She also wondered about the wisdom of not making that endorsement earlier, but assured me that they intend to in Thursday’s issue. (I ought to admit here that throughout our conversation, the [news] editor retained a pleasant, professional demeanor in the face of an unpleasant person making accusations against her work.)

In contrast to this, in Tuesday’s paper, at the bottom of page six (the only page this semester, I believe, that treats both political parties), there is a notice or announcement in various fonts which reads as follows: “The Spin Zone: As a newspaper, we can’t have an opinion, except here. Voting is important. Do it. Today. Thanks, the Houstonian.”

I was told once by a journalism major at Sam Houston that the textbooks used in our journalism department declared the journalistic profession to be the fourth branch of government in our nation, whose purpose was to form public opinion and shape policy. I dearly wish I had a copy of that textbook so I could cite it as proof, because it seems to me almost unbelievable.

Now we arrive at my original request for verification. Is the Houstonian’s purpose to inform us objectively of the news in the community, nation and world, or is it a more flexible, rhetorical purpose, or is it something else that I don’t yet understand?

What do your textbooks say about the purpose and goals of journalism?

-Samuel Unger


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