The pro-Karen Handel guest column by Chuck Berk in last week’s AJT sparked quite a reaction, some of which you can read on the next page. The uproar brought two things to mind.
Early in my journalism career I was the beat reporter for the city of Paterson, N.J., which meant I spent a lot of time covering the mayor, Bill Pascrell. He was a big-city, Northeastern, Catholic, old-school liberal. I wasn’t.
In 1996, several years after I escaped New Jersey, Pascrell was elected to Congress against a Republican who had won office in 1994 as part of New Gingrich’s “Contract With America” wave. I would have voted for Pascrell if given the chance for two reasons: He was devoted to the people of his district, and he reflected their political preferences.
(Pascrell, now 80, is still in the House, where in April he organized a bipartisan letter calling for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to be expanded from $20 million to $50 million a year to help protect Jewish institutions.)
After New Jersey, I worked for The Washington Times. We competed with The Washington Post, whose executive editor was Len Downie. Among other things, Downie was famous for never voting. He said he didn’t want to give himself a rooting interest in any election, lest he tilt the Post’s coverage.
Downie was an incredibly successful newspaper editor, but his approach to elections was silly. You can’t separate yourself from the world and still edit a newspaper for and about that world, and once you engage with the world, you’re going to have biases, regardless of whether you act on them at a polling place.
Speaking of biases: Berk’s column ran a week after Steve Oppenheimer’s column making the case for Jon Ossoff, which inspired one letter and no comments on our website. The pro-Handel column, however, produced 30-plus comments on our website, a couple of dozen letters and outrage across social media.
Some of the reaction came from a misreading of Berk’s article, which some people thought was either an unbalanced news article or the newspaper’s endorsement of Handel. But even people who understood that it was one person’s opinion were furious.
One letter writer expressed a sincere belief in the First Amendment — but not for something as outrageous as Berk’s column, which combined a positive spin on Handel’s career with a negative reading of Democratic support for Israel. Areas for disagreement, sure, but fury?
Assuming that liberals and Democrats are no more likely than conservatives and Republicans to go crazy over politics, I’m afraid that the disproportionate reactions indicate something bad about the AJT: Too many people perceive political biases in the paper based on the ownership, my editorship or things we have published.
Once such perceptions are in place, they’re almost impossible to change. If you expect to find bias, you’ll see it everywhere, and you won’t notice anything countering your belief.
This newspaper is the work of flawed humans who see the world subjectively. We try our best to counter any biases, and we are most vigilant on politics. Just remember when you see something you think reflects our biases that you’re also viewing it through a subjective lens.
All the articles come through me, of course, and I reject Downie’s no-voting approach. But just because I voted for one of the eliminated Republicans on April 18 doesn’t mean I’m voting for or rooting for Handel on June 20.
I’m undecided, based on the same two criteria that would favor Pascrell in northern New Jersey and my fondness for some compromise-forcing gridlock in government. But my eventual pick of a candidate won’t change how we report the news or choose opinion pieces — believe it or not.