Booing Rove in the Newsroom: Reminds Me Of 1994...

August 19th, 2007 10:36 AM

All of the attention in the media in recent days over reports of cheers in the Seattle Times newsroom over Karl Rove leaving the White House, and boos in the MSNBC newsroom during a George W. Bush State of the Union speech, don't surprise me. I've seen this kind of naked and unprofessional expression of political bias against Republicans in a newsroom before.

My first job in a newspaper newsroom was in Abilene, Texas. I could not have told you what any one of my co-workers there thought about politics. Ditto for my second daily newspaper job, at the newspaper in Lubbock, Texas, and my third, at the newspaper in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Political bias was a little more on display at my fourth job, at a business weekly in Nashville, but nothing like what happened at the Tennessean on election night in 1994.

You'll recall that in 1994 the Republican Party swept to big gains nationally in House and Senate races and gubernatorial elections. In Tennessee, the GOP took the governor's chair held by a retiring Democrat, defeated a three-term Democratic incumbent U.S. Senator with a political novice named Bill Frist, and gave the highest statewide vote total in history to that point to one Fred Thompson to fill the last two years of the term of Al Gore Jr., who had had resigned his Senate seat to become Bill Clinton's vice president.

I was one of four people in the newsroom that night - just four! - who were happy about the election results. I knew how the other three felt because we communicated via the newsroom computer system our pleasure with each new bit of good news for the GOP.

The other three dozen or so reporters and editors working that night were very obviously crestfallen, upset, downcast and just plain not happy as CNN reported on GOP victory after another.

However, when CNN reported that Sen. Ted Kennedy had survived a tough challenge (from Mitt Romney, who went on to run the successful Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and then was elected as Massachusetts' governor, and now is running for the GOP presidential nomination), a loud and boisterous cheer went up in the newsroom.

The primary political leaning of the newsroom was evident: Democrat. Liberal, anti-Republican. No big deal, that - as long as they kept the bias out of the paper. But the tone for the paper's coverage had already been set in the last weeks of the campaign, when the paper ran the results of a poll in the Senate race between Bill Frist and 18-year-incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser, a poll that found some 18 percent of voters "undecided" with election day just two weeks away.

The paper described the race as "too close to call," - when an honest analysis of the poll would have said that high percentage of "undecided" voters indicated trouble for the incumbent. Almost nobody is undecided about a three-term incumbent that close to election day.

Was the race described as "too close to call," to depress the challengers' supporters and buck up the incumbent's? If so, it didn't work - Sasser lost in a landslide as virtually all of the late undecideds went for the challenger.

In hindsight, the paper should have seen that coming - big Republican gains were expected nationally, but The Tennessean circa 1994 simply didn't want to see it happen - and so they worked hard to try to prevent it.

In the waning days of the campaign, the paper printed a story implying that Frist was racist because a reporter on the campaign bus heard Frist say he didn't want to hand out pre-sharpened pencils out at a campaign stop in an inner city neighborhood because he might, as he put it, get "stuck." His fear: If the pencils are sharpened, I might jab myself on one.. The paper's spin: Frist was suggesting the African-American kids might use the pencils as weapons.

The paper's anti-Republican tone was on display again at the afternoon staff meeting on election day, when one of the paper's top editors - now retired - walked into the meeting with exit polling data and said this:

"It's worse than we feared."

Not, "It's a bigger landslide than was expected."

"It's worse than we feared."

Translation: the evil GOP is winning everything in sight.

And notice the all-inclusive "we," as if the editor believed his entire staff agreed with him that it was bad thing that the Republicans were winning. In truth, he was mostly right as most of them did.

(Full disclosure: I was not at that staff meeting but have confirmed with three newsroom staffers who were there, one of them a Democrat, that the statement was made. That's enough to pass the journalistic credibility test.)

A few days later, as the magnitude of the Republican sweep set in, one of the assistant editorial page editors told me they had decided to add a local conservative columnist to their staff. Up to then, their only conservative political columns were from nationally syndicated columnists.

And indeed they did add that new local conservative columnist to the staff - seven years later, in 2001. By then I had long since left the Tennessean and gone on to a successful freelance career and also had written more than 100 conservative political columns for two different local papers - a start-up weekly and a start-up daily.

While the Tennessean's editorial page editor did discuss with me the possibility of having me write a conservative political column for the paper - as I had experience writing conservative political commentary and had the connections and contacts and credibility in conservative circles to write it - they eventually gave the task to a columnist already on staff who admitted - in print - that he agreed with Republicans on only a few issues (fiscal conservatism, educational choice, to name two) but still agreed with Democrats 70 percent of the time.

They called the new column "Equal Time," an astonishing admission that the paper had not been giving conservative opinion equal coverage up to that point. But then they ghettoized the conservative opinions in a special once-a-week section, rather than feature them on the main op-ed page.

To Nashville's biggest daily newspaper in 2001, that was considered ideological balance in the opinion pages.

Me? I started a blog in 2001.

Fast-forward to 2007. The "Equal Time" column long ago ceased to exist. Most of the editors and reporters who were in the newsroom in 1994 and 2001 are no longer at the paper, so the political bias evident in 1994 and 2001 can't be assigned to the new regime.

And yet, the Tennessean currently does not employ a local conservative political columnist.

Should they ever decide to do so, the local conservative blogosphere has many good writers.