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Thursday, July 21, 2005 03:44 pm

Sticks and stones

Catching up on some light reading, I tripped over a piece about our presidential museum in the Weekly Standard, Rupert Murdoch’s answer to political magazines such as The Nation and the New Republic.

Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at the magazine, gauged reaction to the museum, focusing on Springfield’s response to Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin’s negative take.

Ferguson mentioned the coverage in the State Journal-Register and quoted from Dusty Rhodes’ Illinois Times column on the controversy. Quoting Rhodes is no surprise — her stuff is worth reading and repeating. What was a surprise was that Ferguson characterized this newspaper as a “reliably left-wing” alternative weekly.

Good grief — another dreaded L-word: If we’re not liberals, we’re leftists.

I wonder which story clued Ferguson in to our ideological proclivities: Our cover feature about alpaca farming? The profile of an up-and- coming jockey? The sympathetic portrait of two young Iraq War veterans? Was it our account of the ouster of Illinois Symphony choral director Marion van der Loo?

And why didn’t Ferguson call the Trib “reliably conservative”? Or the SJ-R “reliably dull”?

Not that I’m upset or anything: In the 20-odd years I’ve worked in newspapers, I’ve reported for business weeklies and Southern dailies and served as an editor at a weekly where the reigning ideology is sex, drugs, and rock & roll. In that time — which roughly corresponds with the ascendancy of the conservative movement, led by Ronald Reagan — journalists have become punching bags for doing what they’re supposed to do: ask questions, report facts, tell folks what’s new.

No matter how conservative the newspaper that employed me, there was always somebody complaining that the paper was too liberal. Somehow, in America these days, if you’re a journalist and you’re doing your job well, you’re intrusive and unpatriotic.

So many news organizations have internalized this criticism that they do everything and anything to beat overt or apparent bias out of their subordinates, preferring to employ empty vessels or ciphers instead of real human beings. At least one respected media company has directed its writers not to sign a petition in support of jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Journalists biased in favor of journalism — the horror!

Here’s a measure of how silly this has become: Corporation for Public Broadcasting chairman Kenneth Tomlinson last year gave his buddy a contract to monitor PBS programming, including NOW, a decent news-magazine show that doesn’t do too well in the ratings. The program, until last year, was hosted by respected journalist Bill Moyers.

Tomlinson’s pal watched Moyers’ show, and categorized the guests and topics as liberal or conservative. What I don’t get — and Moyers has made this point repeatedly — is why CPB chairman Tomlinson had to award a no-bid contract worth $14,170 to have someone watch television for him and prepare a report that confirmed his preconceptions.

Moyers has been a national figure since the 1960s, when he was LBJ’s press secretary. His anger at Tomlinson has been headline news across the country. As it turns out, Moyers wasn’t the only target of scrutiny. Tomlinson’s researcher was scrutinizing other public-broadcasting programming, too, including the now-defunct Tavis Smiley Show on National Public Radio. As was the case with NOW, guests and topics were categorized as liberal or conservative. One of Smiley’s guests was — drum roll, please — Illinois Times reporter Dusty Rhodes, who appeared last year on his program, talking about the case of former Springfield cop Renatta Frazier.

I was thinking about requesting a copy of the report — perhaps it’d help me figure out Rhodes’ politics. She seems awfully conservative, this minister’s daughter with her two kids, minivan, and mortgage. But maybe she’s a closet Maoist or something.

Truth is, I really don’t care. Whatever her political opinions are, Rhodes keeps them to herself. Like most good journalists I know, she’s all about finding out what’s really going on, giving folks a complete and accurate account, and not taking short cuts such as resorting to name-calling.

Of course, there’s a guy at the Weekly Standard who probably has her pegged as “reliably left-wing.”

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