A story on the front page of The Kansas City Star last August carried the headline “The End of the Middle,” looking at what many experts believe is a period of extreme polarization in the country’s politics. As we wrap up the 2012 election season, I’ve found that reader feedback about how the paper has covered the races has reflected that division.
By DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
For example, I heard diametrically opposed reactions to the Nov. 7 front page, which was dominated by a photograph of the Obama family over the headline “Four More Years.”
“I’m so glad to see The Star honoring the president in this way,” said one caller.
Another Obama supporter pronounced the headline “too matter-of-fact,” wishing it had been more celebratory. “At least (editors) got all four of them out there this time,” she said, recalling that in The Star’s Nov. 5, 2008, front page photo choice, Malia Obama appeared to be omitted. In reality, she was standing behind her father.
I also heard from conservatives who perceived bias in the design of the page. As an ironic twist on my previous caller’s criticism, one self-identified Romney voter said he wished the headline had been “ more matter-of-fact,” suggesting “Obama re-elected” would be less “like a slogan.”
One of the most interesting aspects to me about these widely different interpretations of the same material is something readers have pointed to themselves this time more often than in previous elections: I’m hearing increasingly from readers who freely admit that their personal beliefs about current events shape their perception of how the news is covered.
“I’m not going to lie to you — conservatives are frustrated,” a caller said. “We’re angry. We all know what happened, but it doesn’t help when we see (Democrats) and the media rubbing it in.”
Another recent caller was even more candid. He thinks the paper does an evenhanded job generally, but said he’s been turning more often to ideological sources for his news.
In particular, he watches Fox News because of its open politicization of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. He wanted The Star to publish more from critics alleging the Obama administration hadn’t done enough to safeguard the facility and its staff.
“Of course I want (The Star) to hammer on it every day because I am a proud right-wing conservative,” he told me. “…This is something that needs to be out there every day before the election.”
Now obviously Obama supporters would perceive bias if The Star took that tack, particularly in the news sections. (A side note: I’ve heard from dozens of readers that The Star hasn’t printed a single word about the attack. That’s a gross exaggeration, as my count shows more than 100 stories, columns and cartoons with some reference to it, though it’s fair to question whether it has been front and center enough.)
Readers have also offered radically different takes on how The Star reported Missouri’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Claire McCaskill and challenger Todd Akin, whose controversial comments about rape made headlines literally around the world.
“Akin is a bonehead, but The Star is really overdoing it,” said one caller.
“You should print that ‘legitimate rape’ thing on your front page every day till the election,” said another. How’s that for a difference of opinion?
In the end, the pattern I’ve always seen held true this year: Conservatives have generally said The Star is biased toward the left, though when I discuss specifics with them, it’s becoming more common for them to acknowledge their objections are to the editorial board’s recommendations rather than to news coverage.
That’s not to say The Star’s news operation always hits a neutral tone. I continue to look to your calls there.
To reach Derek Donovan, call weekday mornings at 816-234-4487 or send email to email@example.com