Public Editor

‘Obama gift’ headline looked like bias to these readers

It isn’t hard to see how readers might see bias in this headline.
It isn’t hard to see how readers might see bias in this headline.

People often ask me what kind of critique — positive or negative — I hear most often about The Kansas City Star.

If we’re talking about the print edition, there’s no contest: Readers love to pick apart every aspect of Page 1A.

One might think a photo is too upsetting to be prominently displayed on the front page. Another may find a human-interest story too fluffy.

I know I will often hear kudos and calls for more of the same when the front page features a piece of serious enterprise journalism. That was the case with the three-part special investigation about firefighter safety that began on Dec. 8.

“This is what I take your paper for,” said one caller. “I wish you did something like this every single day.”

Readers’ judgment calls on what makes for front-page news are some of my favorite topics to discuss. There’s no single formula for how Page 1A should look or which topics it should broach, and I think most of us can agree to disagree when we differ on the mix.

Individuals’ opinions on these questions are often idiosyncratic, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But sometimes there’s a lot of reader agreement on a specific item, and I think that can be significant. A good example came on Saturday, Dec. 3.

The lead story across the top of the front page that day was a look at the state of the U.S. economy, primarily contrasting unemployment rates from the height of the Great Recession in 2008 with today’s.

The story itself, a wire piece from The New York Times, was actually rather nuanced. It noted that the jobless rate is at 4.6 percent and that wage growth is outpacing inflation, though it’s slowed.

But it also highlighted several caveats, devoting almost as much space to them as the positive metrics. For example, not enough new employees joined the the workforce to offset those who had quit looking and dropped out.

The story also looked at the “tens of millions of Americans (who) feel that the recovery has passed them by,” noting that many have settled for lower-paying jobs with irregular schedules that don’t compensate for well-paying manufacturing work that has disappeared.

I heard almost no fussing from readers about the story itself. But it was a totally different story when it came to the headline: “Obama handing gift of strong economy to Trump.”

“Read that out loud and tell me that’s a fair way of putting it,” said one voicemail.

“I’m not one of these people who’s always complaining about everything the news media does,” said one caller. “But how can anyone look at that headline and not say that The Star is being a homer for (Obama)?”

Said another, “I had a teacher who convinced me in school that economic conditions improve a lot more on their own in spite of what the government tries to do. Any president, no matter who it is, gets way too much credit for things going right, and also too much blame when things go wrong. Obama didn’t magically create better economics, and he sure didn’t do it all by himself.”

These are all good points, and I can’t imagine any fair-minded Democrat could dismiss them. The last point is especially powerful, and it applies to subjects far beyond the economy.

Presidents of the United States aren’t kings, and our culture doesn’t usually revere them as such — but individuals often do. You don’t have to look far to find people on both sides of the aisle who look to specific presidents as almost mythological figureheads: Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Reagan.

But we all need to remember our childhood civics lessons. No president operates in a vacuum. The legislative and judicial branches of the federal government are designed as counterbalances on one another, and all have their own effects on public policy.

We still refer to eras in our history by the name of the chief executive, but I still agree with those many reader voices who found fault in this particular headline.