Applause raises specter of bias


Convention: President Bush and John Kerry got very different receptions from minority journalists this week in Washington.

August 07, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Reactions to the two men who want to be president come January could not have been more dissimilar.

On one day, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry won standing ovations and warm cheers at a conference of minority journalists. On the next, President Bush received polite applause, some snickers and a heckler's rant from the same group.

The disparate responses to Bush and Kerry by a hall filled mostly with newspaper reporters, broadcasters, photographers and editors have raised the specter of press bias and partiality, with academicians, critics and journalists themselves condemning both reactions, raucous and rude, for putting the media in an unflattering light three months from Election Day.

A crowd, which filled roughly three-quarters of a 5,000-seat hall, applauded 18 times for Bush during his speech and a question-and-answer period yesterday morning, while a similar-size audience interrupted Kerry with applause on more than three dozen occasions on Thursday and rose to its feet in appreciation more than once. Derisive laughter greeted some of the president's answers to questions while conventioneers jockeyed to take photographs and shake hands with Kerry.

Both men came to address the Unity: Journalists of Color convention, a gathering of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American journalists. They faced a body that media polls and studies suggest leans liberal.

Bush began by acknowledging the need for diversity in the news media and announcing his interest in maintaining a "cordial and professional" relationship with the press.

Unity president Ernest R. Sotomayor said before Bush spoke that he wished for "a very courteous reception" to the president. The audience listened quietly throughout Bush's 26-minute stump speech, summarizing his administration's record on tort reform, Medicare, interest rates, racial profiling and minority-owned businesses.


The grumping and eye-rolling began in earnest during the question-and-answer session that followed. It reached a peak when Bush responded to a question from Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page editor Mark Trahant, a Native American, about resolving conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments.

"Tribal sovereignty means that it's sovereign," Bush said. "You're a - you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. And, therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities." His words elicited bursts of disparaging laughter from around the convention hall.

The same sounds arose when Bush declared: "We actually misnamed the war on terror, it ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world."

David Donald, training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, a professional organization, shook his head afterward.

"I was surprised," he said. "I think a journalist has to respond without taking sides."

Houston Chronicle suburban editor Pete McConnell, who listened to both Bush's and Kerry's speeches, also left the room disaffected by the experience.

"I was embarrassed," McConnell said. "I know who I'm going to vote for in November, but I didn't think we ought to be out there snickering and laughing and giving standing ovations. As a group, we should have kept ourselves in check."

Tim Graham, director of analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group based in Alexandria, Va., agreed. "I think it is embarrassing and disappointing," Graham said in a telephone interview. "Wasn't anybody thinking about how it would look from the outside?"

Thomas Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the very credibility of journalists is at stake when they shift from impartial observation to reactive participation.

"Journalists are citizens, and it's perfectly reasonable to have opinions and express them, but in this very heated election environment, I wonder if it was smart. From a public relations perspective, I don't know how wise it was," Kunkel said in a telephone interview.

Reporters typically tread lightly on civic ground, discouraged from contributing to political candidates and causes, from sporting partisan bumper stickers or candidate yard signs and, and from taking part in campaign events. Kunkel said that he teaches journalism students to "sit on their hands" at events they are covering so they record what happens without taking part in it.

Avoiding partisanship

"The key value here is professionalism," explained Bob Steele, a senior ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., "We should not allow ourselves to cross over the lights at the foot of the stage with partisan behavior."

Writing in a Web log after the speech, Congressional Quarterly reporter Isaiah J. Poole pointed out that opinion writers, public relations specialists, students and other non-journalists were among the 7,700 in attendance at Unity this week.

But Val Canez, a staff photographer for the Tucson Citizen, pulled out his voter registration card and pointed to his chosen affiliation to illustrate his displeasure.

"As a registered Republican, I tend to feel that a lot of journalists lean to the left wing and just don't take President Bush seriously," he said. "How people reacted today proved that for me."

For Graham, a former White House correspondent for an evangelical magazine, The World, the reaction raised a more troubling concern:

"I think it suggests to the average news viewer that they're going to have to be very conscious of the news they're consuming. In other words, is it coming from someone who just cheered Kerry? And if that matters to you, can you trust them?"

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