John Carroll is the editor of The Los Angeles Times. On May 22, he sent a memo to all of his section editors. It is an extraordinary document, and the website www.laobserved.com was the first to make it available to the public.
Carroll’s subject was liberal bias in the paper. The specific target of his concern was a biased report on a “bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.” Carroll ripped his paper’s coverage of that particular bill, but his broader points are much more important.
“I’m concerned about the perception – and the occasional reality – that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper,” he began. “Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right.”
By combining an admission with a denial, Carroll undermines his own effort, for if he cannot see the depth of the paper’s problems, how can he be counted on to rectify them? But still, it is a start, and his pledge is what matters most. The pledge came toward the close of his memo:
“The reason I’m sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.”
If Carroll pursues this goal, the Times would change radically and rapidly. If he were to review the coverage of the campaign of 2002, for example, and ask if California was well-served by its coverage of the unGovernor, Gray Davis, that would be a huge plus as the paper prepares to cover the effort to recall Gov. Clouseau.
Carroll’s commitment, if honored, would also require new approaches on the environmental beat and on reporting relating to Israel. The anti-Bush snideness that suffuses so much of the paper would be banned, and the op-ed page would dismiss the nutty Bob Scheer and the erratic Arianna Huffington in favor of any of the city’s young talents.
But mostly it would take simple attention to fairness. Most reporters refuse to declare an allegiance to either major political party, and most won’t even identify their general political leanings. But it is not difficult to peg folks on the spectrum of left to right. Common sense and a few serious conversations provide a sound basis for such judgments, and even if a few such judgments turn out to be false, most will be reasonable.
If Carroll made a list of his news and editorial staff, and then made guesses as to each individual’s political leanings – very left, left, center, right, very right – he would have a tally that tilted way left of center. That is the fundamental problem. And if he really meant what he wrote, he will have to work hard to diversify his newsroom along ideological lines.
I doubt he has the resolve to undertake such thoroughgoing reform, but we will see. In the meantime, clip and save his pledge. When next you spot bias in the paper, e-mail your comments to Carroll at email@example.com and at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to quote the pledge when you do so.