Of anniversaries and axes to grind

Certain dates and events bring with them increased scrutiny from various cadres in our readership. Editors whose job it is to assign coverage and space in the newspaper, and deal with reader comments afterward, know these dates well.

It is not that any particular news is anticipated, or typically occurs, on these occasions — but they carry with them a widespread expectation that their historical impact will be underscored in the newspaper each year.

Primary among these is Dec. 7. Every American is aware of that date and its significance, but woe to the newspaper (and its reader representative) that doesn’t carry a prominent story on the anniversary of the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and one the following day reporting on the commemorative ceremonies that took place.

Another is June 6 — the anniversary of D-Day. Then there are June 14 (Flag Day) and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day), May 8 (V-E Day) and Aug. 15 (V-J Day, which marked the end of World War II). Sept. 11, certainly, and many religious holidays also fall into the must-recognize category.

But those are the easy ones.

The fourth week of January annually arrives with similar expectations from a fair number of our readers, and a dicier decision to make. It encompasses Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal nationwide. Each year during this time, a large group of abortion opponents gathers on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and marches en masse to the Supreme Court building to register its displeasure with the ruling and demand that it be overturned.

And the next day, the people to whom this issue is important cast a critical eye on their newspaper to see how it handled the story.

Too often in the past, the march’s supporters have been disappointed in what they found in The Plain Dealer. In recent years, the paper has often acknowledged the event with only a paragraph or two in the national briefs. Two years ago, the march didn’t even get that, raising suspicions among some that the editors were managing the coverage according to their own political agendas.

It was left to the reader representative to explain why.

I explained that there was no reasonable explanation. True enough, the march produces no news. It is the same every year, with the same speeches, the same goals and the same frustrations for the marchers. But the abortion issue is an important part of how many people define themselves and their values, and a lot of them look to the newspaper to acknowledge the anniversary and their continuing crusade against abortion. These readers, I wrote, ought to be able to see themselves and what they care about reflected in their hometown paper.

So last Tuesday, the day after the 38th March for Life in the nation’s capital, I peered at my morning paper through spread fingers. And I was pleased to see that the march was covered appropriately, with a straightforward 10-inch story from The Washington Post on page A2, along with a color photo. A brief in the Page One news rail told readers where to find it.

For once, I thought, there would be no complaints.

So it was with an acute sense of irony that I read a letter that arrived the next day:

“I often wish The Plain Dealer would be more candid about the biases held by its writers, editors and wire services,” the man wrote. “And yet, you chose to devote a full 10 column inches to this story, with a large color photograph for added emphasis. . . . We are left to wonder if you are harboring an anti-choice bias on the issue of legalized abortion, when you invest such prominent coverage in an event as seemingly small as this.”

Many people who have written or called over the years, disappointed with the coverage the march has gotten, would find the notion of The Plain Dealer as a haven for anti-choice bias to be laughable.

And that’s the point.

So many people see bias in news decisions where there is merely an attempt to give a fair account of what is going on. The editors who selected Tuesday’s story and photo were no more guilty of bias than were the ones who decided that the march wasn’t worth any report at all two years ago.

It was simply a difference in news judgment — and, perhaps the competition from whatever else was going on in the world that day.

Stories are not selected, given certain play or withheld to advance an agenda. Choices are made to give readers information and reflect their world — including the issues about which they are passionate.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Jan. 30, 2011.

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