Everyone says this all the time: The Enquirer is biased towards Republicans and the Suburbs, and has a strong anti-city contempt. I tend to think the first two are very true, but the third less so, except with certain segments of the daily newspaper's staff. The main bias of all for profit media is in favor of controversy/sex/crime (anything that attracts eyeballs like a car wreck,) but that has become mostly a given in our popularity driven society. Being against the Streetcar has been an editorial stance of the Enquirer for a couple of years, so the Enquirer's bias in its coverage of that issue has long been a question.
If you buy all of that or not, you can't deny this week's clear smoking gun bias in the form of a Barry Hortsman article entitled Poll: residents oppose both streetcar and ballot. Please note that headline. It is where the core of the bias lies.
In case you missed the news last week, a poll was sent to the Enquirer from Chris Finney, Mr. Anti-Cincinnati and fearless leader of the anti-Cincinnati group, COAST. That poll was conducted by Republican Paul M. Fallon. I say he's a Republican because it was something brought up by Twitter posts and CityBeat's reporting, but not something you read in Hortsman's article.
Where the bias lies is in the headline. This poll was conducted County wide. Yes, county wide. The term used by the Eqnuirer in the headline is "residents." I didn't know the Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati were synonymous How can they not be lying? Well, that is where the bias happens. Hortsman focuses in on the number of City Residents included in a poll, a number which is a subset of the poll, something we might call an internal. How do you trust a poll that is created on a county wide basis, then adjusted for a city only topic and consider that to be good polling? Well, you do it when it provides you with an answer you want, which is why Chris Finney pitched the news story and the Enquirer took it. There is more, howerever.
The story linked above was posted at 8:52 PM on February 10th, 2011. The first story about the poll was actually first written for the Enquirer's politics blog with a headline that read "A new streetcar survey," which was published at 10:17 AM on February 10th, 2011. That blog post was updated once at 12:15 PM with more information clarifying some of the reports from Fallon's survey.
So, the initial gut of Carl Weiser (the author of the blog post) wasn't to spin the story, it was to be honest. Carl knows where he got the press release from, Chris Finney, and in the blog post rightfully reports that Finney is an "anti-streetcar activist. I'm also betting that Weiser knows of Paul Fallon as a Republican pollster, which I'm also surmising tempered the headline of the blog post. I think Carl Weiser is a good journalist and I think his coverage, for a Republican newspaper, is fair, within reason at least. That's why I think that headline on the blog post appears the way it did. Something didn't smell right about the poll, and Carl knew it.
Eight hours later we get a snow job. I don't know who gets the blame more, Barry Hortsman himself or his editors, but we get a biased and knowingly misleading headline and article. Eight hours later is plenty of time for Barry to do a Google search on Fallon and read this profile (read the right sidebar) to learn he was director of public opinion research for the Ohio Republican Party. It also doesn't take five minutes for a green reporter to know that you are going to get a Republican conclusion from a Republican pollster. Hortsman knows that the Hamilton County Republican Party is against the Streetcar. So, putting two and two together shouldn't have been too much to do in eight hours. So, does that leave laziness as the cause instead of bias? I'm not going to say lazy, although in a time crunched reporter's life, that often is a big problem. Instead, I lay this at the feat of Hortsman's bias and/or the bias of his editors. I don't know if Carl Weiser is his editor, but I'm going to guess no, based on the variation in how this poll was presented over an eight hour period.
Headlines, in case you forget, are very important in the news media. A large portion of readers only read a scant few articles, but read all of the headlines. They draw conclusions based on those headlines. In this case a false conclusion would be reached by anyone reading the Hortsman article's headline. Further false conclusions would be drawn from the article it self, lacking any context as to the source of the poll and back ground of the pollster. Not determining why this poll was conducted was the most damning element not to include. Are we supposed to honestly believe the pollster wanted to throw this in for the hell of it? He took the time to write up a press release because it seemed like a good thing to do? Yes, and I have deal on the Suspension Bridge that you just can't pass up.
I sent a request to Barry Hortsman for comment and answers to a list of questions relating to this story early Friday morning. I copied all of the editors I believed would have been responsible for his work. As of the publishing of this post, I received no response, except that one of the editors was out of the office.
I don't expect the Enquirer to be perfect. I do expect them to try and be fair and not do something so obviously biased. Instead, Hortsman should never have written the story. Weiser's blog post was enough. Instead the article likely reached the print edition and mislead a much wider audience.
At this point everything Hortsman writes has to be second guessed. I wouldn't trust him getting a 'dog bites man' story right, let alone the streetcar. The new editor of paper, Carolyn Washburn, should take the time to think about reassigning who ever is responsible for this biased article. If the blame lies at hers or her boss's feet, then I'll be making a habit of this type of blog post.
Additional info from WLWT, which has the press release generated from Fallon Research.