They’ll get Gene Lyons out of my newspaper when they pry his column from my cold dead fingers.
Well, OK, I’m not exactly sure I’d lay down my life for Lyons, and I’ve never thought of The Evening Sun as my newspaper. But the propriety of continuing to run Lyons in this newspaper despite some reader complaints is one of those metaphorical hills I’d die on in the name of free speech.
At the same time, however, I think I have a better idea why some might think this newspaper unfairly favors Lyons and other liberals.
But I get ahead of myself. Let me explain.
A couple of weeks ago a reader called to complain about Lyons’ pro-Obama bias. I replied that it wasn’t the job of newspaper opinion columnists to be neutral. And while I agreed our readership is probably largely conservative, that doesn’t mean the op-ed page should be as well. I think we ought to have a balanced diversity of opinion on the opinion page, I told him.
I also invited him to write a letter to the editor, which he subsequently did. I appreciate his taking the time to write to express his opinion and hope it stimulates further dialogue.
Just a couple of days later, at our annual town meeting with television station WGAL, a reader complained about the anti-GOP bias of our editorial cartoons. I told that reader I had done some quick analysis of a couple of weeks’ worth of opinion pages a few years back in response to similar complaints, and found the page was dead even in terms of liberal and conservative opinion.
But maybe it was time for another quantitative look at our op-ed pages, I said, promising to report the results in this column.
Since then, I’ve gotten a couple more complaints and one cancellation over Lyons, a centrist Arkansas editor whose column has run for years in The Evening Sun without complaints. Must be election season, and a particularly nasty one at that. Certainly, Lyons has been getting more strident this year, though that’s no different than many on either side in this especially nasty, divisive presidential race.
But what I did find when I looked at the 30 days of opinion pages from Aug. 19 to Sept. 17 is that the headlines from Lyons’ column really do jump out at the reader. That’s because the column, which regularly runs on Wednesdays, runs across the top of the page and recent headlines like “Too many lies about Obamacare” and “Paul Ryan doesn’t need facts” get maximum reader attention. A Kathryn Lopez column, headlined “An ugly, up close look at Dems,” did run in the same page position. But three Lyons columns in that slot, coupled with two by Steve and Cokie Roberts, might have suggested to some a slant to the left.
On Thursdays, when we run conservative columnist Rich Lowry at the top of the page, we also push the cartoon to the top to make room for a pro-and-con feature below it. That means the headline for Lowry’s column is in a single column on the right of the page and isn’t quite so noticeable.
I suppose that could be seen as evidence of bias, but I promise you it has more to do with the logic of column lengths and page layout than it does with political preferences. Still, we do try to pay attention to the placement of campaign stories on news pages so as not to give the impression of bias, and I’ll talk to the editorial page editor about these issues.
Overall, I think the page editor continues to do a fine job presenting a diversity of views on the editorial page. Of the 30 political cartoons I looked at, 11 were anti-Obama or made fun of Democrats, mostly on economic issues. Only seven made fun of Republicans, and 12 were neutral or were critical of both political parties.
Columns, on the other hand, tilted slightly the other way. I counted 17 I would consider pro-Democrat or anti-Republican and 14 that took the opposite view. Another 36 columns were neutral, took a “pox on both your houses” position, or dealt with subjects other than politics.
Letters to the editor, on the other hand, were solidly pro GOP, with 12 in support of Republicans and just two favoring the Democrats. Those didn’t include any 150-word endorsement letters, only discussions of national politics. This election season, The Evening Sun has decided to continue to allow 400-word letters on presidential politics and readers appear to be taking advantage of that opportunity. Another 15 letters dealt with subjects other than politics.
One more number worth reporting: Of the 30 editorials — the opinion piece down the left side of the page that reflects the views of the newspaper itself — five reflected likely Democratic positions. Four of those dealt with health care reform, which I support, or Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, which I oppose.
However, I have to personally disagree with one editorial we ran, by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which jumped all over questionable claims in a Romney ad — all without a peep about Obama’s own attack ads.
Democrats have tried to make an issue of corporate-funded campaign ads, but I believe the answer to speech we disagree with is always more speech, never censorship.
I’ve long disagreed with liberals who whine about the other guy’s attack ads without taking responsibility for their own. And that’s why I plan on keeping Gene Lyons’ column. I think the rules ought to cut both ways.
Marc Charisse is editor of The Evening Sun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @esmcharisse