Since its inception, the Fox News Network has promoted itself with the Orwellian phrase, “Fair and Balanced,” while being so far from either as to defy credulity. However bad Faux News is, it is at least kept in check by any number of other voices in the media. In Alabama, we are less fortunate, as media ownership is far more concentrated, especially in the print realm. The three newspapers owned by the Newhouse family - The Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register, and The Huntsville Times - are not only the three largest newspapers in Alabama; their combined circulation exceeds that of the other twenty-one daily newspapers in Alabama combined. When a media group with that much market power all gets on the same page of the editorial hymnbook, there’s not only temptation for questionable journalistic calls; there is a real danger of the political process becoming skewered in the direction of the dominant media source.
Once upon a time, if The Birmingham News got out of line, the Birmingham Post-Herald was there to offer a contrary perspective. Likewise with The Huntsville News, and the historically Democratic Decatur Daily used to circulate more widely in Huntsville. (Things were less helpful in Mobile, where the Mobile Press and Mobile Register were co-owned by Newhouse even before their 1997 consolidation.) Even in the absence of alternate news sources from the Internet, these correctives kept a significant number of voters aware of alternate perspectives and narratives. But we now live in the age of the one-newspaper town.
This dominant position by one news source has had a serious impact on the events of the last week, and on Alabama politics of the last decade in particular. The coverage of the current indictment of legislators and gaming-industry lobbyists and executives has overlooked one critical point. If not for the efforts of Republican Governor Bob Riley, and those of the GOP Legislative leadership in his hip pocket, there would have been no need for the gaming industry to go all-out in an effort to secure something as simple as the people’s right to vote on the issue. There is certainly reason to believe that Riley has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars of bribes, er, contributions, from out of state gambling interests, most notably the operators of Mississippi Choctaw casinos. This, of course, would give Riley all the incentive he needs to repay his political (and maybe financial) debts to the Choctaw casinos. The first leak of links between Riley and out-of-state gambling interests came in Congressional hearings in 2005, in which sworn testimony was given before a Congressional committee that the Choctaw had pumped $13,000,000 into Alabama to buy Bob Riley a house on South Perry Street.
This year, as Bush-appointed, and Obama-not-yet-fired U.S. Attorney Leura Canary continued her partisan witch hunt of Democrats, Bill Johnson, a former Riley cabinet member who was running for governor, asked to testify to the same grand jury that eventually produced last week’s indictment. He wanted to testify about the other side of the coin: Riley’s receipt of that Choctaw money. Johnson’s letter to Canary was specific enough to make any non-corrupt prosecutor drool:
Bill Johnson Canary Letter
Canary - whose husband managed Riley’s campaigns - refused to allow the grand jury to hear Johnson. In a normal world - say, New York or Minnesota or California - such an accusation about a sitting governor would set off a media feeding frenzy. (And did in Alabama, when that governor’s name was “Siegelman” and he had a “D” before his name.) But Alabama eschews normalcy. In order to determine how one-sided the coverage of gambling influence has been among the three Newhouse newspapers, I did a quantitative analysis. Beginning on the date of this post, I went back two years, in each of the three Newhouse outlets. I did a count of the number of stories that contained the words “Riley” and “Choctaw” in the same paragraph; and of those that contained the words “Democrat,” “Democrats,” or “Democratic” within the same paragraph as any of the words “investigate,” “investigation,” “indict,” “indicted,” or “indictment.” I performed the search on a library LEXIS account, as LEXIS allows root-expansion and proximity-restriction search parameters that are not available on Google, or the Newhouse internal search engine. The results pretty much speak for themselves:
|Newspaper||“Riley” in same paragraph as “Choctaw”*||“Democrat/s/ic” in same paragraph as “indict/ed/ment” or “investigat-/e/ion”|
I may have to apologize to Fox News. Even they aren’t that one-sided in their coverage. I should point out that many of the handful of Riley-Choctaw hits were in letters to the editor or online comment hits - not on more widely-read front page stories, as most of the Democratic hits were. The Mobile Press-Register has not mentioned the Riley-Choctaw connection since April 10, 2010, even in any published letter to the editor. From the perspective of a political professional, this sort of coverage is nonexistent. A thorough reader of The Birmingham News is going to see one Riley-Choctaw reference every other month. That kind of repetition is not going to move voters away from Riley and the Republicans.
The implications for this kind of lopsided, biased emphasis are obvious. It’s not surprising that many Alabamians - who don’t have the time to dig for the truth - think the Democratic Party is corrupt, and the Republicans, including Bob Riley, are reformers riding white horses up Dexter Avenue to clean the State House of wickedness. Take the modest example of the front page of last Tuesday’s Press-Register, shown on the left. You will note it even has a story showing Bob Riley trumpeting his moral disgust at the evils of gambling. He should know. As Democrats, we don’t have the Choctaw money, and when we try to exercise our First Amendment rights to receive contributions from the other side of that fight, it’s a “bribe” and everyone gets indicted. All I can counsel for now is to stay mad, and do what we can to get even. One way to vent some steam this weekend would be to write letters to the editors of Alabama newspapers (even the Newhouse ones!) demanding to know why there isn’t more investigation - and coverage - of the Riley-Choctaw connection. The IT folks at the Alabama Democratic Party have put up a useful page here, which allows you to email your letters to the editor. Just remember to take an extra moment, to email each paper its own copy of a letter. Editors will deep-six a letter with a string of addresses of other papers. Knock on doors, and talk about Riley and Choctaws at every opportunity - canvassing, in the coffee shop, over the church lunch, wherever. A little paid TV about Johnson’s spurned testimony might not hurt, either. The TV newscasts might be embarrassed enough to cover it if ads during their programs keep mentioning it. In the long run, there is always the free market. I have always wondered why, if The Cullman Times can at least break even with 10,363 weekday readers, a daily in Birmingham couldn’t. It can’t cost that much to cover the Courthouse, City Hall, wrecks and murders, and keep one good reporter in Montgomery. And if a Birmingham paper (with a semi-decent web presence) scooped the News on a Riley corruption story, or something similar, the circulation gap would close quickly. If that doesn’t work, there are other solutions to market dominance available.
Before anyone posts a comment, yes, I know that we live in an online age, and a thousand journalistic flowers bloom online. But the fact remains, most Alabamians get their news from print or broadcast. And even those who do venture online tend to get their state and local news from al.com, the online presence of the Newhouse newspapers. The better “inside baseball” sources like Doc’s Political Parlor and Home of Lawn Mower Repair, and the tenacious Democratic/progressive sites like Legal Schnauzer and the Locust Fork News, just don’t have the page views that the mass media sites do. (Not that this blog does, either, but I’m not writing for a mass audience.)
* I do want to note that the numbers for “Riley”-“Choctaw” are less than the raw number of hits. However, I omitted those stories (about half the raw hits) that made the list by containing a reference to Choctaw County, Alabama, not the Indian tribe peddling influence in Alabama.