Albion Monitor

"Are all of those newspapers just from today?" A visiting friend recently asked, gawking at the four inch-thick heap o' newsprint on my desk. "Yup," I replied. "Every day I read the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Santa Rosa Press Democrat."

She looked at me curiously, as if wondering if I might be a tad eccentric. "But aren't they mostly the same? I mean, it's identical news."

Er... no. The coverage in these newspapers is so different that I sometimes check the date to make sure I'm reading about the same day. Sometimes it's so wildly different that I wonder if all three are even reporting on events from the same planet.

Big news stories are the exception, of course. There's only so much spin that an editor can put on events like the recent transfer of Hong Kong; frequently those stories are the same, with all three newspapers reprinting an AP or NY Times byline. But to contrast usual coverage, let's look just at a couple of stories from an "average" news day, June 25, 1997.

Most prominent in the news that Wednesday was an Air Force report debunking UFOs, accompanied by pictures of mannequins supposedly mistaken for aliens. The newly-available photographs were the meat of the story, and on the front page of both the Chronicle and Press Democrat (let's call them the "Chron" and "P-D," respectively) was a snapshot of two soldiers clowning with one of the crash dummies. The Times, however, used a different photo; at first glance, it appeared to show a row of lynched men hanging from ropes, or maybe impaled on butcher shop meat hooks. That picture probably made many readers gasp -- it certainly shocked me, at first.

Which newspaper did the best job? No question: The New York Times. That "hanging man" photo did more to debunk the flying saucer myth than a thousand Air Force denials. The dimly-lit picture made it easy to understand how someone could mistake these dummies for something unhuman. By contrast, the snapshot with the two soldiers, taken with a flash, emphasized the mannequin's featureless face; conspiracy-minded folk will surely use it as more evidence of a cover-up, claiming no one could mistake a dummy for something real.

Conclusion: highest marks to the Times for selecting a photo that underscored the story's main point. (The P-D, also ran the hanging man picture, but it was tucked away inside the newspaper.)

Besides the UFO tale and a handful of other reports -- most of them Washington based, as usual -- the newspapers strongly featured local stories. Let's also compare the biggest environmental story of that day.

On page 2 of the Chronicle was alarming news: Effects of global warming already were evident, according to a new study of U.S. national parks. Permafrost was melting in the Alaskan arctic, forests were invading high alpine meadows, and more. Also featured on that page was a warning from the president of Maldives that their Indian Ocean island nation was at risk from rising waters, and that another country already had abandoned low-lying atolls.

Now, both of these global warming stories appeared in the P-D, but with significant differences. The national parks story was less than one-third the length of the one appearing in the Chron, and it was buried on page 5. The opposite-page island story spoke mainly of "encroaching seas." Worse, this AP reprint prominently featured an anti-enviro swipe: "However, scientists have yet to clearly link these events to global warming."

Um, check your facts, AP: global warming has been acknowledged for several years, as described in a 1995 report in the Monitor.

AP editorializing aside, the P-D editing and layout undermined both stories. With the two global warming stories side by side, the Chron presentation had punch; the P-D treated the stories as if they discussed unrelated issues. Boo, Press Democrat.

Environmentalists have long griped about hostility from the P-D. Last year, I wrote an essay about one instance of slanted editing; Judi Bari complained in her interview that she had to purchase a $2,500 ad to make public the FBI photographs in the 1990 car bombing supporting her innocence.

There's no shortage of other examples. On May 5, the P-D had an original front page story about Hollywood and rock music celebrities supporting Headwaters. It was a thinly-disguised attack on opponents of Pacific Lumber. PL spokesperson Mary Bullwinkel appears quite sensible after reading bubble- headed quotes -- or just maybe, out- of- context quotes -- from Bob Weir, Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer , Ed Asner, and Woody Harrelson. (Note to self: Whenever I want to discredit environmentalism, mention wacky Woody Harrelson antics. No, wait -- that note must be on the P-D's editor's desk ...)

It's not just enviros that distrust the P-D; unions are another group that often get the short stick. In the June 21 business section can be found the headline, "Detroit strikers win labor ruling," above a photo of cheering Teamsters. Less prominent in this AP story is the bad news: " could be years before many of the former strikers get their jobs back, if ever."

With its anti-green, anti-labor, anti- anything- progressive slant, Monitor readers who live outside the North Bay -- and the majority of our subscribers are on the East Coast -- must be wondering: What does the P-D publish?

Again, the June 25 issue is fairly typical. There are 14 news photos in the thin nine-page first section. Three pictures involve the woman who allegedly killed her baby at the prom. Another three are related to the UFO story. One is of deceased actor Brian Keith, another (front page) picture is actor Leslie Nielsen, with two more inside pictures of still other celebrities. Only four photographs relate to non-sensational news items.

Get the picture?

I confess that stories in the P-D often influence my decisions of what will appear the Albion Monitor. Its conservative and pro-development stance combined with its preference for fluffy news is similar to other mid-sized dailies around the U.S. and Canada -- chances are that most of our readers have a local paper much like the P-D. Thus it serves as foil for our mission: to provide "the news you're missing."

Our current issue holds three examples: the commentary on Detroit news strike provides an important counterweight to the AP story presented by the P-D. Likewise the study of UFO believers and TV supports evidence that poor information, not stupidity, is often responsible for the public's embrace of the bizarre -- the same point implied by the Times.

But most important in this issue is our reporting and analysis of the recent Earth Summit. In this example, all three newspapers failed their readers, providing scant coverage of one of the most critical gatherings in recent years. Even more significant was the message that emerged from the summit: That we are in deep, deep, global trouble, and nobody's taking it seriously. Following that surprising (lack of) coverage in the mainstream press, we scrambled to assemble the series that appears in the Monitor. With four stories, I think our word count equals (or maybe, even surpasses) total coverage in the Times.

In the case of each of these topics, your daily paper -- be it the P-D, Chron, Times, or other journal -- could have supplied far better coverage of these stories. But none did. Weekly alternative newspapers could have likewise provided this background, but again, none did. (Also see this issue for background on the sellout of the alternative press, for that matter.)

After almost two years of continuous publication, we're proud to provide this kind of coverage -- and we're also a bit appalled that we're still the only ones doing it nationally.

If you support our efforts, we hope you'll learn how to subscribe to the Monitor; it's only $9.95 per year if you're outside Sonoma County, and free to anyone with a account.

And if you live outside this area, I apologize for being Sonoma-centric in this media criticism; I know that there are scores of regional U.S. papers out there that are far worse. Is your own daily one of these? If so, I'd like to see a week's worth of editions, plus your favorite lopsided clips. The winner (loser, really) gets a free year's subscriptionto the Monitor. Send us your worst! Failing that, in my next editorial I'll rant a bit more about other curious omissions in Press Democrat news coverage.

Hope to see you then.

-- Jeff Elliott, Editor

Albion Monitor issue 32 (

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