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Thursday Review front page November 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on
Our Way to the Mainstream Media

| published April 3, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The number one most common complaint I hear and read about Thursday Review is that we publish too much right-wing conservative stuff. The other number one common complaint is that we publish too much left-wing, liberal stuff.

Go figure.

One friend said that we should consider that numerical paradox—wherein half our readers think we are too liberal and the other half think we are too conservative—to be a moral victory, since it means we are offending people representative of both sides of the political divide, and offending their sensibilities equally.

I find it annoying at times, amusing at other times. In almost every case, it seems inexplicable. Here’s a recent example.

About six weeks ago a very close friend—one who attended Florida State University with me, and with whom I worked for several years—wrote to me regarding some recent Thursday Review articles found on our Politics Page. Though I am not entirely certain which articles he had seen, his comment was to the following effect: why was Thursday Review shilling for Florida Senator Marco Rubio? (Rubio was still an active candidate at that time).

“I wish you guys would spend more time plugging cool stuff, like space exploration and books, versus plugging Rubio,” he said.

His complaint centered on Rubio’s early career claims to have fled Cuba. Rubio’s family left Cuba to come to the United States in 1956, during the period when Fulgencio Batista was ruling Cuba; Rubio, early in his political career, sometimes made the claim that his parents fled after Castro came to power in 1959. There are claims and counterclaims as to whether his family travelled again to Cuba in 1958, only to flee again in 1959; nevertheless, Rubio has since stuck to the verifiable facts of his family’s arrival to the U.S.

All fine and good, and no skin of our noses since we had mentioned neither Rubio’s family migration from Cuba in any recent articles, nor—for that matter—had we deeply discussed the Rubio family’s modest middle class lifestyle. Furthermore, as far as I could tell, we hadn’t shown a hint of favoritism toward any particular candidate, Republican, Democratic, or Independent.

Perplexed, I responded quickly, asking this friend (we shall call him “Kevin,” which is in fact his name) to clarify the question he raised. But his response was more or less the same: Rubio, whom he regards as someone whose early resume is peppered with dubious, perhaps inflated claims—grated on his nerves. He apologized, however, for berating us, and said “go ahead and print anything you want about the guy.”

We had by that point, in fact, published at least 18 articles on the subject of Marco Rubio. A few of those articles date back to 2012; the majority have been published during the last 14 months or so. None seemed particularly promotional of Rubio, and none seemed to offer any endorsement or undue praise. In late 2014/early 2015 we published two articles in which we expressed the analysis—objective and, as it turned out, accurate—that Rubio would be a “candidate to watch,” and that given the right circumstances he might well propel himself to the top tier in the crowded field. When I rifled through our Politics Page in search of an article—any article—which may have caused the tempest, I found nothing but “newsy” articles and long-form analysis pieces which simply stated the facts—journalistically speaking—about Rubio.

Furthermore, as the election cycle of 2016 began in earnest in early 2015, the Rubio articles were interspersed equally between more articles about other candidates for President—official or potential—and these covered the full gamut of known candidates (17 Republicans and at least six Democrats) and with perhaps only two exceptions: George Pataki and Jim Gilmore, who nevertheless received frequent mention despite not having an article they could call their own.

No one was spared examination. Lawrence Lessig received coverage in an article when he formally announced his candidacy, and again when he suspended his campaign. We ran articles about Democrats James Webb, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chaffee. We published a slew of articles during the breathless period in which Vice-President Joe Biden was considering running. And we were covering Bernie Sanders when he was still stuck in single digits and in last place. We have written about Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party front-runner, and Michael Bloomberg, who flirted for months with the idea of a third party run in 2016.

And just in case something had fallen off the bottom of our now virtually endlessly scrolling Politics Page (it now contains some 70-plus long-form articles in the main column, along with another 50 in the “Road Show” column on the right hand side of the page), I checked our content dating back several years. Searching even deeper into our Archives, I also found one article titled “Marco Rubio: A GOP Rising Star,” but it was dated August 31, 2012, and was written in part on my laptop as I sat at the Republican National Convention that very night.

So what was the grievance?

My friend wrote with a list of the ways Rubio rubs him the wrong way, including the fracas over Rubio’s evolving claims regarding his family’s exit from Cuba. Kevin also mentioned the importance of Social Security and Medicare, and how these matters factor into his own alignment as a more-or-less centrist Democrat, as opposed to being a centrist Republican in the vein of well-known GOP figures of the distant and no-too-distant past: Nelson Rockefeller, whom he cited as an example, or pragmatists like Bob Dole.

But my friend’s mild outrage, as it turned out, had sparked me to rifle back through the many comments left in the wake of some of our articles.

Mixed in among the complaints about “relentless right-wingism,” as one reader commented, there were just as many complaints about our “left-wing nonsense” or our “mindless loyalty to liberal media bias.”

From the left, there were complaints that we were “politically offensive” (in response to an article in which we merely reported that former Texas Governor Rick Perry had joined the race), that we were insensitive to equality (for simply mentioning Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in the context of religious conservatives in the election), and that we were promoting fascism: after an article in which we reported that Scott Walker had become a candidate, one reader wrote on our Facebook feed that “this guy’s a Nazi,” and implied we were in league with hate groups for mentioning Walker’s candidacy.

From the right, we have been criticized at length for publishing articles, any articles, about Bernie Sanders. One Republican asked on Facebook if we were on the Sanders’ campaign payroll. Another wrote “this is why I hate you nimrods in the mainstream liberal media: always promoting free college, free medicine, free healthcare, free marijuana, free puppies…all at my expense.” After an article in which we discussed Martin O’Malley, someone asked on Word Press why we were “shilling for the left-wingers and the socialist wingnuts.” After a negative article about Hillary Clinton’s email and server controversy, one reader asked “how can you support this corrupt lunatic for President.” We have been pilloried innumerable times for being anti-Trump for simply quoting Donald Trump.

Some of our articles seem to be Rorschach tests. No matter how even-handed and journalistically on the level we make the article, some readers assume we have some sort of agenda.

Post-debate analysis—and there has been plenty of that during the last eight months—of either party’s televised forums, often produces the notion that we are backing one horse over another. Reporting honestly on a Democratic debate will produce the overnight view that we must have an axe to grind by suggesting Sanders stumbled on what dictator is in charge of North Korea, just as some readers might complain when we report that Clinton got defensive when Sanders challenged her on those hefty speaking fees from Wall Street. Simply reporting what was said during the debate triggers the instant reaction that we are biased. When we mentioned that Sanders recently referenced the book Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down, written by liberal commentator and radio host Bill Press, we were actually accused of spouting the Republican talking points on Obama. (Press was once the chairman of the California Democratic Party).

When we reported that the Associated Press had sued for access to Hillary Clinton's emails, we were again accused of being lackeys for the GOP. Likewise, when we quoted some of the complaints about Trump’s campaign narrative—anti-Trump commentary coming from conservative publications like Red and National Review—we were accused of being “squarely a part of the establishment liberal media.”

Book reviews by one of our most frequent reviewers, Kristy Webster—who has reviewed the books of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine and Sherman Alexie—has led some readers to complain that we are a part of the liberal literary elite. Likewise, a series of business articles during late 2014 and all through 2015 discussing falling oil and gas prices were interpreted by a few Republican readers as some sort of endorsement of President Barack Obama’s economic policies—strange indeed since none of the articles credited White House policy with lower gas prices, and few even mention Obama at all. One reader commented on Word Press, “you people are firmly in Obama’s pocket!”

This weird dichotomy extends to everything.

After reporting straight news about severe winter weather (three years in a row) we’ve been accused of being deniers of global warming by almost as many people as those who accuse us of marketing climate change drivel.

Some readers think we are a mindless tool of the U.S. military for publishing short features about what soldiers and sailors are doing here and there in the world. Others think we are stridently hostile toward the military for our articles about the staggering costs of things like the USS Zumwalt stealth destroyer, the F35 Lightning stealth fighter, or the “Fat Leonard” scandals which just landed a high ranking Navy officer in prison.

We’ve been accused of being too harsh on North Korea. We’ve been accused of being too friendly to North Korea. We’ve been told we were too pro-Israel as well as too anti-Israel. Articles about the major layoffs by companies like JC Penney, Radio Shack and Macy’s have spurred complaints that we are negative on American business; articles about Uber, Apple and Tesla have spawned the complaint that all we do is cheerlead for American business.

Articles by Maggie Nichols, Deborah Takua, Michael Sigler, and others touting the benefits of certain types of fresh foods—cantaloupe, blueberries, beans, peaches, zucchini, carrots, you name it—elicited the complaint that we were “health food Nazis,” despite the fact that the articles did little more than list the health benefits of those foods. Another reader said that we “pander to the big grocery stores and food distributors.”

A recent article breaking down the claims and counter-claims about gun violence in the U.S.—especially the often loose use of the term “mass shooting” (were there really 355 mass shooting in the U.S. in 2015, or were there four?)—managed, in one short week, to get us labelled but pro-gun and anti-gun, sometimes using the same exact quote or talking point. (We published many of those comments in an article called Readers Sound Off on Gun Control; January 22, 2016).

We’re too liberal, we’re too conservative. We waste time writing about North Korea, we waste time by NOT writing about North Korea. We’re soft on guns, we’re tough on guns. We love Jeb Bush, we hate Jeb Bush. We're pro-Putin, we are anti-Putin. We’re an establishment mouthpiece for the rich, we’re a rogue band of muckrakers and ambulance chasers.

The point, I have decided, is that people browsing Facebook or foraging through the internet enter places of “news” with the often preconceived notion that it is a blog. This is because blogging has been around for decades, almost from the moment in the very early 1990s when personal computers first offered routine access to the web. The “bloggers” got there first, planted the flag, and began—one blog at a time—to make the vast majority of content those of personal opinions. Newspapers, and to a degree magazines, were—to put it mildly—late to adapt, and by the time newspapers caught on to the sea change, they unwisely began offering content for free or nearly free of charge. Then, and now, there was little distinction between “news” and “opinion.”

Indeed, from the moment Thursday Review first began its digital incarnation—as a simple newsletter called Road Show in email format back in 2004—we have been widely assumed to be a “blog,” not a news website. That was despite a vigorous effort to keep every issue as journalistically balanced as possible. When we re-introduced Road Show as a regular column, published roughly every three-to-four days beginning in late November 2007, we tightened this guiding principle even more. Still, most readers assumed we were a blog. Still later, in 2012, when we retooled the website into the magazine format, a design which we retain even now, the “blogger” identity could never be shaken off completely despite a robust adherence to Associated Press style and guidelines and a wealth of content not even related to politics.

Photo composition Thursday Review/Microsoft

Besides, a few weeks into 2013, we introduced our Opinion & Comment Page, in which both regular and guest writers could pontificate or bloviate on any topic. These have included articles from the right (Mary Alexandra Pooler’s editorials highlighting media bias on abortion; John Herndon’s impassioned case that Colorado Senator Mark Udall is anti-constitution in his beliefs), and from the left (Pamela Pitman Brown’s defense of Obamacare for its special relevance in the age of the caretaker and a growing senior population; Earl Perkins editorials in favor of better regulation of big banks). The page includes tomes both libertarian (editorials calling into question the constitutional validity of the NSA’s program of bulk data collection) and yearning for justice (Earl Perkins’ look at the horrors which accompanied more than a century of the Arthur Dozier School for Boys in Florida, where torture and murder was the norm).

Our Opinion & Comment Page was meant to serve as the sounding board for our readers and our writers, as well as a way to channel the notion that we are a “blog” off of our Front Page, Business Page, Music Page, and other departments.

Like any media source, bias invariably creeps in to everything, in ways which range from miniscule to more obvious. For those who do not know our backstory, we began as a small monthly print publication in July of 1981, with the stated objective of creating a “youth-oriented” and student magazine with a center-right tilt—an alternative, we believed then, to those student newspapers which tilted more overtly leftward. This was in the early Age of Reagan when some 250 “conservative” publications sprang into existence all over the country to challenge campus newspapers and magazines which—it seemed then, and now—tended largely to favor left-leaning or progressive social policy and international politics.

This made for a good business model, and despite the often-uphill struggle faced by start-up newspapers and magazines even in those days, we managed to break-even for the several years of our existence in print form. When we reinvented ourselves in the Aught years as a digital publication, we were wise enough to realize that the internet was already teeming with political commentary—hundreds upon hundreds of popular, well-established sites—the top tier of which was already almost overwhelmed by the literally thousands of independent websites and blogs in which anyone could spout any opinion, informed or otherwise.

Our policy is generally to channel the more intentioned or opinionated material appropriately—some of it ends up on our Features Page, some on the Opinion & Comment Page, some in other departments, including Features. Our Media & Journalism Page serves also as an outlet for a wide range of discussion, including many articles which overlap the often fuzzy, blurry boundaries between politics, journalism, free speech and national security, net neutrality and media mergers, and the veracity of claims made by reporters and commentators, from Brian Williams to Bill O’Reilly to Keith Olbermann to Stephen A. Smith. We make an effort to spare no one.

Still, maybe we are doing something right. The fact that the comments reflect a generally evenly-weighted belief that we lean too far one way versus another—on virtually any topic or subject—may lead to the inescapable conclusion that we are presenting our news and information fairly, down the middle, and without undue bias.

We welcome comments and rebuttals from anyone, anyplace, anytime. Our Livefyre comment board enables readers to interact quickly and open up any form of discussion relevant to that article. Other than inappropriate comments, we also give readers the chance to interact on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Linked-In. And our Word Press site also allows for open-ended discussion. For those who are old fashioned, send us an email ( or drop us a letter, something which requires something called a "postage stamp."

Related Thursday Review articles:

Readers Sound Off on Gun Control; Thursday Review editors; Thursday Review; January 22, 2016.

How Many Mass Shootings Were There in 2015?; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; December 10, 2015.