Post’s evaluation of commentary pages needs your help and the light of day

Last week Denver Post Editorial Page Editor Curtis Hubbard fired back at all those people who’ve said The Post’s commentary pages favor right-leaning points of view over left-leaning ones, or vice versa.

Hubbard presented the results of a bean-counting project conducted during the first quarter of 2012. He categorized editorials and columns on the Post’s commentary pages as being left of center, right of center, or  “nonpartisan or centrist.”

In his weekly column, Hubbard wrote that the majority of the opinion content was “nonpartisan or centrist” (43 percent of “local columns,” 55 percent of editorials, and 54 percent of syndicated columns).

Partisan opinion content was found to be mostly left of center according to Hubbard’s admittedly subjective count. Local columns were 32 percent left-of-center versus 25 percent right-of-center, editorials 26 percent versus 19 percent, and syndicated columnists 29 percent left-leaning versus 18 percent right-leaning.

In his column, Hubbard claimed that he had all the data in a spreadsheet.

Great, I thought, he can just shoot it over to me.

So I asked him for it, because media bean-counting is fun to audit, for me. And it can provide an excellent starting point for debates about the media.

“I hadn’t considered making it available for public review,” he emailed me.

This was a surprise to hear from an outfit that wants Mitt Romney to release his tax returns for public review. I trust Hubbard more than I trust Romney, but I like to verify what both of them say. Plus the ensuing debate about categorization would be educational. I hope, after due consideration, Hubbard releases his spreadsheet.

I asked Hubbard if he’d share his “local-columnist” data starting from the date of the departure of Mike Littwin. Last year, I showed (with bean counting) that the Post’s local columnists were fairly well balanced on the left-right scale. But with Littwin gone, I worried the opinion page would veer right with no in-house columnist to counter Vincent Carroll.

Hubbard wrote that “23 columns were published since Littwin’s departure [March 20], including work by Rosen, Hubbard, Carroll, Quillen, Andrews, Ditmer, and Barnes-Gelt.”

Of these 23 local columns, six were categorized as from the right, six as from the left, and 11 as non-partisan or centrist, according to Hubbard.

My audit of the same sample of columns showed them to be mostly right-leaning: seven centrist, six left-leaning, and 10 right-leaning. And my tally is only that close because I categorized four of nine columns by Vincent Carroll as “left-leaning.” That won’t happen typically, I’m guessing, but I could be wrong. (Worth noting is the fact that Carroll wrote 9 of 23 “local columns” that appeared in The Post during the first three-and-a-half weeks since Littwin left.) I’m happy to share my tally with anyone who wants to see it, by the way.

I asked Hubbard if he’d evaluated the political cartoons on the commentary page, and he replied that he had not done so but would start to do it going forward. That’s a good thing because my impression is that they lean right. But impressions are the worst kind of media criticism.

Hubbard wrote that readers’ feedback about his own bean counting had given him an idea, which sounds intriguing and innovative to me: add an interactive feature to the opinion section of The Post’s website that would allow site visitors to evaluate content (editorials, local columns, etc.) on a political scale. In other words, let readers count beans too.

Hubbard would like to “display for readers a feature that says something like ‘our grade’ of where a piece falls on the political spectrum and then allows them to vote. Ideally, it would be something that would keep a sort of running score sheet.”

Hubbard doubts that The Post has money to develop this Left-Center-Right feature, but he suggested that “if any of your astute readers would be interested in developing that piece of technology as a public service, I would be willing to discuss being their beta test site.”

It’s a great idea, and it would indeed be a public service. (And I’m not saying that just because he called you astute.)

And so, I extend the invitation.  Do you, or does anyone you know, have the expertise to aid in developing and implementing this feature? If so, contact Hubbard at The Post as soon as possible. (Any project in the newspaper industry these days is urgent.)

In any case, Hubbard wrote in his column that he plans to keep his internal spreadsheet up to date “to better inform our work moving forward.”

“Not only will it help to refute the charges of readers and campaigns in a highly charged election year, it will help us in our goal of producing opinion pages that are reflective and worthy of this great state,” he wrote in his column.

That’s true, especially if he can find a way to get readers involved and share his bean counting with us.

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