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MediaWatch: June 1, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. Eight

OverHolster Overhauled

As the end of her tenure as Ombudsman of the Washington Post approached, Geneva Overholser acknowledged the charge of liberal bias "sticks" in some areas. That's quite an admission for someone who just a year ago reacted with disgust at the very idea she'd be expected to contemplate liberal bias.

In her May 10 column she began by dismissing the liberal bias charge, noting the bias "toward the negative" and "toward conventional thinking." But she added: "All of this having been said, there are specific topics for which I think the charge of liberal bias sticks - either in current coverage or in coverage over recent years. These tend to be hot-button issues; many have to do with social change. I'd list abortion, Christian fundamentalism, environmentalism vs. business interests, the death penalty, guns, gay issues and military affairs. Add coverage of the South. And sometimes of civil rights or women's rights..."

She offered some illustrations, such as: "An April 1 news story said: 'This part of the country - states such as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas - has an attitude toward guns that is seldom seen, and even more rarely understood, in urban and more heavily populated areas.' A reader called this another example of the (perhaps unconscious) insularity...of those who write for metropolitan dailies. Since no one they know, or work with, or live next to, holds such views, those who do must be strange/weird.'"

"An Aug. 26, 1997, headline said 'Young Blacks Entangled in Legal System; Report Puts D.C. Rate at 50% of Men 18 to 35.' A reader responded: Were these men just walking down the street and then suddenly they became entangled'?"

Overholser didn't display quite such an open mind during a May 16, 1997 C-SPAN appearance. MRC Chairman L. Brent Bozell, the other guest, observed that the Post, but not the networks, had done a good job covering the Clinton scandals. Raising liberal bias agitated Overholser, who complained: "I'm uncomfortable with the format of this. I realize that it's probably not good for me to be on it. Everything we do turns to some ideological point."

Host Brian Lamb, realizing her anger at being paired with someone tainted by politics, asked if she'd been in politics. She shot back: "No, I wouldn't be in politics. I'm a journalist, I've been a journalist all my life and I'm very uncomfortable with having all these ideological discussions. I don't, I'm not here to defend an ideology and I really don't, you know, I think it's a mistake for me to be on."