Max Jones

Max Jones, Tribune-Star Editor

We hear the refrain often. "America is more polarized than ever!"

There is merit to the claim, of course. Political polarization is highly visible, but the Great Divide runs deeper than that. In addition to ideological disagreements, we see it on economic, geographic, social and cultural issues. And there's religion, science, health, medicine and more.

A recent poll states that many Americans see their country growing perilously closer to a civil war. While there is anger bubbling up around us, sometimes it's poorly placed. Too many people fail to realize their emotions are being manipulated by propaganda from sources whose interests don't necessarily coincide with their own.

The realm of communications and media is polarized as well. Media outlets — including social media sites — are caught in the whirlwind, often being accused of bias.

It doesn't just happen to national news organizations. Community newspapers such as the Tribune-Star see it, too.

We experienced this firsthand in recent days.

Like most news publications across the country and around the world, the Tribune-Star published a lead story in our April 19 edition on the release of the redacted Mueller report that carried the headline: "Report: Trump tried to control Russia probe."

The story was reported and written by The Associated Press. It reflected the big news of that day contained in the previously unseen special counsel's report.

The report listed actions that led Mueller to determine he could not exonerate President Trump of trying to obstruct the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It also contained reactions to the report's contents from a wide array of public officials. Everybody had their say.

We included an online link to the full report so those interested could see it for themselves.

A few readers objected to our presentation of the story, seemingly focusing on the headline.

"Your paper is a disgrace!" one reader claimed by email. "There was never one sintila (sic) of collusion and this is your headline? Obvious bias and half-truths rule media. Pathetic and disgraceful."

Another reader stated in an email that our headline and story "leave no doubt about your continuing bias. Your readers deserve better, they deserve both sides of this important story."

We also received a few calls accusing us of bias in running this story not emphasizing in a headline that the Mueller report found no evidence the Trump campaign broke any laws in its contacts with the Russian government.

I certainly agree that our headline and story presentation, both online and in print, focused this day on the obstruction element of the story. But was it biased?

I appreciate feedback in all forms and am more than willing to have reasonable conversations about what we do as a news organization and why. So here's my perspective on complaints of bias in terms of the April 19 story.

Let's look back at the previous four weeks earlier. On Monday, March 25, the day after Attorney General William Barr issued a four-page summary of the Mueller report, the lead headline on a story at the top of Page 1 declared: “Trump didn’t coordinate with Russia in 2016, report declares.”

The first two paragraphs of the article state:

"Special counsel Robert Mueller did not find evidence that President Donald Trump’s campaign 'conspired or coordinated' with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election but reached no conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice, Attorney General William Barr declared Sunday. That brought a hearty claim of vindication from Trump but set the stage for new rounds of political and legal fighting.

"Trump, pleasure tinged with resentment after two years of investigations, declared 'complete and total' exoneration. 'It’s a shame that our country has had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this,' he said."

Elements of that story were repeated several times in stories we published over subsequent weeks, emphasizing that Mueller did not find that the Trump campaign "conspired or coordinated" with the Russian government to interfere with the election.

Those stories, beginning with the March 25 story and headline, reflected the news of the day. So did the April 19 story and headline. None were influenced by political bias.

Yes, America is polarized. In many ways. You can find that reflected in all means of communications and media. Perceptions of bias will continue to exist in almost everything the media publishes, especially in reporting about contentious and controversial issues.

That doesn't mean the news media is the enemy. A free and robust press is something to be embraced. You don't have to always agree with the approach or emphasis a news organization, or any specific report, places on an issue. Quite often you will discover that coverage over time will prove to be balanced, even though you may feel a particular story is not.

As always, I encourage readers to share their views on issues and our treatment of them. We don't work for the government or politicians. We're not under the thumbs of the rich and powerful. We work for you.

Max Jones can be reached at max.jones@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarMax.

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