February 10, 2005
By Kristian Knutsen
Last Monday, the Chicago Tribune ran an article titled “Right-on gets new take at UW-Madison: Conservative paper to bow on campus.” It detailed the February 12 debut of a new UW-Madison student newspaper named the Mendota Beacon.
Affiliated with the UW College Republicans, the Mendota Beacon is scheduled to be published every other week this spring, and is expected to be weekly by this fall. UW junior Tim Shea is the paper’s managing editor and public face, but it is receiving funding through an Arlington, Virginia, based organization named the Leadership Institute, which in turn is bankrolled by the likes of Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation and the Coors-affiliated Castle Rock Foundation, according to Cursor’s Media Transparency database.
What is interesting about the Tribune article, though, is in what it does not report.
The reporter, Robert Gutsche Jr., gets his facts wrong in his first two sentences when he writes, “The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the few public universities with two competing independent student newspapers. And soon the historically liberal hotbed will have a third paper, this one with a conservative twist.” The problem is the Mendota Beacon will be the fourth newspaper on the UW-Madison campus. The third is The Madison Observer, which is nearly two years old and already is to the campus left what the Mendota Beacon hopes to be to the campus right.
In all of the media coverage of the Mendota Beacon, including articles in the UW’s Daily Cardinal, The Capital Times, the Wisconsin State Journal, and a local news feature on Madison’s ABC television affiliate (WKOW), no one mentions the Madison Observer; rather, they all portray the Mendota Beacon as the only fresh face among UW-Madison campus papers. Case in point, the WKOW Web site blurb begins, “First, there was the "Daily Cardinal," then the "Badger Herald," now the "Mendota Beacon" is trying to make it's (sic) mark on UW's campus.” Digging deeper, I found that there have been no mentions whatsoever of the Madison Observer in either of Madison’s dailies, except for one reference in a Capital Times article listing awards given last fall by a UW alumni group.
Is it “balanced” or “objective” for the mainstream media to report on a brand-new conservative media project while completely ignoring its two-year old progressive competitor?
James Baughman, director of the UW-Madison journalism school, was quoted in the Tribune article about the opportunities and pitfalls faced by the Mendota Beacon. I asked Baughman why he thinks the Observer has been ignored by the press while the Mendota Beacon has been promoted; he thought this was a fair question.
“Reporters have long sort-of stereotyped the campus as more liberal or progressive than it really is,” he said. “That’s how they see it.” The progressive campus paper is not really on the radar of the local media, because “the press does function from stereotypes, and this is one of them.”
So, it is only news if conservatives try to counteract deficiencies they see in the media?
Karen Rivedal, the State Journal higher education reporter who wrote about the Mendota Beacon in December said, “a conservative paper is more out of the norm for UW-Madison. It’s a more unique circumstance in a place most people think of as a liberal bastion.”
Cristina Daglas, the Badger Herald editor who as been quoted extensively in these articles, agreed. She said, “one reason could be that Madison is a very political campus, and that when a conservative newspaper comes into a town that is thought of as very liberal, that’s news.” She thought that this novelty angle was a poor excuse for inaccurate reporting, however, as the Beacon “is the fourth, not third student newspaper.”
Daglas also suggested another reason for all the press: “The Mendota Beacon’s managing editor is doing a lot of work contacting people.” She believes the paper’s funders have an excellent PR operation, and are getting word of the debut out successfully. Cliff Behnke, managing editor of the State Journal, confirmed this, saying the Mendota Beacon “probably put out a press release” in order to get coverage, and the Observer would be accorded the same treatment if they promoted themselves similarly.
Why do hothouse campus newspaper politics matter? For one reason, the Mendota Beacon is the newest farm team receiving funding from a national foundation dedicated to fostering the next generation of conservative media nomenklatura. Prominent pundits like Ann Coulter, Rich Lowry, Michelle Malkin, J.D. "Jeff Gannon" Guckert, and the now repentant David Brock were incubated via umbilical cords to supporters like the Leadership Institute, nutured expressly for the purpose of injecting raw ideology into the commercial media to drive it as rightward as possible.
Just as importantly, the wide play the Mendota Beacon’s debut has received in Madison’s and the Midwest’s largest papers demonstrate why this matters. It demonstrates the mainstream media’s willingness to promote conservative media to the exclusion of counterparts on the left. It demonstrates their willingness to pay attention to complaints of ‘liberal bias’ while ignoring complaints of ‘conservative’ or ‘corporate’ bias, though there is no shortage of such from the left. It demonstrates the tendency of editors and reporters to ignore inconvenient facts in order to frame their stories according to (oftentimes overplayed) conventional wisdom; in this case, that of insurgent conservatives fighting against a so-called liberal media.
If I wrote in conservative blogger vernacular, this is the point at which I would probably say something like this kind of imbalance is proof that the news pages of the State Journal or the Chicago Tribune are objectively promoting right-wing politics. I do not believe that is quite the case, however. What this really shows is how mainstream media reporting works these days, and how lazy it can sometimes be, particularly where contentious ideological battles over the media are concerned. Most importantly, it demonstrates the need for grassroots, progressive media outlets to promote themselves effectively and compel the mainstream media to take notice.
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