In Monday’s daily online Washingtonpost.com political chat, reporter Shailagh Murray grew readably irritated when a reader questioned her use of the label "ultraconservative" for Rep. Barbara Cubin in a June 7 story on who would succeed the late Sen. Craig Thomas. "I get irritated with people who assume knee-jerk bias in reporters, based on one story that they happen to read. I actually don't see such terms as inflammatory, but as descriptive, and I'll use them as a I see fit."
The reader also asked her if she ever puts the word "ultra" in front of "liberal" in her stories, and who would fit the "ultraliberal" label. The reporter skipped the first question (suggesting she doesn’t use "ultraliberal"), but offered a list of ultraliberals: Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. Maxine Waters, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and Sen. Barbara Boxer. Not a bad list, but guess what? It’s easy to find Post stories where those ultraliberals are written up, and are only called "liberals" and more often, aren’t labeled at all.
It's easy to scan through NewsBusters blogs, and find a set of these. On May 10, Barbara Lee, the only House member to vote against war on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was just called a liberal, and the reporter insisted she was "no lefty flame thrower." On January 27, a Post story reported Kucinich and Waters showed up with Jane Fonda at a "peace" protest and drew no labels (Waters was unlabeled in another story on Fonda at the same time). On April 18, 2005, Barbara Boxer was quoted running down conservative Sen. Rick Santorum as vicious, and she drew no label. In Murray’s defense, none of these are her stories.
But they illustrate the labeling pattern: solid conservatives are routinely labeled, while you have to be extremely liberal to even earn an occasional "liberal" label. "Ultraconservative" is not routinely used, but when it is, it’s more offensive, considering the lack of labeling for liberals, even extreme ones.
Reporters’ use of labeling often suggests where they reside on the political spectrum. They’re more likely to see "ultraconservatives" in people they extremely disagree with on the issues. People conservatives extremely disagree with are more likely to extremely agree with reporters, and thus are not defined as extreme at all. They’re extremely reasonable, apparently. Here’s the exchanges from the online chat:
Vienna, Va.: Last week, you described Rep. Cubin of Wyoming as "ultraconservative." Have you ever put the word "ultra" in front of the word "liberal" in describing a politician, and who in the Democratic Congress would be accurately described as such?
washingtonpost.com: After a Quiet Farewell, Finding a Successor (Post, June 7)
Shailagh Murray: Ultraliberals:
You want more names? And are you familiar with Rep. Cubin's record in the House?
"Vienna" tried again, trying to insist to Murray that he or she wasn't implying Murray was an unreasonable liberal:
Vienna, Va.: Re: Cubin. Not sure of the tone of your question back (defensive?) but I would argue that ultraconservative is perfectly appropriate for her, as well as ultraliberal an acccurate description for your list. I hope you'll feel free to use the word in stories about them as well. I might add Sen. Sanders from Vermont to it, but some might consider ultraliberal too conservative a description for him.
Shailagh Murray: As my regular chatters know, I get irritated with people who assume knee-jerk bias in reporters, based on one story that they happen to read. I actually don't see such terms as inflammatory, but as descriptive, and I'll use them as a I see fit.
But the questioner didn't assume an overwhelming career of bias based on one story. He or she was asking if there was bias in the one story, and asking if Murray balanced that label with "ultraliberal" in her other stories.
Murray also showed her defensiveness by including a long (hostile) Congresssional Quartely biography of Cubin, which noted local editorials from the Casper Star-Tribune saying Cubin "delivered more rancor than achievement."