Opinion: Media Mangle

Troubling Republicans, Sad Democrats

Raleigh newspaper calls them the way it sees them

Editors in Friday’s edition of The News & Observer of Raleigh characterized – appropriately – the activities of Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine as “troubling,” because he apparently solicited business from lobbyists while he served as state Senate minority leader.

But another “troubling” trend is the double standard the N&O applies when it editorializes on potential (or real) misbehavior on the part of lawmakers. Truth is, when Republicans are involved in questionable activity, it’s “troubling.” But when Democrats are even convicted on charges of corruption, the consequences of their deeds are merely “sad.”

After a Thursday report on Ballantine’s sales efforts in the General Assembly on behalf of Image Products Co., the N&O had their critical editorial ready to go a day later. The newspaper charged that Ballantine’s “behavior calls his judgment into question.” The editors also noted, even though they admitted Ballantine’s activity was legal, that “the legislature’s Ethics Committee hasn’t even met in five years” and that “Ballantine’s situation argues for the committee to meet soon and take the public’s pulse on legislative conflicts of interest.”

The N&O’s sense of outrage was palpable: “The mental image of a legislator handing out sales catalogs to people who have business pending in the General Assembly is not a pretty one.”

Consider how the N&O’s editorial page has recently treated a couple of other Republican officials whose public service has been tainted by their actions. After a July 2003 report about U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor’s connections to persons convictted in a loan fraud scheme, editors said “troubling questions linger as to why federal officials apparently have shown little interest.”

“How…,” the editors wrote at the time, “…federal officials cannot press for information from Taylor, either in interviews or in front of a grand jury, is astonishing.”

And in the case of Davidson County (now former) Sheriff Gerald Hege, N&O editorial writer Jim Jenkins in May of this year could hardly contain his glee when the lawman with a no-nonsense, tough guy reputation was brought down on obstruction of justice charges in a plea deal.

Now contrast the N&O’s treatment of those GOP leaders to its recent ponderings on the legal run-ins experienced by former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former U.S. Congressman Frank Ballance.

With Phipps, the N&O duly noted in a couple of editorials her undeniable misdeeds and the need for justice, yet couched her story in terms meant to conjure up sympathy and sadness in the hearts of its readership. On Nov. 1, 2003, emphasis was placed on Phipps getting her life back together and her need to apologize.

“Justice here, though, doesn’t equate to joy,” the newspaper argued. “Every heart surely goes out to Phipps’ husband, Robert, as the weight of explaining this turn of events to the couple’s two children falls on his shoulders. Nor is there any pleasure in seeing a venerated North Carolina family brought low.”

The world’s tiniest violin played on Nov. 12, as editors pondered “the sight of Meg Scott Phipps in shackles…must have been another shattering moment for her family,” and adding that “she likely will be going to prison, leaving two adolescent children at home.”

And more sadness was elicited as Phipps was sentenced in March this year: “The sight of Phipps having to leave her family, including her husband and two adolescent children, was indeed a sad one.”

As for Frank Ballance, the N&O could eke out only one editorial criticizing his misuse of state funds, which he channeled from his own nonprofit organization to family members and for his own personal use. After ticking off two or three offenses discovered by State Auditor Ralph Campbell last October, editors bemoaned the “waste” and the “black eye” that Ballance’s irresponsibility dealt to the General Assembly. But for the former state senator, the N&O editors were also dejected.

“Sadly for the rural counties served by (Ballance’s) foundation, the good work it accomplished now must come to an end.” Editors pushed that theme even though not one single bonafide report on any alleged “good work” accomplished by Ballance’s Hyman Foundation can be found.

And once Ballance was indicted last month, and his lawyer announced that he would work out a plea deal and avoid a trial, the N&O decided against another editorial, despite a 51-page indictment detailing the former state senator’s gross corruption and self-dealing. The fact that the indictment included only “one count” belied the voluminous and intentional deceptions Ballance pulled on taxpayers. But instead of hammering him for his criminality, editors let stand the newspaper’s reporting on his admitted offenses, which was tempered by more expressions of sadness:

“(Lawyer Joseph) Cheshire called Ballance’s indictment a sad development for a man who devoted his career to helping other people.

‘Congressman Ballance has meant as much to the poor and disadvantaged people of this state as anyone I know,’ he said. ‘So I would say that he has not betrayed the people of North Carolina. No person is perfect.’”

Had Jenkins and company read the Ballance indictment with any modicum of objectivity (if they read it at all), even as editorialists, their blood would have boiled and spilled onto their pages.

Instead, they reserve “sadness” and conjure up concern for felons’ families when they happen to share their political allegiances. Meanwhile, the editors just can’t work up similar sympathies for embattled Republicans, or bemoan the ending of any “good work they accomplish” as they expound on their real or alleged misdeeds.

The tone and content of those editorials, in many ways, was justified. But unlike commentaries on the op-ed page, readers expect at least some even-handed treatment when writers opinionate on behalf of the newspaper itself.

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]