Two of a Kind

You can tell the difference between the Post and the News -- but you've got to look awfully close.

The Justice Department's voluminous report on the joint operating agreement that will bind the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News in holy wedded monopoly, released to the public last week, isn't exactly overflowing with surprises. The document, issued under the signature of Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein, uncovers a few fresh details about how the News's go-for-broke strategy for polishing off the Post resulted, logically enough, in the Rocky going broke -- broke enough, at least, to qualify for a federal anti-trust exemption. But its most instructive clauses were those focusing on complaints filed by members of the public interested in putting a kibosh on the deal.

According to the manuscript's authors, the prospect of skyrocketing advertising and subscription rates, as well as the majority of other negatives likely to accompany the JOA's instatement, are "beyond the scope of appropriate inquiry in this report" because "Congress made the judgment that saving an editorial voice was worth the competitive harm that would result from the aggregation of market power that a JOA represents."

To put that in English, the Newspaper Act of 1970, which officially sanctioned JOAs, may be lousy public policy that's outlived its usefulness, but it remains the law of the land -- and until that changes, marriages of convenience like the impending Post-News nuptials can go forward without delay. No shotguns required.

Thanks, then, to the Newspaper Act (and Attorney General Janet Reno, who's expected to okay the JOA request in November), the Post and the News will both continue to exist, and to speak independently, more or less.

Better yet, the News's name may go back to the future: A Scripps-Howard executive quoted in the September 17 Post says the word "Denver," which was added to the Rocky's masthead in 1998 as part of yet another failed battle tactic, may be removed. That's no skin off my nose; I've refused to use the "Denver" part of the moniker for much the same reason that Joe Frazier continued to refer to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay. But it sure is funny.

But how different is what the two papers have to say? Although longtimers view the Post as Denver's liberal paper and the News as its conservative counterpart, such labels seem to mean less with each passing year. Granted, there are exceptions -- but on most days, the publications wind up covering the same stories in pretty much the same way. Rather than seeming separate and distinct, these editorial voices are all too often echoes of each other.

In an effort to illustrate this point, I analyzed all the editorial pages printed in the Post and the News for a single week chosen at random: Wednesday, September 6, through Tuesday, September 12. I focused on this particular segment of the papers because I wanted to minimize my own subjectivity: Whereas ideological leanings in the writing, editing and placement of a standard news story are presumably embedded within its text, headline and art, and require interpretation that may be susceptible to other biases, editorials are opinionated by their very nature. For that reason, I assumed it would be far easier to tell if something in the editorial category tilted to the left or right -- but I was soon disabused of this notion.

As it turned out, a substantial number of editorials, columns and political cartoons sported no discernible point of view whatsoever. They were often so vague that they wound up essentially position-free -- and even those that staked out perceivable stances generally did so near the middle of the road, steering clear of extremes of any type. In addition, there were numerous essays that dealt with uncontroversial matters (both papers ran snoozy eulogies to late News editor Ralph Looney) or subjects that didn't break down along standard political lines (since the debate over the status of Centennial was mainly a fight for tax revenues among warring camps of Republicans, I never could figure out whether being in favor of cityhood was liberal or conservative). Most important, many of the pieces I read, whether they were nationally syndicated or generated locally, were absolutely stultifying: opaque, confused, poorly structured and/or just plain boring.

Nonetheless, I was eventually able to organize these assorted components into five categories -- left, left to neutral, neutral, neutral to right, and right -- and the results weren't what you'd call resounding proof of the tremendous dissimilarities between the Post and the News. Of the 69 items from the News that were analyzed, right beat left, but narrowly (seventeen to fourteen), with neutral coming awfully close to the top spot (sixteen). George Gallup would probably dub that a statistical tie. The race among the eighty combatants at the Post was less of a photo finish; left nudged right fifteen to thirteen, but lost handily to neutral, which brought home a shocking 27.

Separating out unsigned editorials, which serve as the official expressions of the papers, demonstrates a bit more of a divergence, but not by much. Eight of the sixteen unsigned editorials published by the News fell into one of the two right divisions, while five fit into the two left groupings, and three were neutral; likewise, eight of the nineteen unsigned editorials from the Post pointed partly or largely to the left, with five slanting rightward to various degrees and six neutral. In the final analysis, the publications were on the same page more often than not.

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