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November 2, 2006

A closer look

by MARCY BURSTINER


There are any number of conspiracy theorists in Humboldt County who discount the news out of Rob Arkley's Eureka Reporter. But there's at least one conspiracy theorist who's gotten a fairer shake from the Reporter than from its competition, and that's Dave Berman, co-owner of a local company that makes curly hair gel who's become the top local critic of electronic voting systems.

According to the newspapers' electronic archives, in the last 12 months, the Eureka Reporter has mentioned Berman in 23 stories, while the Times-Standard has reported on him in 14. Both papers have printed columns and letters he has authored. Most recently, when Berman issued a press release Oct. 11 alerting the media to an upcoming radio show on KGOE-AM in which he would discuss election integrity issues with radio host Peter Collins, both newspapers ignored it. Perhaps it had nothing to do with his calls for all media to ignore election results that they could not verify with hand counting of paper ballots. But a word to publicists: If you want media coverage of an event, ixnay on suggesting that the media are collaborating with those out to subvert our election systems.

But before I go on, let me make some necessary disclosures.

Since I'm comparing coverage between the Reporter and the Times-Standard, you should know where I stand on the ownership issue. As an anti-corporate liberal registered with the Green Party, I'm leery of any newspaper whose owner gives vast amounts of money to Republican candidates. But I'm just as leery about a paper owned by Dean Singleton, a Colorado man with a near-monopoly on small, local newspapers across California, who has a history of overworking reporters as he pays them as little as possible.

Second, I tend toward conspiracy theories. Though I've never missed an election, I wonder if my vote is ever counted. But this concern dates back to the days when machine politicians relied on dead people rather than data bytes.

Third, I've never met Berman and have no personal opinion of him, although as I have uncontrollable curly hair, I am considering trying out Jessicurl. But let me get to the point. Back in April, Rebecca Bender of the Eureka Reporter and James Faulk of the Times-Standard both covered an event organized by the Voter Confidence Committee. Bender's was headlined "Small passionate group demands democracy." It noted that, "About 22 like-minded people, a mixture of local residents and college students, filled the first few rows of the lecture room in Founders Hall Tuesday night to explore historical, local and national voting issues and problems therein."

Faulk's, headlined "Voting forum yields calls for reform," noted that "Roughly 20 people attended the event, where former Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb; retired professor and NAACP official Nate Smith; Measure T campaign manager Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap; and voting advocate Dave Berman spoke on what they believe are the problems with the current system for electing governments." There's not much difference in the two stories, except for two key phrases -- "and problems therein" on Bender's part and "on what they believe are" in Faulk's story. The former seems to let the speakers make their own argument for the reader, while Faulk wants to remind that reader that the speakers are only speaking for themselves. Later in the two stories, both refer to a parallel election the Voter Confidence Committee was organizing, although Bender also tells the reader when and where they can go if they want to help participate in it.

The most recent story mentioning Berman that appeared in both papers was in August. Both the Times-Standard and the Reporter highlighted a Zogby poll that found that 92 percent of Americans want more transparency on vote-counting procedures, and both mentioned that Berman and his group used the results to call for election reform. The main difference in the two stories is that the one in the Times-Standard carried no byline, while Bender's name topped the Reporter's story.

It was in June that the difference in coverage was clearest.

In a June 22 article, Bender wrote that the California Election Protection Network, which she described as a statewide nonpartisan coalition of groups working for election integrity, adopted a Voters' Resolution of No Confidence which Berman's Voter Confidence Committee had drafted. She noted that the state group was pushing to invalidate a June 6 Congressional runoff in San Diego and for a full hand count of ballots and paper audit trails.

Five days later in the Times-Standard, James Faulk referred to Berman in a column item under the heading "Breaking the law?" There he wrote: "Repeated accusations from voting system advocate Dave Berman and others claim that Humboldt County and other jurisdictions throughout the state are breaking election law by using their Diebold machines to collect votes in Humboldt County. By Diebold they mean evil vote collecting despot with a Republican bent and corporate agenda. Berman and his comrades provide mountains of complicated documentation and decry journalists who they say have dropped the ball by not investigating these claims. One has to wonder why these accusers don't mount a legal complaint in the courts, or seek other legal redress, if their case is as clear cut as they claim it to be. Surely not every member of the nation's legal system is bought and paid for by the Grand Conspiracy."

You can't blame Faulk for criticizing rather than investigating Berman's claims, buried as they were within mountains of complicated documentation. While the Grand Conspiracy can't possibly be paying for all lawyers, Singleton, I would bet, wasn't paying Faulk nearly enough for so tedious a task.

Often differences in coverage range not from newspaper to newspaper but from one reporter to reporter. Sometimes subtle differences in wording create deep differences in overall coverage. In the future I will take a look at other issues, and other news media. If you spot an interesting difference in news coverage over a single issue or person, let me know at mib3@humboldt.edu and I'll take a closer look.

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism at Humboldt State University.


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