Editor's Weekly: Spotlight on Schlafly raises old questions about press fairness | St. Louis Public Radio

Editor's Weekly: Spotlight on Schlafly raises old questions about press fairness

May 15, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: More than the honorary degree Phyllis Schlafly is about to receive, the controversy surrounding her is itself fitting testament to the outsized role she's played in the national debate for most of her long life.

Once again, she stands in the spotlight - smiling and quotable - as opponents fulminate about the attention she's getting. This is vintage Schlafly.

Decades ago, she occupied center stage in similar fashion during the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment. While a variety of people and organizations argued for the amendment, Schlafly was by far the most prominent opponent. The amendment's supporters complained that she gained undue attention as reporters sought her out again and again for comment on every development. While following a formula that appeared to be treating both sides equally, the press was actually giving Schlafly more attention than she deserved, the amendment's supporters said.

Schlafly had plenty of criticism for the press, too - that it was biased against conservatives. But she knew how things worked. The more exasperated her critics became, the more Schlafly smiled and made good use of her opportunities.

That chapter of her life ended with defeat of the amendment. Schlafly held a victory dinner at a Washington hotel. The elevated head table of dignitaries stretched around three sides of the ballroom. Amid the sea of tables on the floor sat a small group reporters, myself included, there to cover the event. As the night wore on, the rhetoric from the head table heated up with more than a few complaints aimed at that increasingly uncomfortable island of reporters.

Debate over what constitutes fair coverage has only increased in the ensuing years. Is Hillary Clinton treated more harshly by the press than Barack Obama? Her supporters certainly think so. Is it right to give equal coverage to both - or all - sides of every issue? Creationists argue that they deserve equal time to talk about evolution, but many scientists would disagree. Figuratively, reporters these days sit in the midst of an even more boisterous sea of critics.

Arguments over press fairness now play out in the blogosphere, where advocates of every stripe can choose to get their news from outlets that cater to their preconceived opinions. It's easy to insulate yourself from contact with opposing points of view.

Perhaps Phyllis Schlafly got more coverage than she deserved years ago. Certainly the press has a far from perfect record on covering controversial subjects fairly. But the bigger question these days is what happens in a democracy where point-of-view journalism is fashionable and many people are skeptical of the concept of a fair press with an obligation to represent different points of view.

With Schlafly back in the spotlight, that question is front and center again. What do you think?