Assuming this is the story the report is referring to (the PEJ report doesn’t embed links to the individual stories it mentions), that’s a fair description. And, in fact, MinnPost writer Doug Grow’s account of the debate is a good piece of journalism. But the “roughly equal space” given to each candidate is unremarkable, and has very little to do with the article’s quality. Most debate stories give roughly equal space to each candidate, after all, and most debate stories are also turgidly written and deeply unilluminating. Grow’s piece is good because it rejects the traditional debate write-up formula in which all the reporter has to do is devote an equal number of grafs to each candidate, and instead offers critical analysis of the exchanges between the candidates and the moderator. Whether that analysis is “ideological” (in this case it’s not, especially) is a less interesting question than whether or not it’s honest and intelligent (it is). But that latter question goes unasked throughout PEJ’s report.
Or consider this passage, from the report’s discussion of “story themes”:
One theme common in the coverage on sites that leaned in a conservative direction was the idea that government regulation hurts economic growth. An example is a Sept. 2 story in the Nevada News Bureau about a group of Nevada business leaders opposed to federal labor legislation they thought would stifle job growth. While supporters of the legislation were quoted in the piece, most of the article gave voice to opponents of the bill. “Adding burdens, expenses and red tape onto Nevada’s job producers is the fastest way to destroy jobs, not create them,” declared business leader Clara Andriola. Assertions and quotes echoing ideas such as Andrioloa’s outnumbered those on the other side in the story by a ratio of five-to-two, and the story was deemed to reflect primarily a conservative idea.
The favoring of a particular theme seems to distress the report’s authors. But the real problem with the story in question is that it’s just not very good—it’s a recitation of boilerplate quotes from one side (in this case, anti-union folks), leavened with a few boilerplate quotes from the other side (in this case, pro-union folks). Metro dailies have been producing exactly this sort of not-very-good article for decades—including, in many cases, apparent preference for pro-business or pro-labor themes—so it’s hard to see how the blame lies with the NNB’s status as a non-profit start-up. It’s also hard to see what more “balance” would have achieved. Had the number of quotes on each side been made even, but the level of pressure brought upon the talking heads remained negligible, would the story have become good? Hardly.
The tendentiousness of the report’s framing is further illustrated in its note that an AINN “story” that claimed that the expiration of unemployment benefits would push more people into poverty “contained no assertions to counter the idea that government is a force for good in society.” The “story” turns out to be a blog post that consists almost entirely of an excerpt from a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank. Yes, ideologically-aligned news sites publicize the work of sympathetic think tanks. No, they don’t get perfunctory comments from people who hold ideologically opposing views for each blog post. And no, those posts don’t carry the journalistic authority of longer, more deeply reported stories, nor do they pretend to. None of this is remarkable, nor will it deceive any sentient reader.
Meanwhile, the possibility that reporting from a specific ideological perspective might, at times, be helpful, goes unmentioned in the report. The Washington Independent, AINN’s now-defunct flagship, produced lots of excellent work that stood apart from the output of commercial media, and was informed by the outlet’s liberal leanings. (See for example Annie Lowery’s August 2010 article, “Death and Joblessness.”) And the watchdog.org family of sites, classified as ideologically conservative by PEJ, uncovered widespread errors in the official data on federal stimulus spending. I’m not a close reader of the Watchdog sites, but their impact seems thin overall; the importance of those errors turned out to be overstated. But if that’s the case, it’s not because there’s an inherent problem with a right-leaning news operation dedicated to exposing government waste and inefficiency. It’s because the sites need to do better work. (In fact, ideology can be an important motivator of valuable investigative journalism.)