In these times, when Americans daily parse the media for any sign of political bias, it is hard to know what to make of the Alaska Dispatch News headlining “Ben Stevens, former Alaska Senate president once investigated for corruption, ponders bid for governor.”
On the right, there are those now confident this is a sign the liberal media is out to get the son of former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. On the left, there are those happy to see the younger Stevens tied to a more than decade-old investigation that went nowhere.
And it’s certainly possible the Dispatch News, which is home to a few people who’ve long disliked the Stevens family, wanted to slap around the politician who disappeared into the political wilderness for a long time to work as a tugboat skipper only to re-emerge as a possible, potential, longshot gubernatorial candidate.
Some of these people, having heard Stevens mentioned as a possible entry in the Republican primary, might even have thought they could scare him out of the Republican race. Yes, there are reporters and editors self-important enough to believe such things possible.
But these aren’t the only possibilities. And there’s the rub.
More plus than minus?
Bias here, as in so many cases in journalism, hinges in significant part on where from a story came in our age of information, disinformation and misinformation. The best fake news is real in some parts small or large.
And if I’m Ben Stevens, I want this story out there now because I don’t want the questions popping up as an issue on down the line if I do decide to run. I want this bit of already old-news dealt with so that by election times its ancient news.
If former Gov. Sean Parnell had done this with the Alaska National Guard sex scandal, he’d probably still be governor. He didn’t. The scandal dragged into the election cycle, and it was enough to cost Parnell election by about 6,000 votes.
But in this case, there’s more for Stevens to gain then just getting some old baggage out in the open to be aired before an election. The way the Dispatch News wrote the story is almost like someone wanted to tee the ball up for Stevens going into the Republican primary.
“Ben Stevens, the former Republican Alaska Senate president who federal authorities investigated for political corruption, says he’s thinking about running for governor in next year’s election,” the lead on the story said.
Unstated is the fact the investigation took place more than a decade ago and that federal authorities closed it without filing any charges. The ADN presentation is made to order for a political counter-attack.
Given Stevens’ name recognition – quick, name any two other candidates in the Republican race – and the Dispatch News’ reputation in Republican circles as the evil empire, the 58-year-old skipper could almost use this one story to launch a succesful Republican election campaign:
Roll camera. Stevens, looking fit and healthy like the hockey player he still is and wearing the classic Alaska plaid shirt, walks into the camera at the Port of Anchorage. Behind are one of those tugs he helps run pushing a container ship towards the docks.
“Hi,” he says, “I’m Ben Stevens, and I’m running for governor because I want to put Alaska and Alaskans back to work. The liberal media doesn’t like that. So they’re trying to smear me the way they smeared my father, Sen. Ted Stevens. They called him corrupt. As it turned out, it was the federal bureaucracy that was corrupt. Even the Obama administration recognized that. But the Alaska liberal media doesn’t care. They view anyone who wants to get Alaska working as a threat to the welfare state they adore. Help me send them a message that you, like me, believe the best welfare is a job. We can get Alaska moving again. I’m Ben Stevens, and I’m counting on your vote.”
Granted, it is unlikely that reporter Nat Herz and his editors were thinking about this latter possibility when they wrote a story that focused largely upon what happened but didn’t happen 11 year ago. The capper was the 2006 photo of FBI agents hauling boxes out of the offices of then Senate President Stevens.
It did look sort of like a smear, but looks can be deceiving.
It’s not impossible someone in the Stevens camp suggested Herz do a story or got someone to suggest to him a story. Stevens name hasn’t really been out there as a potential candidate; it’s sort of been floating around the edges of out there.
Herz would be an easy mark for enticement by anyone right, left or center. Journalists get played all the time. Sometimes the best of them get played the worst. Herz is a young journalist who likes to think of himself as a hard-hitting political reporter, and to some degree he is.
Which is what underlines the problem with all of the fretting about journalistic bias.
Unless you know the origin of the story, which sometimes even the reporters have forgotten by the time it gets written, it’s hard to assess the intent. One woman’s smear is another man’s T-ball; you know, the kid’s baseball game where they put the ball up on a tee to make it easy to hit.
There could be all kinds of motives involved here. The Dispatch News is in bankruptcy. It could end up with new owners, if it survives. The Binkleys of Fairbanks look to be the only people, at this time, willing to at least try to save a business at risk of losing $8 million this year.
John Binkley, the family patriarch, is a former Republican candidate for governor. There is talk he might make another run. Was the Stevens story an attempt to scare off a potential rival?
It never hurts to please new bosses, or in this case the father of the new bosses, if you want to keep your job.
Or was this some crazy plot concocted in cooperation with the Binkleys to aid Stevens’ chances. There have been rumors that Binkley, Stevens and other business-minded Republicans have discussed their shared interest in repairing the Alaska economy and who among them might have the best chance of winning election.
You have to believe that John Binkley – the father of Ryan Binkley, the leader of the group trying to buy the Dispatch News – understands the metrics of the situation. He’s been a very successful business man all his life.
If the Binkleys pull off the ADN purchase, his running for governor would be bad business for both the business and any Binkley for Governor campaign. A Binkley-owned, largest-Alaska-media organization covering a Binkley for Governor campaign would look all too much like Alice Rogoff 2.0 on steroids.
It could further damage a brand already tarnished by Rogoff, and about to be roughly introduced to economic realities. To keep the paper alive, if it can be kept alive, the Binkleys are going to need to buy it out of bankruptcy cheap.
All of which means the approximately 200 people owed more than $2 million – dozens upon dozens of them the owners of small businesses – are likely to get screwed.
And then the Binkleys are going to have to make large cuts in Dispatch News staff to try to get costs in line with revenues. All of which means a significant number of people are sure to lose their jobs.
In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email, all it would take is one spark of discontent to ignite all that tinder into perfect political firestorm. And if the Binkleys have the money to subsidize Rogoff-size losses to keep the paper running, it might only be worse.
Then someone is bound to ask: Why exactly did they buy? A newspaper or influence?
Isn’t it fun to speculate? And it’s all speculation. Wild speculation. I’d say the chances the Binkleys put Herz up to this are between zero and minus-10, but you can read all sorts of craziness into the news.
What is bias?
I’m doing it here purely to illustrate how the fixation on media bias can lead to all sorts of different conclusions. And make no doubt, the media is biased. We all are. It’s human nature for thinking people.
We look at the world through our own, personal lens of right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust. It’s hard to rise above that.
Knowing personally some of Herz’s editors at the Daily News, it’s not hard to believe that they might want to stick it to Stevens. Rich Mauer, who carried the water for the FBI during the Ted Stevens affair still believes the late Senator was guilty even though legal analyst Jeffery Toobin, writing in The New Yorkers, has called the case “a profoundly unjust use of government power against an individual—a case flawed in both conception and execution.”
Some of what Herz writes appears regurgitated from Mauer’s notebooks, too. But then you have to wonder why anyone would be naive enough to pitch Stevens a softball like this.
You don’t have to be a public-relations rock star to recognize that making a big deal out of a conservative Republican being the subject of an 11-year-old FBI investigation that went nowhere is growing to draw accusations of liberal, media bias that only helps the candidate in the Republican primary.
The Dispatch News might well have moved Stevens from possible candidate to Republican gubernatorial contender in one fell swoop. It’s only reasonable to wonder: Accident or design?