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WOSTER: Fairness by the inch

Different folks measure fairness in media in different ways, but one of the oddest in my career as a news reporter came when the campaign manager for a political candidate measured it with a yardstick.

It happened back in the early 1970s when I worked for the wire service in Pierre. We had a daily feature -- or as near to daily as we could find copy to fill the space -- called political roundup or campaign roundup, something like that.

The wire service at the time was big on "roundups," which weren't so different from the roundups you might have seen on "The Big Valley" or in a John Wayne cowboy movie at the time. The cowboys gathered the cattle into one big herd in a real-life western roundup. The reporters gathered campaign tidbits from each of the candidates' speeches or live appearances and events into one big story, the campaign roundup.

The roundup was intended to give readers and listeners a glimpse at all the campaign activity of the day. Reporters might also single out individual campaigns or candidates for individual stories, depending on whether some campaign had done something that stood out from the usual speeches and statements. But the roundup gave every reader one daily, dependable place to get a quick shot of campaign happenings.

Anyway, I did a number of the campaign roundups during my early wire-service years, and I generally treated each roundup about the same, just trying to find some bit of news from each campaign that I could toss into the story so each candidate got a mention.

It wasn't Pulitzer stuff, but it was daily stuff, and I tried to make it interesting each day. I generally tried to switch the lead items, so that one campaign after another received the top billing. Top billing in the roundup pretty much guaranteed that campaign would be mentioned in the headline over the roundup that day.

One day the campaign manager with the yardstick stopped by the bureau to complain about my bias against his candidate. To prove his point, he pulled out a sheet of paper on which he had written some names and numbers.

His candidate had received the top spot in the roundup five fewer times than had the opponent in that race, the numbers showed. He had counted. The numbers also showed -- seriously, I thought he was joking at first, but he never cracked a smile throughout the pretty one-sided conversation -- that his candidate had, over the previous month of roundups, receive something like four or five fewer inches of space than had the opponent. He had measured. The campaign manager demanded equal treatment.

I told him I hadn't given that a thought. He didn't seem to believe me, and I couldn't come up with a better response.

That incident helped me appreciate that, whether reporters and editors believed it or not, people paid attention to the details, especially in the heat of political campaigns. He warned that if his candidate lost the race, he'd be holding a press conference to blame me.

His candidate did, in fact, lose that race. I hardly knew the candidate before the race, but we became friends in later years, and we joked a time or two about the yardstick method of measuring media fairness.

The candidate said he and his key campaign workers were aware that they were trailing in the race when the yardstick incident happened. People throw their entire being into campaigns, he said, and sometimes they become desperate when it appears they aren't getting their message across.

In the middle of a campaign, he said, it's easy to think if the voters got the message, the candidate would win. Only later, he said, did it occur to a candidate that perhaps the voters got the message and simply didn't agree with it.

"That's terribly difficult to accept, so you do some crazy things instead," he said.

For what it was worth, I told him, after the visit from the campaign manager, I paid more attention to how I crafted those campaign roundups. It turned out to be a learning experience for all.