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When the Associated Press broke last week that staffers in N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration have been asking journalists and others to pay for public records, state political media moved quickly to criticize the practice. Though lawyers for N.C. media organizations have been meeting with the McCrory administration since at least October over the issue, last week marked the first chance journalists got to publicly bite back at the Governor’s office — an opportunity many were quick to take. As reports of the fee policy are picked up by more and more national news outlets, the sparring between McCrory and N.C. journalists is growing more visible.

But when it comes to very public fights with members of the media, it’s hard to beat the precedent McCrory set in August with an off-hand comment to a room of business owners. McCrory’s statement that his economic policies are “too complex for the journalists” drew the ire of media across the state and nation. In a biting editorial for the News & Observer, Executive Editor John Drescher called into question McCrory’s own qualifications to judge economic policy, writing, “confidence is not a bad thing. But might McCrory … have overestimated hisself a bit?” Even in spot news coverage of the statement, mainstream and nonpartisan outlets inserted a dash of editorial sarcasm. Raleigh’s WRAL concluded a short piece for online with this poignant background information:

“It may be worth noting that McCrory’s campaign website says he graduated from ‘Catawba College in Rowan County, where he earned degrees in Education and Political Science.’ There’s no mention of an economics degree.”

And the introspective editorializing around McCrory’s relationship with the press has not slowed. Just this week Taylor Batten, the editorial page editor for The Charlotte Observer, published an opinion piece titled, “The source of all McCrory’s troubles? Headlines,” wherein he accuses the governor of being obsessed with his image in the press.

While McCrory’s inability to woo journalists is certainly fair game for state media, when the story reflects back on the news outlet new ethical concerns come into play. Though the state is three years away from electing or reelecting a governor, political writers and editors have to be ever-mindful of the degree to which the content of their stories can inadvertently sway voters. As newsrooms across North Carolina play with humor and mild criticism in their coverage of their own relationship with McCrory, at what point does subtle critique become mocking — and at what point does journalism become editorializing? When does a public disagreement between two parties bias voters against politicians, or even newsrooms?

In his 2005 study of the satire-news format of The Daily Show, UNC-Greensboro media studies professor Geoffrey Baym analyses the value of playfulness and sarcasm in political media. Praising The Daily Show for its skeptical independence from the post-9/11 mob mentality of political news outlets, Baym argues that mainstream media has much to learn from the show’s format. He suggests that humor and self-reflection on the part of the news media, often looked down upon as unprofessional and biasing, can actually have the effect of sharpening an outlet’s ability to get to the heart of a story:

“The blending of news and satire confronts a system of political communication that largely has degenerated into soundbites and spin with critical inquiry … Lying just beneath or perhaps imbricated within the laughter is a quite serious demand for fact, accountability, and reason in political discourse.”

If used sparingly and evenly across subject matters, Baym argues unorthodox, satirical writing styles can imbue news with a sense of editorial voice that stops short of bias. When outlets like the N&O, WRAL and The Charlotte Observer appropriately utilize critical humor to illustrate their disagreements with the governor’s stance on media, they may in fact come off as more trustworthy to readers by virtue of their self-awareness. As the spat between McCrory and the journalists that report on him seems unlikely to cool in the face of what may become a public records lawsuit, state news outlets seemed poised to take their coverage in new, creative directions.

And frankly, it just makes for good reading.

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