The army of conservative researchers, fellows, scholars, lawyers, judges and former politicians who are affiliated with Art Pope-backed groups have ensconced themselves on the op-ed pages of The News & Observer.

Their prominence in The N&O, particularly the op-ed page, has prompted some left-of-center groups to doubt the paper’s commitment to balance.

In 2010, writers from the John Locke Foundation, Civitas Institute, N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law and John William Pope Center for Higher Education were afforded 30 columns on the editorial pages, according to the Indy‘s analysis of a year’s worth of the N&O‘s op-ed pages. This number includes nine columns from university faculty affiliates to the John Locke Foundation.

That compares to just to 12 by liberal groups affiliated with the N.C. Justice Center, including the N.C. Budget & Tax Center. Ten colunns were also written by Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. He sits on the Justice Center board, but was not writing columns in that capacity.

N&O Editorial Page Editor Steve Ford, who oversees the section, says he finds nothing alarming about those numbers. The N&O does not solicit those pieces, Ford says, but rather the op-eds are submitted; the paper’s editorial page staff selects them based on timeliness and tone.

However, Ford acknowledged that Pope-backed organizations “are pretty aggressive about putting stuff in front of us and wanting to be part of the mix, and occasionally they get in.”

Critics acknowledge that Pope and the groups his foundation funds are key players in state politics. But they counter that The N&O shouldn’t give them an unmediated platform unless his groups are making news, not just commenting on it.

They also question why Rick Martinez, a “locally based conservative” whose wife, Donna Martinez, worked as an associate editor for the Carolina Journal, which is affiliated with the John Locke Foundation, is afforded weekly op-ed space. It’s also worth noting that Martinez already has a media platformand the influence that it brings: He is the news director of WPTF, which airs many conservative programs, and co-hosts a show with his wife.

Ford says he isn’t concerned about the association, adding that Martinez brings a local conservative perspective to the op-ed pages.

Asked if he compares Martinez’ columns to positions taken by the Carolina Journal, Ford replied, “I don’t monitor him, no.”

Five years ago, progressive blogger James Protzman of BlueNC noticed an increase in the number of expert sources, op-ed pieces and other column inches allotted to groups connected to Art Pope in The N&O and starting tallying.

After tabulating 2,696 mentions of “John Locke Foundation,” “John Hood,” the Foundation’s president, and “Pope Center” and “News and Observer,” on Google, almost 20 times the number of mentions of the N.C. Justice Center, N.C. Policy Watch and other left-leaning groups, Protzman, a harsh critic of Pope, questioned the paper’s leadership.

Then-N&O Public Editor Ted Vaden, now a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation, responded in a Sunday column “A conservative Locke on the paper?” He disagreed with some of Protzman’s points, noting that the Locke Foundation’s 28-member staff and daily analysis and commentary was not analogous to N.C. Policy Watch, a small liberal think tank. At the time, N.C. Policy Watch advocated positions but didn’t produce original information. The group, housed by the N.C. Justice Center, has since added staff and creates more original content.

But Vaden agreed that Pope-funded groups were having an impact on the news.

The N&O would not be serving its readers well if it ignored or downplayed the Locke Foundation. By virtue of generous funding, professional organization and aggressive leadership, it is a big player in North Carolina policy debate and warrants coverage as such,” he wrote.

“But the newspaper also should bring the same skepticism to the Locke information machine that it does to other powerful institutions. Reporters should resist the temptation to go to (John) Hood and Co. for the easy conservative quote and look instead for other voices from the right. The Locke Foundation reports and other information should be scrutinized to separate propaganda from fact.”

And lastly, the foundation should be considered “not just a resource” but as “an opinion manufacturer that is itself a story.”

How has the paper responded in the almost five years since that charge?

On the opinion side, Ford says he’s “comfortable with how we have comported ourselves since then.”

“I think you would have to look at the pieces and see if basically they were something that added to the conversation,” Ford said. “We feel like to the extent of the [N&O staff] editorials, as they sometimes are characterized as being, tend to run a little to the left, if the op-ed page runs a little to the right, that would serve the overall purpose of balance.”

In the newsroom, Executive Editor John Drescher says he agrees with Vaden but that “the ground has shifted.”

Drescher says think tanks are playing a more important role, so they show up more often in the newspaper and help contribute to “broad-based reporting.”

“He spends millions manufacturing opinions and they swallow it,” Protzman says.

Not so, Drescher says. “I think he’s underestimating the quality of the work that the Locke Foundation does. I think they do some research that’s worth writing about, and I think that’s true from groups on the left also,” Drescher says. “I guess [Protzman is] advocating that we ignore a group that’s become a major force in North Carolina politics, and that would seem kind of odd to me.”

The N&O has been criticized for using the Civitas Institute as a polling resource. The group, also connected to the Pope Foundation, promotes itself as “North Carolina’s conservative voice.”

Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC’s Program on Public Life, was the polling coordinator at The N&O for two decades. He says the newspaper performed a public service by providing its own nonpartisan poll. ‘They were expensive to do, but we thought it was part of our duty as a respectable organ or journalism,” he said.

Drescher says he hasn’t had the budget to do polling for at least two years, but that he’s “never been a political horse race polling kind of fan,” and that the Civitas polls usually run online.

The N&O identifies the poll as “conservative.” Guillory says the paper should explain that each Civitas poll release comes with a panel discussion and “a larger effort to build their support.”

Think tank members are often quoted because they are accessible and quotable but Guillory says legislators and citizens should be used as primary sources.

“In a democracy in a public forum, data information and opinion have currency,” says Guillory. “Art Pope has used his money has invested in these kind of assets.”

Adair Crane contributed to this story.

The N&O‘s 10 most frequent op-ed authors

Writers from the John Locke Foundation, the John W. Pope Foundation forHigher Education, the Civitas Institute and others with ties to Art Popepenned 30 columns in the N&O in 2010. That accounts for 9.5 percent of the 315 columns submitted by N.C.-based authors that ran on the op-ed page.

In total, including syndicated national columns, the N&O ran 1,112 op-eds in 2010. George Will and Charles Krauthammer, both from the Washington Post Writers Group, and Rick Martinez, a contributing columnist for the N&O, lead the way.NameAffiliation# of
% of total
George Will Washington Post Writers Group 74 6.7 Charles Krauthammer Washington Post Writers Group 48 4.3 Rick Martinez contributing columnist, news director at WPTF, NC News Network 45 4.0 Eugene Robinson Washington Post Writers Group 43 3.9 Jack Betts Charlotte Observer associate editor, Raleigh columnist 43 3.9 Steve Ford N&O editorial page editor 38 3.4 Paul Krugman New York Times 37 3.3 Froma Harrop Providence Journal editorial board, Creators Syndicate 33 3.0 David Broder Washington Post Writers Group 33 3.0 Jim Jenkins N&O deputy editorial page editor 29 2.6