Sunday, October 21, 2012

Newspaper Endorsements: Poisoned Ink

I've often been asked why I'm so vocal in my opposition to endorsements by our local newspaper. After all, newspapers have been making endorsements since the founding of the nation, and they are the, albeit self-appointed, public's watchdogs. Then too, there is the 1st Amendment issue. So, why do I make it a point of advising candidates of both parties to stay away from the editorial board's interview and encouraging the general public to do their own research and make up their own minds?

First, as most people who know me will attest, I've never been a "party" person. I'm really not much of a joiner, especially if that means blind obedience or goose stepping in lockstep. Group think has never been my cup of hemlock. And I'm not alone in my thinking. Many great political philosophers down through history believed in a knowledgeable electorate. In fact, a well informed electorate is all that keeps us from tyranny in its many forms. Anytime, someone or some group comes along and offers blanket solutions, we should get very nervous.

In the beginnings of democracy, especially in America's nation of shopkeepers and farmers, the only way to find out what was happening was through the newspaper or local scandal sheet. There was simply no other way to keep informed. It didn't take long for editors to hoist upon their shoulders the mantle of "protector". They proclaimed they would do whatever it took to uncover corruption and scandal wherever it was (and if there wasn't any, create it, and thus, "Yellow Journalism" was born). Along with "protecting" the public's virtues, the papers began endorsed candidates which agreed with their thinking. So, by their definition, only those whose agenda's matched their were deemed worthy of being elected. A rather arrogant and narrow minded perspective to say the least. Of course, you typically had newspapers on both sides so the public could at least decided what "virtues" it wanted protected.

Today, we have a vast array of news sources, and while newspapers rank near the bottom of the list, they persist in their parental prerogative to manipulate public opinion, be it through slanted articles to outright bias against a particular party, candidate, or cause. Not that I am picking on newspapers mind you; television networks, talk radio and "news" oriented shows give the same or worse spin. However, only newspapers endorse. Can you imagine CNN, MSNBC, FOX, or for that matter, Hannity or Rachael Maddow coming out and endorsing candidates? And why not? They have every right to. But they won't. They give their spin and leave it at that, so why don't newspapers? Could it be that the editorial boards of the nation's newspapers know their influence is on the wane and this is their last attempt to hold on to something akin to the power over public opinion they once enjoyed?

The other issue I have with these endorsements is the blatant bias they show. Only a tiny handful of newspapers actually give candidates or specific issues a fair shake. Most do slipshod research and/or misreport the facts. Take for example my own run in 2001. Our editorial board reported my opponent's had community service (he was a part time high school football coach) while failing to mention that was 15 - 20 years past while not mentioning that I was serving in senior leadership position on five non-profit and quasi-government boards. They didn't mention my opponent recently switched parties while I was serving as an officer on several party related clubs. When it came to the questions, they again failed to mention that my opponent struggled with the issues. They made similar mistakes when I ran again in 2004. In doing my own researching, I found this was actually commonplace and had been going on for years, if not decades. When I began questioning it, I was "blackballed". None of my articles were any longer published. I continued to question more loudly. I demanded they publish the names and party affiliations of the interviewers and the unedited questions and responses. I also insisted the interviewers be comprised of one Democrat, one Republican, and one Independent (they were always all liberal Democrats. Can you imagine a conservative having a fair shot at an endorsement?). What I wanted was for the public to have an unbiased opportunity to evaluate each candidate and make up their own mind. While I don't pretend to take any credit, at least many of the interviews are now videotaped and posted on the newspaper's webpage.

I believe in fair play and honesty in politics (rare concepts these days I know). Candidates are asked to complete questionnaires about their positions on various issues. Their responses go into a voter guide. I believe they should continue to do so. It may be the only way the public can compare the candidates fairly. The editorial board needs to be ideologically balanced. All interviews should be unedited. Like the founders of democracy, including our Founding Fathers, I believe in a well informed electorate. They need to take the time to understand the issues, and they need to make their own informed decisions based on the abundant information available, including the voter guides. But, We the People no longer have need of ink stained "big brothers". We are quite capable of making up our own minds thank you.

What can you do? Most importantly, ignore the endorsements. Read the voter guide. Do your own homework. Think for yourself. Vote! Write or email your local newspaper and demand that they stop trying to manipulate public opinion and that you will encourage people to ignore their endorsements as well. Remind them that they serve good of the public---that means everyone. Insist on impartial reporting. Finally, just do whatever it takes to get the word out. Write or comment on blogs, call into talk shows, or start a local petition. The more people are engaged, the better quality of government we will have, and that starts with the election.

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