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The Tentacle


October 18, 2006

Media Endorsements - Who Cares?

Chris Patterson

The General Election nears and it's time to ask ourselves how we will vote. But in deciding this important question, consider how much you are influenced by local media endorsements. Is it a little? Or a lot? Perhaps somewhere between the two?

This issue has disturbed this former reporter since my first days writing for a local paper. Our editors and publisher - known as the editorial board - would interview candidates and then produce editorials endorsing certain candidates.

Some of the biggest names in the news business produce endorsements at each election, and then, in another breathe, tout the paper's independence, fairness, and unbiased reporting.

Can the news media continue to have its cake and eat it, too? Can it - should it - be allowed to continue telling us it is fair and unbiased, but at the same time openly endorsing certain candidates?

Does this bother anyone else?

As a former reporter, no pressure was ever applied on anyone I know of, at least not that I'm aware of. Not once did any editor I ever worked for back down from a story because the paper had endorsed a candidate involved in the story.

On the other hand, there was one occasion when I heard someone of great influence say openly that we should find anything we could on a certain person. I found that statement to be distressing, to say the least.

But, on a personal level, I have to admit that there was something I found even more distressing. Readers would routinely assault reporters verbally after endorsements were published. We were accused of being influenced in our reporting by our bosses.

We, who were not allowed to express public opinions, not allowed to be part of organizations (or at least not write about anything at all even remotely related to an organization we were a part of), and not allowed to sport a bumper sticker or place a sign in our yard for a candidate, were accused of sharing the opinions of our editors and publishers.

Further, we were not allowed to rebut those endorsements either. Only the editorial board is and was allowed to exercise free speech. All we could say is, "We didn't do it. It was the Editorial Board" (which is made up of our bosses...).

So, why shouldn't readers think a paper's reporting will naturally be biased? Is it just because the little peons who write the stories aren't permitted to put up signs for candidates?

Pish, posh. No one I have ever met, outside of the publishing biz, has ever considered a reporter's writing on politics unbiased, particularly when the paper openly supports particular candidates.

By example, consider The Frederick News Post, which does not published endorsements. You need only read the letters to the editor to see that the paper is - on any given day - accused of being a conservative mouthpiece and another moment a liberal rag. Reporting the stories without bias, which they usually seem to do (these days anyway), will still get you accusations of bias.

So, imagine how much abuse reporters on newspapers get that do publish endorsements. It's wicked.

So, why do papers do it?

Seriously, it's because they cannot help themselves. They are inundated with the real stories more than the average folk. And in every publication they present their collective opinion in the form of an editorial on the subject du jour, such as crime rates, water shortages or traffic.

But nothing gets their collective blood flowing like the power show by politicians. There simply isn't anyone in the business who doesn't have strong feelings politically and they go in every direction.

Now, don't imagine newspapers publish endorsements to "help" readers, either. Readers have told me and my fellow reporters many times that the help they need is - "Oh Lord" - not another opinion. The help they want and need is someone to report the facts in context and to debunk allegations made by each party or candidate against the other. It's that simple.

A summary of the key issues related to the candidates around election time would be great, but more opinions, heavens no.

Listen! You can consider and enjoy everyone's opinion as entertainment, but their opinions are in no way more valuable than yours. Just because a group of people, who won't identify themselves individually, gives themselves a fancy, important sounding name like "Editorial Board" doesn't mean their collective opinion is better than yours. They are still individuals with strong personal opinions about policies and political parties, just like you.

So, where do you go to figure out for whom to vote?

The best places to find out about the candidates are places where you can hear and see the candidates themselves. Read the League of Women Voters Election Guides (http://www.lwvmd.org/vg/Frederick.html); or read the Voters Guides each paper puts together featuring the words of the candidates themselves www.TheGazette.net.

The Frederick News Post will publish an Election Coverage section featuring readers' questions to the candidates closer to November 7; so get a piece of that action by signing up with them www.fredericknewspost.com. All of these sources will be published soon, if they aren't available already.

Attend debates and forums. Go meet the candidates. These people decide on your taxes, your roads, and your homeland security. Taking a little time to see just who they really are is one of the most important things you can do.

But, if you can't do it, and many of us can't, don't be afraid to send them an e-mail, or call them to ask the question that matters most to you.

Read stories interviewing candidates on specific issues. Pay attention to what they actually said. Hopefully it's being printed in context.

Bottom line, make up your own mind and don't be discouraged by all the horse hockey everyone throws. You can learn enough about the candidates to make an informed decision without depending on others to do it for you.

Oh, and one more thing. Please don't blame the reporters for their papers' endorsements. Reporters aren't important enough, nor do they get paid enough, to play any part in deciding those things.

Cut 'em a little slack, okay?



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