Media endorsements in the age of the new left

By John Wight,

Media endorsements are a fixture of the political season. But have you ever wondered who are the people who make them? The endorsements are not insights delivered from on high but rather the opinions of ordinary people who are trying to use their extraordinary access to the public to influence the election.

But what do they know that the citizens don’t know? What goes into their decision-making? Why would anyone care what he or she thinks? To answer those questions, we need information, or transparency, so this political season I asked Willamette Week and The Oregonian to make their endorsement systems transparent. When asked to come in for an endorsement interview, I sent the following email:

“For the sake of transparency, I invite [your newspaper] to shed a little light on a dark corner of the political process, specifically media endorsements of candidates. [Your newspaper] could lead off the endorsement season by running a story on how these endorsements are made and by whom among the various media sources in the community.

“A good first step would be full disclosure by [your newspaper] of who and how those decisions are made at your own publication. Specifically, resumes of those involved including education, work history, civic involvement, political involvement, personal preferences in past candidates and personal or professional relationships with political candidates. If the endorsement decision is not a subjective decision, what criteria does each person use to make the endorsement decision?

” Isn’t it time to set an example to transparency?

” I would like to receive this information before my interview. I look forward to hearing from you.”

I received no reply from Willamette Week, despite repeated efforts. The initial response from The Oregonian was positive. They emailed, “Good idea, John. You raise valid points, and I’ll try to respond early next week in a helpful way. I do believe our editorial page editor, Bob Caldwell, has written on the endorsement process in past years, and I’ll see if I can dig out what he’s published and e-mail it to you. Meanwhile, have a great weekend.”

In the end, my Oregonian correspondent was overruled and the Oregonian refused to shed any light on the situation. However, my final conversation with them, before I declined the interview when I told them that I did not seek and would not accept their endorsement, was illuminating. The conversation was after the Vice Presidential debate and I asked if The Oregonian thought, in the name of journalistic ethics, that Gwen Ifill of PBS should have disclosed her political preferences and that she was writing a book whose success depended greatly on an Obama victory, before she was selected as the moderator. The Oregonian refused to answer the question all though I repeated it numerous times. Where is the unblinking eye of the TV camera when you need it? So much for the oxymoron called “journalistic ethics.”

Since Willamette Week would not respond in writing or by phone, I went to the recorded interview and made the same request. It was a shame that the cameras did not show the faces of the Willamette Week interrogators as they tried to defend their efforts to hide their agendas, faces and resumes from the voters. Enron execs doing the perp walk showed more confidence in their positions. They tried to say that transparency only applies to politicians who have a conflict of interest but a quick Google of their web site had shown me that they demanded transparency of everyone, except themselves. They continued to quibble and dodge.

So what is it we should know about these anonymous endorsers? I asked them for their criteria. They claimed they had no criteria for making endorsements. Such a claim is ludicrous. Can you imagine having an interview for any position without some forethought about the selection criteria? A claim not to have any predetermined criteria either shows a high level of naiveté and inexperience or dishonesty.

Personally, before I am going to put any importance in someone’s opinion, I want to know how their knowledge and experience leads them to a conclusion. You can get medical advice from a stranger on the bus but are you going to attach any importance to it without knowing if the person has some experience or expertise?

What kind of hands-on community or governmental experience do these newspaper folks have? Have they owned a business, have they had a responsible governmental position? Do they have kids in school and if so where and when. What was their involvement with school, daycare, etc? Quite frankly, I like to get some idea of a persons support for their favorite charity. How are politicians and editors qualified to talk about spreading the wealth when their own charitable contributions are paltry? So I want to know how much the editors are willing to spread their time and wealth before I put much stock in their tax and “investment” recommendations.

One of the Willamette Week interviewers did send me his resume and it’s a good resume if you are hiring a reporter. But it showed no civic, community, charitable or public service commitments. So who cares what he thinks? I don’t.

I think one of the primary purposes of these interviews is a cover for the lack of transparency. The newspaper can say the have interviewed the candidates and determined one to be more fit than the other. Shouldn’t we draw attention to this sham by refusing to participate until the newspapers disclose their agendas and backgrounds? It is, after all, the Forth Estate.

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  • John Fairplay

    I think you’ve provided us with a little discovered truth there, John. It’s bad enough that these folks are trying to tell us how to vote, but they are also telling us what to think through their day-to-day news coverage. The Oregonian – just to pick one of your examples – is woefully out of touch with our state on any number of issues, gay marriage being the most obvious one. The fact that they are out of touch doesn’t cause them so much as a moment’s pause because they are not seekers after truth and knowledge, but rather automatons who know what everyone else should think. And they say George Bush has no intellectual curiosity!

    In the Oregonian’s case, the main qualification they are looking for is whether the candidate is a Democrat. They proved this by failing to endorse Steve Griffith for the State House whose “only flaw” the paper said was that he was a Republican.

    Newspaper reporters and editors are unqualified to determine whether a candidate for office has what it takes to do a good job or not. They should either begin hiring people who are qualified, or get out of the endorsement business entirely.

  • William Penn

    Nice job John, but don’t let this go. Please stay the course and hammer these fools. Woefully it is a worldwide problem. The liberal media (the whole lot of them) like politicians are now in my opinion lower than the proverbial criminal defense lawyers. With the deregulation of our rules on media ownership, the Rupert Murdock’s of the world now pass all of their vial twisted and dark thoughts to the top of the agenda for all of the media outlets they own. I am sick of it and will go out of my way to avoid them. Looks like the stinky O has the same problem as our local government, both unqualified and both suck.

  • John Wight

    It seems funny to be posting on my own article, but after I wrote it, there was an article by the Oregonian letter page editor, who is retiring.

    She states, “I have learned that open, honest debate is the most satisfying.” Yet on most issues the Oregonian only prints letters from the far left fringe. It is not because the Oregonian did not receive any short insight full letters with a different point of view. I wrote a lot of them and they printed a few, but after I took aim at the Oregonian editorial policies and politics, they cut me off.

    The retiring editrix defends this unsatisfying lack of debate by saying, “I learned that our readers are about 90 percent “liberal” (and that’s why we print so many “liberal” letters — that’s what people write).”

    This insight tells me that she simply doesn’t know or care what the Oregonian readership is (or was before so many non-liberals cancelled their subscriptions) but also that she and her bosses do not care about open, honest debate.

  • Jerry

    I only care what these “journalists” think so I know to think otherwise.

    • Congratuation. Webmaster!!! Your site the best!!!

  • John in Oregon

    Another question might be just what an endorsement is worth these days. Depending on the particular media entity my conclusion is not very much.

    That observation is based on plummeting circulation and falling legacy media values. I find no better example than the New York Times who’s stock value in a few short years has fallen from $50 to $7.25, who’s debt is now Junk Bond status, and who is now on the short sell watch list along with Gannett and Meredith Companies.

    Does anyone doubt that the Oregonian is anything more than the mouth piece and media arm of the local Democrat power structure? Living in Portland or rural Oregon we have a biased view of the Oregonian. Consider the Kansas City Star as a neutral example. Thanks to Jack Cashill.

    Kansas City serves as the de facto capital of an agri-business region. The Star, suffers from plummeting circulation and revenue. “[A]nalysts have given McClatchy [the Star’s owner] credit for cutting expenses … Still, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “Unless revenue begins to improve . . . it is unclear how much more the company can do.”

    In the last 3 years McClatchy has seen its share prices drop from the $50 to the $3 range.

    “A recent posting on bottomline.com sums up the Star’s precarious state of affairs. “More cuts in Kansas City were announced today in the newsroom,” writes an insider. “Most Star reporters have been carefully selecting what stories they cover for fear of irritating editors and being next on the list. Forget journalism, this is survival.”

    Jack notes “This campaign season The Kansas City Star passed on a parcel of the nation’s most eye-popping stories. Incredibly, at least five of those stories flared up in the Star’s home state, Missouri. As the reader might guess, all five stories reflected unfavorably on Democratic candidates.”

    “This is nothing new. What is new is that by censoring such stories the Star has continued to show its indifference to the majority of its potential customers even as it struggles to stay afloat. This kind of commercial death wish may be a first not just in the annals of journalism, but in the annals of American business.”

    Cashill then notes “One innovation that the Star and its sister papers could make to attract readership is to report the news.”

    “Take the Democratic Convention… On its opening night, while Michelle Obama addressed the delegates in Denver, Barack Obama camped out in a Missouri home to watch. The Star’s ace political reporter Steve Kraske was there to take notes.”

    “At the end of the Michelle’s speech, Barack joined his wife and daughters over closed circuit TV. Said he unthinkingly, “I’m here with the Girardeau family here in St. Louis”… This was an awkward moment for Missouri Democrats, not because Obama needlessly repeated the word “here,” but because the Girardeaus live in midtown Kansas City.”

    That comment received national attention, “This is a gaffe. Kansas City and St. Louis hate each other”… “For the Star, however, it was all Omerta, all the time. Kraske chose not to rat out Obama, not even not even with a gentle poke in the ribs. Kraske’s righteous silence set the stage for what was to follow.”

    Joe Biden needed all the willful silence he could get. In September, while introducing big shots at a rally in Columbia, Missouri, Biden urged a man in a wheelchair “Chuck, stand up, Chuck” It never happened in the Star.

    “In early October, KMOV News 4 in St. Louis ran a feature on Missouri’s “Barack Obama Truth Squads.” These squads, the viewer was told, were composed of Democratic prosecutors and sheriffs from throughout the state that support Barack Obama.”

    “This was not just News 4 reporter John Mills … opinion. He interviewed St. Louis County Circuit Attorney Bob McCulloch and St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, both Obama supporters.

    “We are here to respond to any character attacks, to set the record straight,” said Joyce. The exact nature of that response was left unspoken, but, as she had to understand, a warning letter from a prosecutor carries a little more weight than one from a campaign staffer. In fact, it can quickly chill speech to the freezing point.”

    “Mills’ piece attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the KMOV News 4 site, but not the stand-up guys in the stoolie-free Star’s newsroom. The editors email blasted their “10 hot topics” for the next few days without so much as a whisper about the Truth Squads or Missouri Governor Matt Blunt’s denunciation of them as “scandalous beyond words.”

    “A week later, a YouTube video caught the shocked attention of just about every one in America without an Obama bumper sticker. The video showed a squad of junior varsity storm troopers at the Urban Community Leadership Academy, a Kansas City charter school. They boys were marching in military attire, on public school time and property, chanting “Yes we can” in praise of Obama.”

    “The Star did not report on the Obama Youth video until the following day and then under the comically gentle headline, “Schools tread a tightrope when teaching about election.” Tightrope? This story did not make the “Start Smart” top ten either.”

    Cashill has much more, but those examples set the tone of the news story that didn’t bark. Embargoed news.

    I hear the question now, that maters to Oregon because? Even in decline the Star and the Oregonian represent the largest news gathering resource in the area. Both papers drive the local news cycle, the AP state news wire, the local TV media.

    If something happens in Baker City the local weekly might have page one coverage and never mentioned anywhere else in the state. It’s impossible to see that far from the Oregonian executive editors office.

    Earlier this year the Oregon ethics commission imposed draconian reporting rules suited to the professional Portland politician. Ill suited to part-time rural political volunteers, the barber who served as mayor, the truck driver on the planning commission the new rules were greeted by mass resignation.

    It took the Oregonian nearly 2 weeks to notice and only then by rephrasing the ethics commission press release which said gee guys we don’t understand why they should be upset with releasing personal and family private information.

    Did you see any follow-up in the Oregonian?

    More recently the Governor has proposed raising fees and taxes for an initiative to repair aging bridges and roads. Did the Oregonian ask what happened to the half Billion dollars spent just 5 years ago to repair aging bridges?

    More importantly the governors initiative appears to contain a proposal for an appointed, unelected, independent tax and fee commission. That story deserves the page one headline;

    *Governor proposes removing fees and taxes from voter preview*

    Yeah right, like that would ever happen.

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