‘Tis the season for elections – and insanity
Many of us who work at The Union have a strong inclination to take a vacation somewhere far away from Nevada County during the last few weeks before a local election.
It’s an emotional time for many readers. Many of them will believe at one time or another that the newspaper is biased. And not a few of them will pick up the phone to let the newspaper know about the bias they perceive.
Newspaper reporters and editors are human. They have opinions. They don’t last long in this business, however, unless they are able to leave their opinions behind when they arrive for work.
Our job during this election is this: We want to provide as much information as we can about the candidates so readers can make decisions for themselves on March 5. We figure people are fairly bright. They can make good decisions for themselves without any prompting from us.
To help readers know the candidates, we’ll cover several candidate forums in the next month. We’ll profile candidates in special section on Feb. 25.
If this is like most recent elections, we’ll run hundreds and hundreds of letters to the editor about candidates. We hope to run every letter we receive about the election, and that means letters to the editor about the elections must be limited to 100 words. Even at that, we expect we’ll need to add several pages to provide enough space to make sure everyone is heard. We don’t run an even number of letters for each candidate; we simply run the ones we receive as quickly as we can.
In all likelihood, a candidate or two will call one of our reporters, dishing up some dirt about an opponent. The candidate will want us to run the information, but he won’t want to be the source. We’ll tell him that we’ll cover the story only if he stands up in public and makes the charge. We have yet to see a candidate who would do that.
At least one or two candidates will lose their minds in the last couple of weeks before the vote. Despite every effort by their handlers to talk them out of it, they’ll storm into the newspaper office, yelling about some perceived slight. We’ll treat this as a case of temporary insanity and won’t hold it against them. (A few years ago, we received a holiday card from a candidate who felt he’d been treated unfairly. It read: “I hate you, but I hope you have a Merry Christmas.” We’re still friends with him.)
We expect every candidate will seek to have the last word. Last-minute “hit pieces” will show up in mailboxes a day or two before the election. (The Union’s advertising department stops this practice with a rule that no new charges can be aired in the last couple of editions before the polls open.) When the hit piece arrives, the target will request space in the newspaper to respond. We’ll probably decline, simply because the charges and responses have to stop sometime so voters have a day or two to think.
Folks will call us, pointing out all the ways in which our bias is showing. A few years back, a candidate in a local race had a very long last name – a name so long that it wouldn’t fit into most of the headlines we place over letters to the editor. The candidate was convinced that our use of the opponent’s name – but not hers – in headlines above letters to the editor was convincing proof of our bias. As I explained at the time, we couldn’t cook up something that far-fetched even if we were inclined to fix a local election. Which we’re not.
It may sound dopey, but we take your trust seriously here. You trust us to do the best job we can providing the most unbiased information we can gather. We’d no more violate that trust than we’d violate the trust of our best friend.
Too dopey? Then try this: Once the elections are over and the emotions have settled, we need to work in close quarters with all the folks who won and many of the folks who lost. We need to have a working relationship with each of them, a relationship in which we can rely on them to explain their political positions to us for the next four years. If our coverage is unfair, we foul our ability to do our job for a long time.
One last thing: We probably won’t do our jobs perfectly between now and March 5. We’ll learn lessons to be used the next time around. But we’ll work like the devil to meet the high standards we set for ourselves.
John Seelmeyer is managing editor of The Union.
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