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A review of election coverage.

In the age of shrinking readership, focus groups, spot ads, news spinners and mass mailings, it is hardly surprising that newspaper endorsements and voter guides are no longer widely regarded as a key influence on the outcome of elections. Nevertheless, local papers took their responsibility seriously and weighed in with recommendations that may have had some influence on the Aug. 2 primary election.

While the overall tenor of campaign coverage still leaves much to be desired, local papers intensively covered the candidates both in their news and editoria sections during the weeks leading up to the primary election.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A particularly useful series of five lengthy articles by Jo Mannies, St. Louis Post-Dispatch political correspondent, presented contrasting views of seven Democratic, five Republican, and two Libertarian U.S. Senate candidates. The inclusion of the Libertarians, in their first state wide primary, sets an important precedent for future coverage of smaller parties which gain regular ballot access. Beginning on Sunday, July 23, with health care, the paper followed the next four days with the candidates' views on crime, foreign policy the economy and welfare.

The series, "Senate Candidates Address the Issues" was well formatted. In the upper right hand corner of the News Analysis page, photos of all 14 candidates (save one, for Republican Joyce Lea) were presented daily, with a brief summary usually including a quotation, of the candidates' position on that day's issue. Two or three paragraphs elaborating each position made up the full article. The only complaint one might have with the series is that as usual the News Analysi page, one of the most informative and engaging parts of the newspaper, was buried at the back of the B section, behind the want ads.

Particularly interesting were the positions of some of the minor candidates. Fo example, Democrat Ned Sutherland strongly advocated destruction of nuclear and germ warfare canisters in both the U.S. and Russia, while Doug Jones took the surprising position, for a Republican, that the U.S. spends too much on defense and must maintain foreign aid spending. On the other hand, Democrat Jim Hawley seemed stuck in a John Birch Society time-warp with his demand for America "to have the strongest military might on the face of the Earth."

While the quixotic candidates might have seemed extreme at times, voters probably were more informed about the issues after reading their positions than the ambiguous pap served up by the major candidates. Wheat opposed defense systems that are too costly (Does anyone favor too costly defense systems?). Murphy advocated paring the budget without hurting national security. (Can anyone define whether this means she is for or against further cuts?), and Ashcroft said, "Defense spending may have already been cut beyond safe levels." (Doesn't he have an opinion yet?)

Candidates would be well advised to make sure that good publicity photos are available for such features. Democrats Alan Wheat, Marsha Murphy and Jim Thomas all beamed the politician's smile, while Gerald Ortbals looked as though he might be more at home on the "People in Business" page. The photos of Ashcroft and the two Libertarians looked as if they had been lifted from a yearbook for an Officer Training School Class. Democrat Ned Sutherland looked like a friendl neighbor who would loan you his lawnmower for the whole summer if you needed it Jim Hawley's photo made him appear as though scotch tape were holding up his eyelids.

The Post also published a detailed Voter's Guide on Sunday, July 31 covering th primary. It included Senate and House candidates' pictures, brief biographies and their policy priorities. Featured also were photos of other candidates, map of state election districts, summaries of referendum issues and a listing of county, city and municipal candidates.

The Riverfront Times

The Riverfront Times did not run a voter's guide, but it did produce in its Jul 13-19 edition an "RFT Progressive Index," a guide to the votes of state legislators, compiled by Susan Langlois. Publisher Ray Hartmann explained in hi accompanying editorial that the RFT offers "no pretense of 'objectivity'" in developing "a scoring system that reflects our own opinions and biases." Photos of six legislators scoring between 92 percent and 100 percent were called "best of the class" and had their pictures displayed on the cover page. Pictured belo were six legislators, with scores ranging from four to six percent, who were called "and the worst."

A full-page table on the inside displayed the records of 53 representatives and 13 senators on 15 votes, including reproductive rights, environment, gun contro and family. Some useful darts and laurels at some legislators helped put their records in perspective. For example, the RFT lauded Senator Irene Treppler, despite her low score on the progressive index, for attempting to pass legislation legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. The paper threw darts at Senator J.B. Banks for toadying up to Southwestern Bell lobbyists and at Senato William Lacey Clay for scoring much lower than one might expect from his libera reputation.

Does the openly partisan nature of the RFT index make it less useful than the scrupulously non-partisan guide in the Post? As good as the Post guide was, it provided very little information on actual voting records of incumbents. Reader must pretty much decide for whom to vote on the basis of the highly condensed, coded language of candidates.

The RFT approach gives readers a much clearer measuring stick. Conservatives need only turn the cover page and chart upside down to come up with their own best and worst of the class.

The progressive index is a useful guide to legislative votes, but the RFT provides nothing as comprehensive to its readers as the Post Voter's Guide. In its July 27 cover page, the RFT promised a "primary education" with a guide "to key choices" facing St. Louis voters in Tuesday's elections, including the Senate, congressional, and Missouri Senate and House races. Plus, readers were told, they would get Ray Hartmann's endorsements.

What readers got was very good, but not as comprehensive as promised on the cover-page. Coverage was extended to only three Senate and four House primary races, even though there were contested races in 13 city and county districts, often in both parties. How the RFT distinguished between "key" and also-ran districts was not clear. One example of an important contest overlooked by the RFT was the race between Jennifer Wagner, a candidate who would have scored wel by the RFT's measure of liberalism, and a law and order Democrat, Don Kissel, who also made a point of speaking out in favor of a favorite RFT whipping boy, the proposed Page Avenue extension. Wagner lost by a mere 31 votes, a margin that might have been affected by a signal from the RFT editorial team.

The RFT deserves kudos for some in-depth, sophisticated reviews of candidate's positions, but if it aspires to serve the public fully, it should not ignore important races.

The Black Press

Neither the St. Louis American nor The Sentinel, two of the weekly papers oriented primarily toward an African-American readership, provided a voter's guide, though both issued endorsements. In its final pre-election edition of July 28, The American provided a front-page story headlined, "Voters to Decide on Major Issues," which reviewed several major and also some lesser contests of particular interest to black voters.

The article, which ran without a byline, was fairly objective, but in races or issues of special importance a clear editorial slant was evident. In the contes for the U.S. Senate nomination, the main issue was whether Alan Wheat would get a chance to become the first African-American U.S. senator from Missouri. On proposition M, the article asserted, "Voters will also determine the future of public transportation in the region by either voting for expansion or voting to cut bus routes." The fact that it was a tax vote was barely noted.

The Sentinel did not run a voter's guide, nor even a major story summarizing ke races in its July 28 edition. The only election-related article on the front page was a highly favorable profile of Eric Vickers' campaign to unseat incumbent Representative Bill Clay. (The Sentinel in the same issue endorsed Clay.)

The Sentinel's coverage of election results revealed more about its own agenda than that of the voters. Its front-page headline proclaimed on Aug. 4, "Wheat Narrowly Wins, Ignores Black Press!" The story's lead warned, "Wheat spent over $400,000 in television advertising during the primary, which amounted to about $1.95 per voter. This is significant because he totally ignored the Black Media (sic) during his campaign for office." That blatant appeal for advertising dollars could be interpreted as extortion.

The article went on to complain that Wheat never sought to arrange a visit with the editorial board of any black newspaper. In what certainly could be useful advertising fodder for Ashcroft, the paper noted that the former governor has " record that is very impressive to minorities."

In contrast, The American seemed to worry more about Wheat winning an uphill battle than about him allegedly snubbing the black media. "Wheat will have to run a near-perfect election campaign while stirring his African-American base i he is to have a chance to defeat Ashcroft," it argued.

Being an African American did not necessarily guarantee Sentinel or American support against a white candidate. Neither paper endorsed the candidacy of Jimm Matthews who lost his bid for the nomination for license collector in the city.

The impact of endorsements

Did the endorsements make a difference in the outcome of any primary election? This question is difficult to answer without scientifically gathered survey data, and even then the evidence would not be conclusive.

Richard Joslyn in "Mass Media and Elections" argues that endorsements have the greatest effect on undecided voters or those with little information since they typically appear so late in the campaign. For a daily paper, the Post is atypical in its tendency to endorse more liberal candidates and Democrats. Studies cited by Joslyn show that nationally 70 percent of the country's daily press audience is exposed to papers with a strong Republican editorial slant.

Few studies of the influence of endorsements have been conducted, but one by John P. Robinson and published in Journalism Quarterly in 1974 indicated those exposed to papers regularly endorsing Democratic candidates in elections betwee 1956 and 1972 were more likely to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, even if they were Republican or Independent, than if they were in a district where the paper was Republican or neutral.

A review of a dozen college texts on media, politics and on elections shows extensive discussion and citation of studies about the influence of media coverage on name recognition, issue awareness, images, voters knowledge, etc., but little attention to the impact of editorial endorsements. Most political scientists believe advertising and news coverage are much more influential. The most widely cited study on congressional elections, Gary Jacobson's "Politics o Congressional Elections" (now in its third edition), devotes not a single sentence to the influence of editorials on voter behavior or election outcomes.

Lacking survey data, it is impossible to assess the influence of endorsements o voting. We are limited to assessing the success rate for endorsed candidates an positions.

All papers limited their endorsements to contested races. This practice can be questioned. Though voters cannot register a protest against such candidates by voting for an opponent in the same party, candidates watch primary turnout carefully to gauge their standing for the general election. Endorsement of an unopposed underdog seeking nomination to run against a heavily favored incumben might help legitimize a candidacy otherwise doomed to obscurity. Similarly, primary voters might very well withhold support from candidates with views radically different from the party mainstream, as seems to be a growing phenomenon as party organizations weaken and "stealth" candidates of the Christian right seek office.

All papers reviewed here endorsed Alan Wheat for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, though the Post and RFT also praised his nearest opponent, Marsha Murphy. Wheat more than doubled Murphy's vote in the city, and although achieving only a plurality in the county, he defeated his main rival handily there as well. The Post endorsed Ashcroft and Bill Johnson, the Libertarian, both of whom-won, while the RFT made no endorsement in either race.

The Post's endorsement of Johnson was curious in light of his vita for the 1980s. Johnson lists stints as a volunteer with the Mujahedeen of Afghanistan, South Africa's Inkata, and the Nicaraguan contras. The Post opted for a soldier of fortune with CIA-funded paramilitary groups over the alternative, Ricky Jamerson, an African-American who headed up a citizen committee that won a stat audit of city government and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.

All four papers endorsed Proposition M, the quarter-cent sales tax for Metrolink, which won handily, and the RFT and the Post were also on the winning side of Amendment 4, Gov. Mel Carnahan's push to secure voter approval for a $250-million bond issue for higher education and prisons (described as "correctional institutions" in the Post endorsement).

Both papers endorsed William Clay Sr. for reelection, but the Riverfront Times was quite generous in praising two of his opponents, Eric Vickers and Patrick Cacchione, as worthy opponents. Managing editor Safir Ahmed noted in the penultimate paragraph of his profile of the candidates that in 1992 Clay's opponent got a surprising 32 percent of the vote. The Sentinel took a similar tact in its endorsement. Though both were unequivocal in endorsing Clay, the generous time allotted to his opponents' criticisms signaled displeasure with Clay's notorious reputation for failing to attend adequately to constituent services.

Clay's opponent will be Republican Donald Counts, who won with less than 55 percent of the vote over his primary opponent. Counts enjoyed Post support; the RFT abstained, as did both black papers.

Both the Post and RFT went down in flames in their endorsement of Margaret Gilleo, the Ladue resident who achieved fame and notoriety for winning a Suprem Court ruling overturning a municipal ordinance banning political lawn signs. Gilleo is also well known for backing economic conversion of military productio to peacetime uses, a lightning rod issue in the second district, which includes McDonnell Douglas. Her opponent, Pat Kelly, more than doubled her vote.

Both papers endorsed Gephardt, who won easily. The Post endorsed the GOP winner Gary Gill, while the RFT sat out the race. Gill is running a campaign vigorousl attacking Gephardt's support for much of President Clinton's domestic agenda, which is heartily endorsed by the Post, and he is being heavily supported by th national GOP which hopes to harass if not embarrass Gephardt on his home turf. But this did not deter the Post from endorsing Gill over his quixotic opponent, Wally Anderson.

The Post also endorsed conservative Democrat, incumbent Harold Volkmer in the 9th district, who won easily, but the Post's preference, Gene Curtis, lost the Democratic nomination handily in the district.

In three Senate races, two Democratic and one Republican, the RFT and Post both endorsed winning candidates, and a third Democrat endorsed by the Post won in a race where the RFT abstained. However, in the race for the Democratic nominatio in the 24th Senate seat, the papers issued opposite endorsements. The Post said nice things about the eventual winner, Vivian Eveloff, but endorsed her opponent, Lee Brotherton, in a tough, three-way race that included conservative Mark Brown. The RFT tact was to praise Brotherton but endorse Eveloff because o her strong position in favor of abortion rights.

The Post endorsement might have been counter-productive for Brotherton. Far mor space was subsequently devoted to letters from Eveloff supporters protesting th paper's endorsement than from Brotherton supporters.

The RFT endorsed only one candidate in the House races, Ilene Ordower in the 82nd district. Ordower, also endorsed by the Post, won overwhelmingly.

The Post issued 19 endorsements. Results of one election were not available to SJR at press time, and one race was being reported as a tie after the first count of all ballots. In the remaining 17 races, the Post-endorsed candidates won in 11 cases. Of these 11, 4 were very tight races where a few votes swung either way by an endorsement might have made the difference. Three of the losin candidates failed by very narrow margins. Post-endorsed candidates suffered lopsided defeats in two cases.

The RFT did not take a position in the race between Anthony Ribaudo, Democratic powerbroker in the Missouri House, and Tom Bauer, a political neophyte. Ribaudo received a surprisingly strong challenge from Bauer, who pushed law and order and capping of welfare benefits. The Post endorsed Ribaudo.

The Post endorsed two successful propositions in the City to establish property tax assessment for security services in the Soulard area and downtown. The endorsement drew a rebuttal from frequent SJR contributor Peter Downs, who live in Soulard and protested in an oped page piece that passing the initiatives would be a step further toward differential public services dependent upon the level of affluence in different wards. However, the measures passed by landslid majorities. Incumbent License Collector Thomas Nash, endorsed by the Post, won as well.

The RFT made no endorsements for county offices in St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson Counties. The Post endorsed St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, who faced no serious threat and was able to husband his war chest of nearly $1 million. In two races for County Council, the Post batted .500, with Democrat Charlie Dooley winning in the first district and Republican Mat Turner getting creamed in the third.

In St. Charles, the Post-endorsed Democratic incumbent Eugene Schwendemann, who beat back a challenge by a narrow margin. The Post's GOP preference, Thomas Wayne Brown, got only 29 percent of the vote. Post-endorsed candidates won four of five other races for St. Charles County positions, but a proposition to limi outside business interests of the county executive, opposed by the paper, passe easily.

In Jefferson County the Post backed controversial Prosecuting Attorney George McElroy, who lost in a landslide to challenger Robert Wilkins. Wilkins evidentl benefitted greatly from the support of Patricia Stallings, who charged McElroy with wrongly prosecuting her in 1991 for allegedly killing her infant son with antifreeze. Another Democrat endorsed by the Post lost a close, nine-way race for the nomination for county commissioner; three other candidates preferred by the paper won.

The American endorsed Wheat, Clay, Gephardt, Paula Carter (for the state representative in the 61st district), Vivian Eveloff and Betty Sims. Sims was endorsed by both the Post and RFT as well in the race for the GOP nomination fo the same Senate seat sought by Eveloff. All six candidates won their races. The American supported the tax for Metrolink and the bond issue for education even though, it acknowledged, the latter required a trade off "of accommodating the public demand for imprisonment of violent and juvenile criminals."

The Sentinel agreed with the American on Metrolink, Wheat and Clay. Unlike its counterpart, it endorsed Charlie Dooley over his opponents (also African-American) in the race for the County Council Democratic nomination. The Sentinel also stated, "we strongly urge voters to vote for former Governor John Ashcroft" for Senate, citing his record on appointing minorities to the judiciary.

It is understandable that the Sentinel and American should have devoted more attention to higher profile races and to races involving black candidates. Nonetheless, should not these papers keep their predominantly black leadership informed of issues and candidacies in local and state politics? And in some cases, such as the votes to establish special tax districts for security in Soulard and downtown, voters were being asked to take positions on an issue of great long-term concern in that community, i.e. whether the city will address such problems as a whole or piecemeal, according to the ability of wards to pay for solutions.

The American is now widely distributed throughout the area and is readily available in predominantly white areas of town. There is no reason the paper should not seek to influence contests in districts with predominantly white voters any more than the Post or RFT, less available on the North Side, should refrain from endorsements in elections there.

The final tally: Of 55 endorsements made by the Post for which results were reported on Aug. 4, 36 of the paper's favored candidates or positions came out on top, versus 18 losses and one tie. The RFT endorsed 11 candidates and positions, winning in eight cases. The American endorsed position was successfu in seven of eight cases. The Sentinel's position in five races carried the day 100 percent of the time.

Does this mean newspapers should abandon editorial coverage or voter guides? Even if few voters are greatly influenced by editorials or guides, they add to the information available to voters. This was found to be the most important impact of the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates which, studies indicate, influenced few voters to change their minds but made them more knowledgeable about the candidates. It is worth keeping in mind that many candidates repeat endorsement in fliers and other commercials, particularly when endorsements come early enough to be incorporated in campaign publicity.

Dan Hellinger is a professor of political science at Webster University, St. Louis Missouri.
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Title Annotation:primaries for 1994 U.S. senatorial and state elections
Author:Hellinger, Dan
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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