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Electronic report focuses on the editorial front.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an edited transcript of selections from NCEW-L's online exchanges that started last September and ran past Election Day, kicked off by a request from Professor R. Thomas Berner of Penn State for insights into the editorial endorsement process.

Here is some advice from an editor in the process of interviewing 31 candidates for 15 Pennsylvania House seats in The Morning Call's circulation area.

We have tried to focus on five questions:

* Tax reform. All are for shifting local taxes from property to income, but few know how to get there.

* Education financing. This includes both elementary and secondary, and the colleges and universities.

* Highways. Is there a gas tax increase on the horizon? What is their position? Also a part of this are questions about the formula on which road maintenance funds are allocated across the Commonwealth.

* Governor Ridge's proposal to sell the state liquor stores to finance new sports stadiums and convention centers. We have heard no one endorse this idea, but then we aren't in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the principal beneficiaries.

* Campaign finance and lobby spending reporting requirements.

We also ask about campaign tactics and support gotten from the state parties, as a way of testing whether the candidate is regarded as a serious contender, given the narrow margin by which Republicans control the state House.

Sometimes the dialogue drifts off to purely local concerns. But little of it is irrelevant.

- Van Cavett, Comment Pages editor, The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

In addition to Van's suggestions I would propose the following more general guides:

1.) Know the issues yourself; don't let the candidate gloss over important details, or define the issues for you.

1a.) But be ready to listen to a candidate's idea of what's important with an open mind; he/she may be on to something you're not yet aware of.

2.) Know your position on the issues, so you can question more carefully to find out how the candidate's views fit with yours.

3.) Be alert for positions developed by campaign committees and parroted by the candidates; when several people of the same party say the same thing, they probably are reading from somebody else's script.

4.) Remember a challenger can't be as informed about the details of government/legislation as an incumbent. Look for signs of general competence, broad approaches to issues in a challenger, particular interests that he/she may pursue, relevant experience.

5.) Not every legislative incumbent can play a major role in making laws, so don't discount their value just because they haven't sponsored a lot of successful bills.

- Phineas Fiske, assistant editor of the editorial page, Newsday in Melville, N.Y.

I know that, in the election season, you are all sick of listening to candidates, etc., as you prepare to make your editorial recommendations.

However, I want to seek a comparison of what the three-person (all bearded white males) Comment Pages staff of The Morning Call did compared to some of our peers.

We just completed a week of editorials recommending candidates in a U.S. House race and 15 Pennsylvania House races. We have to come: recommendations in the presidential race, four more U.S. House races, and three races for statewide offices. We will wind up November 3 with recommendations on a number of local referenda on changes in the county charter.

Our process involved interviews with 51 candidates for the 23 state offices. Neither Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, nor Ross Perot offered himself for an interview on his presidential candidacy. . . .

- Van Cavett

I'm done (almost - one inconsequential local judge left) with interviews, but The Ann Arbor News' circulation area covers three U.S. House seats, four state House seats, a (BIG) host of local offices, and state ballot issues (of the most horrendously irrelevant nature this time) that all add up to 35 editorials and about 100 interviews.

And with our area (two state universities, including the University of Michigan) there is no room for error.

I wrote an editorial endorsing members of the state board of education, of which I'd interviewed three and knew the essence of the fourth whom I didn't interview (and whom I didn't endorse) and one of our readers picked up on that. He knew - believe it or not - that I hadn't actually talked to the fourth, but did buy into the fact that it wouldn't have made a difference.

Meanwhile, I've got 150 election letters to deal with, and our publisher wants them all printed. How am I holding up? Har, har, hee, hee.

- Kay Semion, editorial writer, Tallahassee Democrat in Florida

How does that song go? "They're going to take me away, ha, ha!" Thirty-five editorials! Whoa! Once again I'm amazed at the amount of work you're able to succeed in accomplishing!

Did anyone see what the Chicago Tribune did? It ran its endorsements in a quasi-bullet format, just a couple quick sentences for the myriad of races that they addressed. Good for covering a lot of people in a limited amount of space; bad, IMHO [in my humble opinion], if you're trying to explain why people should vote for those candidates.

- Eric Gorman, page designer, The Times in Valparaiso, Ind.

At Newsday, we are endorsing in five congressional races, nine for state senate, and 22 for state assembly, as well as for president. We also make recommendations on state and local referenda questions. That's 72 interviews, usually with two or more editorial board members present. (Clinton didn't come see us, either.)

Our staff is large enough (nine people involved in endorsing) that nobody has to be in charge of more than six races. . . .

We do not endorse in judicial races, which we think are beyond our capabilities, but editorialize in favor of appointment of judges. I remain in awe of small papers (like Kay's) that manage to deal with so many legislative races and judicial contests too.

. . . Our philosophy is that we don't change many minds endorsing for president; that's mostly tradition and self-definition. But we can make a difference in a school board race. And that can be very important.

As the process moves along, some of the races fall by the wayside. This is in some cases because we haven't learned enough to comment intelligently and persuasively - two suburbanites running for a junior college board might tell us that their desire to "give something back" is their main reason for running, and it serves no good purpose for us to belabor some small difference in their resumes on the pretense that we have discovered an issue worth hanging our reputation on. . . .

A look at my notes leads to this summary of endorsements:

Editorial page editor: President, Senate, (1) House; seven ballot issues (some addressed more than once), seven legislative districts, one University of Nebraska regent race.

Editorial writer No. 2: Iowa U.S. Senate, three Iowa congressional, local electric board and water/gas board (three seats apiece), junior college board (about eight candidates), state board of education (about six candidates), natural resources district board (ditto).

Editorial writer No. 3: Two Nebraska congressional races, six or seven legislative districts, county public defender, three suburban school boards.

Editorial writer No. 4: Omaha school district (five races), county board (two races), county clerk.

- Frank Partsch, editor of the editorial pages, The Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska

At The Cincinnati Post we're doing endorsements in the presidential race, two state Supreme Court races, one state appeals court race, four contested trial court races, four U.S. House races, two county commission races, three contested county offices, one state Senate race and 10 state House seats. Also four ballot issues.

All told we did about 50 interviews. Normally I and my part-time assistant did the interviews; on some the editor sat in as well.

We also prepared questionnaires for the U.S. House, county commission, and state legislative candidates. These were two to three pages in a yes/no/comment format. We publish as many of the responses as we have room for. My notion is to put up the entire text of the questionnaires when we get our Web site running.

I also ask the candidates to fill out a fairly straight-up biographical form, and for some (mainly the judicial candidates) I ask them to write a short essay. We run a condensed version of the biographical forms with the survey questions, and will print some of the essays as well. I've found this process to be (a) incredibly tedious and (b) quite useful. The surveys and biographies are valuable during the interviews, and in later years as reference points.

And no, none of the presidential candidates stopped by to see us.

- Robert White, editorial page editor, The Cincinnati Post

Our newspaper faces the same crush of endorsements outlined by others - including a water board election this time that has drawn 68 candidates.

We've hit on an interview method that has more than one benefit. We invite all candidates for a particular race in to be interviewed together, allowing a bit more time than we would for individual interviews.

Initially, we did this because it provided a more efficient use of time. But the greater benefit is that candidates cannot make unfounded charges for which they will not be held accountable when their opponent is in the room.

We've had some lively debates. Some candidates tell us this is the only live contact they have with an opponent.

This time, incumbent members of Congress did not show - I'm sure to avoid facing opponents. We pointed this out to readers in editorials as part of a pattern of arrogance. . . .

- Lynnell Burkett, editorial page editor, San Antonio Express-News in Texas

Let me second Lynnell Burkett's suggestion about interviewing the candidates for a particular office together.

We've been doing it this way for years and wouldn't have it any other way. It can be a bit of a scheduling nightmare, but it more than pays off in the quality of discussion at the interview.

- Michael Zuzel, editorial writer, The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash.

For the particulars, we endorsed for president, Senate, two House races, and a local city commissioners' race. The only contested state House race in our area was far enough from our home county that we didn't feel we could write anything without compounding the "why do you tell us what to do" with the "you don't know what you're talking about" charge.

We didn't endorse in local school board races because they were largely uncontested, and changes in state law have taken most of the traditional powers away from school boards.

The one area in which we didn't endorse that I feel we should have was in local and state judicial races. . . .

- John Meunier, editorial writer, The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer in Kentucky

We endorsed in the presidential race, in all nine House races in Wisconsin, three state Senate races in the Milwaukee metropolitan area, 21 state Assembly races (several had three or four contenders - Wisconsin seems to attract a lot of Libertarians and Taxpayer Party candidates) and a county treasurer's race. We also had a referendum question on the ballot.

Still, I think it's worthwhile. If we have any influence on voting patterns, it clearly is at the local level. I doubt very much that our readers wait for us to tell them which presidential nominee to vote for.

- Sue Ryon, deputy editorial page editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The value of endorsement editorials should be the same as all editorials: that is, to get people to think. Not to think as we do, but simply to butt their heads against a thoughtful opinion and react to it.

In Westchester County, N.Y., party chairs have said for decades that our endorsement in a county-wide race is worth 15,000 votes. In New York, where we elect judges (dreadful tradition), the endorsement is often worth the election.

One year when I was editorial page editor, we had 18 people running for judge at the county (criminal court) level and for the state Supreme Court (entry level trial court in civil matters). I invited all the candidates to come in on Columbus Day when the courts were closed, any time between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., to stay as long as they wanted and talk about courts and the law. All came at 10 and stayed till 3 in the most wonderful, free-wheeling roundtable talk about the philosophy of law I've ever had outside a classroom. At the end, they said they felt like lawyers pleading a case before me, the judge. And we were all better for it. They were the soundest endorsements we ever did.

Don't give up the franchise. We are only undefeated if we go on trying.

- Nancy Q. Keefe, columnist, Gannett Suburban Newspapers in White Plains, N.Y.

Nancy's idea for a virtual open house for judicial candidates is great. I may steal it.

We've done more endorsement interviews and editorials than I've bothered to count. Fall is particularly busy for us with a September primary. We endorse in that too, then turn around and do it all over again.

We do president, nine congressional seats, governor, a passel of statewide offices; we zone our legislative districts (more than 20), 13 county court races in primary, four in general, a couple of state Supreme Court races (judicial endorsements are the most important, we think, because they are the most obscure for voters), half-a-dozen statewide ballot issues (Western voters loooovvvveee their initiative process!), a few local or regional ballot issues, etc.

- Mindy Cameron, editorial page editor, The Seattle Times

Friday was our last day of candidate interviews, and today (Monday) felt like the first day of summer vacation. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interviews some of the same state candidates that my friend Van Cavett does in Allentown. We insist on joint interviews, though. It keeps the candidates honest and the number of meetings down, though scheduling can be hairy.

To show candidates we mean business about wanting to quiz them face-to-face, this year one pair of state Senate opponents failed to make it in. I did the calling, and it struck me that both were trying to duck us. So we wrote an editorial on the race, using phone interviews from the candidates, plus other material. Toward the end, we said some nice things about votes taken by the incumbent (indicating whose views we preferred), but then we said we were uncomfortable about making an endorsement because neither candidate had shown for an interview.

The kicker is I got a call today from the challenger, who said he appreciated the editorial and was sorry he hadn't made it in to talk to the editorial board. (Maybe he felt it was a small victory that we hadn't endorsed the incumbent.)

Also, I noticed one odd thing this fall about the way our endorsements broke along party lines. In the local district races for state legislature, we went mostly with Democrats. In the statewide contests for attorney general, auditor general, and treasurer, we endorsed all Republicans. Could that mean our board likes Republicans more the farther away they are?

- Tom Waseleski, associate editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This one really shocked me:

Our local town crank who runs for office every year (literally) refused to sit down for an endorsement interview in our city commission race. So we mentioned in passing that we talked with seven of eight candidates, but that he refused our invitation. We did not endorse him.

To my shock, we have received letters from readers scolding HIM for not showing up to talk to us. We also have received letters from people who think it is only justice that he is stiffing the hostile press.

But I don't think I have ever had a member of the public stand up and defend the editorial board like that.

Scary. God, they might actually read what I write every day.

- John Meunier

While you all toil over interviews here and there, I have yet another twist on the endorsement front, one no one has admitted to so far: Don't endorse.

Our family-owned newspaper (until May 1996) never endorsed. We broke with tradition recently by endorsing Bob Dole. . . . There was little response from readers to our endorsement, although I wrote a column to explain it. I had time to write the column because I wasn't interviewing 75 candidates a day for endorsements.

Will we endorse in the future? We've had some good discussions about it so far, but have decided not to for the time being.

- Larry Reisman, editor, Vero Beach Press-Journal

Had an unpleasant one today:

When we endorsed in a local congressional race recently, we were torn and divided. We ended up saying good stuff about both candidates.

Then the guy we didn't endorse lifted the good lines about him and used it in an ad that clearly implied that we had endorsed him.

One problem, he misquoted our positive statements, making them much less conditional than originally written. Then to top it off, he got the name of the paper wrong in the TV spot.

I argued, over some hesitant opposition, that we had to say something editorially, especially since his campaign manager said they made some small changes - basically dropping the quotation marks and modifying the name on the screen so it ALMOST was ours - but would not mend the direct errors.

We wrote a brief editorial scolding him and setting the record straight.

- John Meunier

We have never run into quite that situation, but at least twice we have found candidates using old endorsements in their advertisements after we have endorsed their opponent in the current race.

In each case, the candidate using the old endorsement failed to note the endorsement in his ad was two or four years old. Our policy is to call readers' attention to what we consider a conscious attempt to mislead voters.

- Stephen A. Oravecz, editorial page editor, Warren Tribune Chronicle in Ohio

Regarding Meunier's complaint and much-justified response, I am reminded of the time some years ago when my friend and colleague Eric Gerber, then film critic for The Houston Post (RIP), reviewed a film whose exact year and title escape me - an action thriller about a blimp attack on the Super Bowl.

Tongue in cheek, Eric referred to it as "clearly the best blimp movie of 19xx."

In the full-page ad that the studio put together quoting the reviews, there it was: "Clearly the best movie of 19xx!!" - Eric Gerber, Houston Post.

I have known Eric, normally the mildest-mannered of people, for almost a quarter of a century. It was the only time I ever saw him throw anything.

- Charles Reinken, editorial page editor, The Fayetteville Observer-Times in North Carolina

We had a terrible dilemma in a statehouse race. We had to choose between a Republican first-termer who accurately was classified as "furniture" in Texas Monthly's annual ranking of the state's best and worst lawmakers. It should have been an easy call. Unfortunately, she was running against a local attorney who was trying to sue the socks off us on behalf of ATF agents and families related to the disastrous 1993 shootout. I'll bet you saw it on TV. (The case was taken out of our hands after our insurance "deductible" was exceeded, and the insurance company decided it wanted to end it.)

Anyway, we had to choose between a piece of furniture and an ambulance chaser. We recommended the furniture - who, by the way, mailed our endorsement all over the district. I was hoping the press would malfunction that day.

The ambulance chaser won. But no winners here.

- John Young, editorial page editor, The Waco Tribune-Herald in Texas

I have truly enjoyed the discussion about editorial endorsements. So much so that I finally convinced our editor-in-chief and the rest of the editorial board that we are obligated to endorse candidates in officer elections for our House of Student Representatives.

My reasoning was simple: We are the only organization on campus with the authority (for lack of a better term, not in a sense of arrogance) to endorse candidates. We have interviews scheduled, and we are the first Skiff editorial board to base them on specific issues, rather than fuzzy questions like "What are your goals?" or "Why are you qualified?"

Last fall, the editorial board (which I was not on) did endorsements, but there was a lot of personal tension between the managing editor and the outgoing president. The entire situation devolved into an ugly battle of personal attacks, and our board said at the start of this semester we wanted to avoid the whole thing.

But this discussion on NCEW-L reinforced what I knew all along, that we can and should do endorse; merits without getting involved in personal attacks.

As an aside, last fall, the outgoing president wrote a guest column that said it was ludicrous for the Skiff to do endorsements and that reporters should "make, not report news." As Dave Barry says, I swear I'm not making this up. This year's president asked if she could write a column on the day we did endorsements, so she could tell readers that they don't have to vote according to our endorsements. We only wish we had so much power! I politely declined her request.

Sorry this is so long, but I thought y'all might enjoy the story and knowing that endorsement agony starts VERY early in an editorial writer's career.

- Ryan J. Rusak, assistant editor and opinion editor, The Daily Skiff at Texas Christian University

Keep up the good fight, Ryan.

We have our own share of soul-searching about endorsements, but I don't see how we (as a profession) can presume to comment on matters of importance to the community and then stay mum on one of the most important decisions the community makes - who will govern.

- John Meunier
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Election '96: How We Did, What We Did
Author:Rusak, Ryan J.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1997
Words:3648
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