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Readers say they just want the facts, but do they?

Newspaper editors in Red States who fail to toe the dominant party line are either pinko idiots or stooges of their left-wing corporate bosses.

No, wait! They're courageous warriors whose insights reflect intellectual brilliance seldom seen in a mass media dominated by greedy right-wing corporate moguls.

Such was the range of opinions reflected in phone calls and letters to the editor in response to my newspaper's endorsement of John Kerry on October 17.

As a twenty-seven-year veteran of the endorsement wars, I was prepared for a backlash from readers in our conservative Republican market. After all, I got similar responses in the '90s when we endorsed Bill Clinton.

So it was no surprise when a flood of mail from conservative readers upbraided The Herald for its endorsement of Kerry. "Wow, what a surprise! You could have knocked me over with a feather," was one sarcastic response.

Another found the editorial "the most biased distortion of information I can ever recall reading ... almost laughable" Another took pity because, after all, "being a Knight Ridder paper limits you on the ability to print unbiased news."

At least, added this reader to damn with faint praise, "your classified section is still believable." Ouch!

Yet, as the close results indicate, there are streaks of blue in every Red State. One reader pronounced the editorial "stunning," praising it for its "intelligence and objectivity" and thanking the paper for "renewing our trust in the fourth estate...."

I published them all--the kind and the cutting. Such a contrast of views is an excellent window on the country's political mood. After all, these views come from people in your town, not pointy-headed pundits far away in Washington.

I do, though, despair at how seemingly intelligent people can see the campaign in such stark blacks and whites. After all, the editorial had, I thought, carefully built a case for the selection of Kerry over Bush. But few of its critics appreciated the nuances (that word!) and simply blasted away at the "liberal" Herald for living up to their expectations.

Conveniently overlooked in that mindset was our support of Bush in 2000 as well as almost every Republican candidate for local office in '04. That included Katherine Harris of 2000 recount infamy, who happens to be our congresswoman. But we're "liberal" so those "nuances" don't count, either.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. recently summed up the paradox editorialists face: "[People] believe what we want, facts be damned." Citing a study by Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen, Pitts confirmed the disconnect between the editorial product and readers' perceptions: They say they just want the facts so they can make up their minds, but for most "that is pure poppycock," Pitts wrote. "We are perfectly willing to ignore any fact that contradicts what we believe."

The good--or bad--news: About fifteen percent of people bother to consider the evidence when forming their opinions, according to Westen's study.

Fifteen percent! I'm not sure of all the implications, but it's a fairly depressing number to me.

David E. Klement is the editorial page editor of The Herald in Bradenton, Florida. E-mail dklement@
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Author:Klement, David
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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