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Tips on finetuning the process.

Political endorsements are not nearly as important as newspapers think they are, and the candidate interviews that precede them are often a waste of time for all who take part in them.

With these provocative pronouncements, Tony Williams, campaign staffer for Senator Slade Gorton (R.-Wash.), touched off a lively panel discussion.

Williams cited focus-group studies where likely voters were annoyed by test ads that emphasized newspaper endorsements of candidates. The voters seemed to say, according to Williams: "Who gives these papers the right to order voters how to vote?"

A newspaper's blessing isn't necessarily useful in campaign literature, Williams said, pointing to a Spokesman-Review editorial in support of Gorton's 1994 Senate run. It was so measured and equivocal, Williams said, that he felt like taking an Exacto knife to it to carve out the right words.

Williams also opposed the practice of bringing political opponents together for an audience with a newspaper's editorial board, calling it a sterile exercise that produces only stock, safe recitations of policy positions rather than the animated give-and-take that editorialists are trying to elicit.

Williams' conclusion of his experience with Gorton was that he wouldn't presume to tell NCEW members not to endorse political candidates, just that he personally doesn't sweat them.

The rest of the panel -- Joni Balter of The Seattle Times, Dennis Heck of Washington state public television TVW, and Jack Wilson of The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., defended editorial endorsements.

Balter pointed out that Maria Cantwell, Gorton's Democratic opponent this November, was little known and lightly regarded until she was, in a sense, validated by nine newspaper endorsements. Balter also contended that seeing political rivals at the same time can produce pertinent information that might not surface in one-on-one interviews. Such confrontations, she said, also allow candidates a chance to rebut rivals' charges.

Speaking as a former (failed) candidate for state office, Heck joked that newspaper endorsements only matter to a candidate as much as life itself. On a serious note, he advised editorialists to read the chapter on endorsements and their importance in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's new book, "Everything You Think You Know About Politics -- and Why You're Wrong." (See review on page 17.)

Wilson argued that newspapers would shirk their duty to their communities if they pronounced on public policies 364 days a year and declined on the 365th to identify political candidates capable of carrying out these policies. The paper's obligation is not to candidates, but to readers, he said. The tone to take, he said, is not to tell them how to vote, but to suggest how a well-informed citizen would vote.

To a question about how to improve the process of making endorsements Balter suggested editorial writers try to find time to observe how candidates handle themselves in other forums beside the usual editorial board interview.

Heck recommended that editorialists should try to publish endorsements as early as possible so the anointed candidates can use the compliments in their campaigns. He went on to say that if a newspaper vents its own negative opinion about an endorsee's opponent, that has special impact.

Finally, he suggested an editorial board may wish to coordinate its endorsement with the candidate's campaign to enhance its effect, though he acknowledged that would verge on an ethical fine line many editors won't get near.

Wilson suggested that in addition to asking candidates the same tired questions about hot-button issues, editors should try some off-beat queries such as: "When's the last time you changed your mind about something important?" or "What was the last book you read?" The point, Wilson said, is to determine if candidates can think for themselves flexibly and nimbly or are they simply programmed.

A good editorial endorsement, Wilson added, should examine the contested office and how well the candidates measure up to its responsibilities.

NCEW member Joseph Geshwiler, a former president, is an editorial writer at The Atlanta Constitution.
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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