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Why the editorial page matters--a view from the academy Setting stage for civic dialogue: editorial writers speak for institutions.

In over a decade teaching introductory American Government classes at a small, regional public university one of the most frequently asked questions from my students--apart from whether I will curve their final exam scores--is where they can find objective information on political candidates.

My students and most Americans writ large have been socialized and led to believe that the media report the news objectively allowing the reader to decide. The mantra from Fox News--"We Report. You Decide"--is misleading since all human beings, journalists included, should be judgmental about what is right or wrong. Consider Edward R. Murrow's harrowing report from Buchenwald in the days following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Would anyone listening to his account expect a detached and dispassionate report?

To be sure "We report. You decide" is not limited to major news organizations, but is generally accepted in the social sciences. I recall my time as a doctoral student and the warnings I received from my major professors admonishing me for not being indifferent in the quarterly term papers I was assigned. I was criticized all too often for my "subjective" findings. So, in my free time, I would frequently write guest columns for the university's weekly, expressing opinions on a variety of social and cultural ills. Once, after a particularly controversial piece, I was called to my dissertation committee chair's office and asked whether I "wanted to be a politician or a political scientist?" I got the message. I was meant to keep my opinions to myself, to write a four-hundred-page dissertation, present the hard, cold, objective facts from my research findings, and to get on with the business of publishing peer-reviewed scholarship.

All too often in the academy, we are led to believe that scholarship and research should be dispassionate and objective. I disagree. I believe that all scholarship should be directed toward forming an opinion. In the classes I teach, I expect my students to be judgmental about the subject matter.

Why? Because every individual is going to interpret the same fact according to her or his values! Scholarship should make an argument and state a point. It is impossible to take into consideration every fact available. Critical reading, therefore, demands us to ask "what was not included?"

In the editorial pages it should be no different. Take the case of political endorsements. Political endorsements are based upon certain facts reflecting the views of the editorial board, the publisher and the community the paper serves. Research on the efficacy of political endorsements demonstrates that only when there is a substantial degree of indecision do newspaper endorsements shape an outcome--otherwise there is no appreciable impact on the results of elections. These findings have led many political scientists--and I suppose some in the newspaper industry--to conclude that political endorsements play a minor role in the electoral process and should be written off altogether. I do not share this view.

The strength of our democracy rests upon clearly prescribed limitations of state authority as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and in the organization of government into three branches of government, a system of checks and balances and a decentralized federal framework. Another prerequisite is the knowledgeable participation of its citizenry.

Actively reading the news, rather than passively watching the news, and critically evaluating its content are essential to a healthy democracy.

Editorial pages have historically set the stage for civic dialogue, generating ideas on the direction our country should follow and endorsing candidates and the positions they should take on a variety of issues. Long gone are the days when network journalists such as the late John Chancellor at NBC would provide editorial commentary to the news.

Filling that void is the editorial page. As today's public square, the editorial page is one of the few remaining places where ideas, issues, candidates, elected officials, and policies can and should be endorsed, critically evaluated and openly debated. Let's hope it remains so.

Paul A. Harris is an associate professor of political science at Augusta State University, in Georgia and a frequent guest columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. E-mail harris@aug.edu
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Title Annotation:SYMPOSIUM: Endorsements: Why bother?
Author:Harris, Paul A.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:686
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