Friday, October 28, 2016

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Front Page Is Not The Editorial Page

Andy Warhol once wrote that (almost) everyone gets fifteen
minutes of fame. That’s of course a typical sound-bite
aphorism exaggeration, but for those in certain professions,
such as political writing, it can be somewhat true.

I’ve actually had a few of these, though they were properly
short as predicted. In 1982, I wrote an article in a Minneapolis
newspaper I edited and published that predicted an unknown
Colorado senator named Gary Hart would emerge to challenge
Walter Mondale seriously for the 1984 Democratic presidential
nomination, and when he beat Mondale in the New Hampshire
primary, I was briefly “discovered” by the national media. (I
still prize a gracious letter to me from Hart campaign chair Ted
Sorenson asserting that I was the first journalist to predict
Hart’s national rise.) In 1985, determined to try to do it again.
I wrote in my newspaper that a then little-known Delaware
senator would be a serious candidate for president in 1988. By
1987, he was Michael Dukakis’s most formidable rival, and once
again I received brief attention. As it turned out, Senator Joe
Biden developed a double aneurysm and had to withdraw, but
I must note that he eventually did make a bit of a comeback,
and is currently the vice president of the United States.

Then in 1990 I began writing articles in a Washington, DC
newsletter that the governor of Arkansas was going to be
the next Democratic nominee in 1992, although at the time,
incumbent President George H. W. Bush seemed unbeatable.
Few took me seriously.

Finally, in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014, I called the
the number of eventual gains for the Republicans, especially
in the U.S. house, as well as any other national pundit, and it
was briefly noted.

I have also on several occasions got it wrong. I did not think
Ronald Reagan would be elected president in 1980. I thought
Mitt Romney would win in 2012. And I did not see either Bernie
Sanders or Donald Trump coming on so strong in 2016. (I’m just
lucky, I guess, that most folks remember your successes and forget
your failures.)

This brings me to an op ed I wrote for my Prairie Editor blog a
few days ago that contended that many in the national media were
indulging in a kind of coup d’etat on behalf of one of this cycle’s
presidential nominees against the other one. Newt Gingrich liked
my characterization so much that he began citing it on various
national radio and TV programs, as well as posting it on the
biggest social media sites. Subsequently, numerous journalists,
print and broadcast media, and online sites noted my piece.

Newt Gingrich is a partisan in this year's presidential race. He is
on record as supporting Donald Trump. He often acts as a
surrogate for Mr. Trump (and, I might add, seemingly doing a
much better job most of the time advancing the Republican
ticket than the nominee himself does.

What makes my coup d'etat comment perhaps unusual is that I
have not endorsed, nor do I publicly support either candidate. In
fact, I have often criticized each of them when they said or did
what I felt were outlandish things. My purpose was not to serve the
campaign of one candidate, but to defend the responsibility of the
media to be fair in their reporting the presidential contest. I was
being critical of print and broadcast reporters and editors, not of
editorial journalists. My view can be summed up in one sentence:  
The front page is not the editorial page.

I make no claim to being "objective." In fact, my readers (who span
the whole political range from left to right) expect me to be an
opinion journalist and not a reporter. Nevertheless, I was for many
years a reporter, and I know the difference between fairness and obvious
bias. Nor does my assertion of a media coup d’etat come to most
American eyes and ears as a surprise. Almost every voter already
knows that much of the media is in the tank for one candidate. It’s
just also true that a large number of voters are pleased by this and
understandably perhaps are not being critical.

But I don’t think a biased media trying to predetermine the
outcome of the 2016 presidential race is good for anyone. Yes,
it pleases those who are for the candidate who is the beneficiary
of the bias in the short term, but in the long term it is an
egregious violation of the role of the media in our American
representative democracy. It trespasses on the rights and duties of
the voters, and it violates the underpinnings of one of the pillars
of our Republic --- the role and responsibility of a free press.

As I have already said, most adult Americans already know that
my contention of media bias is true in this cycle. Some who do,
and want to rationalize its occurrence, are openly acknowledging
it, and saying it is a good thing because the biased media is
protecting the electorate from an “evil” candidate. Words like
“fascistic” and “Hitlerian” are often employed wrongly to justify
this view. In fact, it is those who use this rationale, and these
emotionally overblown words who are the ones using elitist,
totalitarian and demagogic language to serve an arrogant and
dangerous view of the role of the media in America.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the American press was extremely
partisan. Newspapers in those days were unambiguously for one
political party or another, for one political candidate or another.
As the media grew and diversified in the early 20th century, radio
and TV came into being, and standards for a "fair" press emerged.
After World War II, the principle of balanced and fair reporting of
the news was firmly established, even as the institution of editorial
opinion expression was preserved and also flourished.

In less than two weeks, U.S. voters will choose their next president.
They need to make their decision not only from reading and
listening to the opinions of others, but even more vitally, from
being presented fairly the facts, issues and prospects that will
assist them to decide their vote.

I don’t think my assertion of calling out the media will amount
to very much in the larger scheme of things, but I’m glad to add
a voice to defend the principles which create, enable and require
a free media to do its job in a free country.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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