Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The editorial that spoke for itself

Oct 21, minor edits...

In my view, this was one of The Union's more obvious attempts to manipulate its readers.

This is a recap and close reading of The Union's editorial that appeared just before last spring's election; to anyone who was paying attention at the time, it won't be new. However, it's more terse (than NCFocus coverage back in Feb and March) and has the benefit of perhaps greater understanding.

I'm bringing it up again for two reasons:
1. The same two candidates are facing off again next month (because there was a third candidate in the race last spring, neither got a majority); the more prolific candidate's writing is extremely revealing, when juxtaposed with what he's responding to.
2. The Union's treatment of this case may shed some light on its recent "North Star Controversy" coverage.

If you want to skip the background, go here.


  • First candidate for the election presents himself as moderate, which is very much at odds with his pre-candidacy writings.

  • Newspaper soft-pedals the discrepancy*.

  • Second candidate points out the discrepancy.

  • Newspaper castigates second candidate for having done so, in an editorial whose logical justification the editor refuses to discuss*, saying "the editorial speaks for itself".

Let's call the two sparring candidates [B] and [D].
(To help you keep them straight - [B] as in "boy", [D] as in "daughter".)

[Recap from this Feb. post:]
On July 4 2002, before becoming a candidate, [B] writes: (Please compare with the pieces he refers to)
Citizen H and Citizen L took us to a new low of mean-spiritedness in these pages with their recent fairy tales attacking the character of Supervisor [DB]. Their effluvium-laden columns, utterly barren of responsible commentary...
This writing was not out of character for [B] the pre-candidate*

Fast-forward 1 1/2 years:
In spring of 2004, when running for office, [B] was interviewed by newspaper:
[candidate says that it is] his ability to build consensus that makes him the best candidate...
he was disappointed by the polarization and divisiveness among the board [in Fall 2002]. 'It was so hateful'...
This [self-presentation as a moderate] was typical for [B] as candidate.

In The Union's Q&A, the editorial board questioned him gently on the disparity of tone:
[B]: "...I don’t think the atmosphere of the county is as healthy as it could be in terms of mutual respect, civility and trust."
The Union: You were writing opinion columns for The Union during the NH 2020 controversy. Were you trying to be a voice of reason then?

[B]: I wrote a column debunking another guy’s column about a different issue, and I think the second column I wrote was about NH 2020 -that was a kind of a vehicle. I was saying it was a matter of trust, and it was a matter of our being able to get along. I don’t know if I used the word consensus or not, but that’s where it started.

The Union: Looking through some of your columns, you did throw around terms, labels - "environmentalists," "left wing."

[B]: I don’t think they are inconsistent at all. If you go back and look at what I was writing in that column - that was pretty hard-hitting language, I admit. But there was a motivation for it by a certain two or three parties, and I think it was accurate.

[Recap from Feb 29 post]
The week before the election, [D]'s campaign (Unnecessarily bad timing**, D - looked sleazy.) sent out a mailer with quotes from [B], taken from columns, debates, interviews, illustrating the difference in tone. Some were weak; some (like "effluvium-laden") were strong.

The Union, in their final editorial before the election, said roughly "All the candidates are qualified and we're not going to endorse any but we were sadly disappointed in [D]'s conduct in sending the mailer because it...
...misuses partial quotes by her opponent, [B]. Some are blurbs from columns written for The Union two years ago, which, by design, were point-counterpoint comments about opposing columnists' views, not about [D] or issues relevant to 2004. Others are taken from [B]'s recent interview with the Editorial Board which, when read in context, offer a different meaning. No doubt the same results could be achieved by selecting 'sound bites' from [D]'s transcript."

How can this be? What planet do they live on? [D] does not write (anything) remotely resembling [B]'s pre-candidate rants; is editorial board lying through its teeth?

No, it is not.

Go back, and read the excerpt closely.
Note that "Others...offer a different meaning in context..." and "No doubt the same results could be achieved..." refer to the quotes gleaned from the interview only; not to the mailer as a whole, or to either candidate's writings.

They're writing about the weak quotes only; they're marginalizing the strong ones ("not relevant to issues in this campaign", they say, although one might think that the future direction of the county would be considered an issue in this campaign), and ignoring the valid overarching message that the mailer conveys, namely that candidate [B] is misrepresenting himself.

To recycle a quote from Nate over at Dan Gillmor's -
It's a common [less than completely straightforward] argumentative technique, used by all sides in all contexts when you don't have an answer for the key issues, to pick on small errors on the edges while ignoring the elephant in the middle.

I believe The Union's editorial board misled those readers who expected the paper to take seriously its journalistic responsibility to improve the map of reality each of us uses for our own decisionmaking***: what readers needed was serious judgement as to whether [D]'s mailer contained legitimate evidence that her opponent was not the moderate he presented himself to be, but they didn't get it from The Union.


Oct 21: Fafblog weighs in:
Q: Is there an elephant in this room?
A: Of course not! How could we miss an elephant in the room? That's so crazy! You've been listening to crazy rumors about crazy elephants on the crazy internet, that's what we think.
Q: Then what's that huge gray animal in the corner with the large flappy ears and prehensile trunk surrounded by heaps of elephant feed, elephant dung, and a sign reading "Do Not Touch The Elephant"?
A: That is an armadillo...

*(Added Oct 18:)
Howard Kurtz in Wash Post:
Whatever their orientation, journalists are the last line of defense against public deception. If they fail to challenge distortions by politicians, they might as well join the stenography pool.

*In fairness, Editor's unwillingness to justify the editorial was expressed generally, as policy for _all_ editorials; i.e., this one wasn't getting special treatment.

**Thanks to Stephen Waters for the most excellent "improve the map of reality" expression.

**On the general topic of last-minute hit pieces, I have to agree with Andrew Greenberg (somewhere in here)
the trick here is in the timing -- proving that they have no faith in their arguments, foisting the piece upon an unknowing public at the 11th hour of the election. An honest broker of ideas would do so in the light of day, where the idea can truly win the election if proper, and where it can be amplified, diminished, contradicted or buttressed as a matter of public discourse.

It's pretty disappointing when someone with a valid message resorts to the last-minute approach anyway.


*Here are [B]'s "pre-candidacy" columns: (if I've missed any, please let me know)

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